Slaughterhouse-Five is a real mind trip. Who is talking – Kurt Vonnegut or his lead character Billy Pilgrim – what are they talking about, where are they talking about, when are they talking from? It’s a disturbed and a disturbing journey through the traumatised mind-state of a solider and a fighter and a lost man.
Billy Pilgrim is an American soldier, a chaplain’s assistant, in WWII. He is also an optician, a sci-fi fan, a time-traveller, a resident at an alien zoo, a father and a husband. This book is told in flashbacks and forwards throughout time, telling the story of Billy’s traumatised life, one where he never seems to exert any motivation or control.
It’s difficult to pick how to feel about the novel: the eye-witnessing of the firebombing of Dresden is horrific, a struggle to depict the reality of the atrocity and to express the inexpressible.
“It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like ‘Poo-tee-weet?'”
Perhaps because we know Vonnegut was in Dresden as an American soldier, these scenes are why this work is considered partly auto-biographical. But this novel also contains an alien zoo, time travel, and the useless, fatalistic, infuriating Billy Pilgrim. Ill-trained, disoriented, and pessimistic throughout his entire life, the non-linear narration is either utilising literary devices to flashback and tell an earlier story, or are Billy’s experiences of time travel. Billy is a classic unreliable narrator, and maybe Vonnegut is playing with this being a satirical novel, despite the horror. It is just too ridiculous in parts.
But am I being too harsh? We know Billy (and perhaps Vonnegut?) is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; is everything after Dresden an illusion, a hallucination? And after witnessing what humans can do to one another at Dresden, does it even matter? Am I falling down the rabbit hole Vonnegut has deliberately, satirically, sadly created with his deliberate ambiguity?
By engaging with the idea of time – no matter how oddly with Billy Pilgrim’s trips – I think Vonnegut is interrogating our grasp on it, the belief of humans absolutely being at the centre of it.
“And I ask myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”
After Dresden, do we even deserve to keep going as we were? Running the world as we own it, managing time as if we can control it? But this book does not allow these questions easily. It distracts and subverts and seems to waste time with the verging-on-ridiculous Billy.
This is all a struggle over Slaughterhouse-Five that has been dissected for decades. And it is poignant that the novel doesn’t allow the reader to engage how they wish, just as it suggests the question that humanity should not continue as it wishes after what it did in WWII. As a book, this novel is problematic and perhaps irritating, interesting and annoyingly unfocused. As a cultural comment and artefact from the 20th Century, it is priceless.