Slaughterhouse-Five was my initial foray into Vonnegut. Clearly, my initiation into Vonnegut was long overdue. I dove into what is considered one of his best books.
Slaughterhouse-Five is ostentatiously about experiences in World War II, but not as a direct narrative about the war. Vonnegut writes in a style using a form different from what one typically thinks of as a novel.
His book seems part autobiography, part fiction. The story is not told through the eyes of Vonnegut but through another character. Vonnegut pops up briefly a couple of times but as asides. It would be easy to miss him if you blink.
Slaughterhouse-five starts out in Vonnegut’s voice. Through his present-day self, he explains his quest to write a novel about the war, specifically about Dresden. He travels to see a buddy from the war in hopes that reminiscing with him would bring back memories and fodder for his novel.
No luck, he tells us.
And then Slaughterhouse-five shifts to focusing on Billy Pilgrim, a somewhat clueless guy who served as a chaplain assistant during the war. But the book doesn’t just focus on Billy’s experiences during the war; it looks at his life before and after. And it does it in an odd, non-linear way.
Billy time travels to and from parts of his life. One minute he is in Dresden. Another moment, he suddenly is reliving—really reliving—an experience he had ten years earlier. Then zip, he is in the future, years after Dresden.
When learn about the absurdity of his life. In a matter-of-fact manner, Billy processes everything that happens to him and relays it without emotions, as though he is sleepwalking through his life and observing it as an outsider.
Billy is, in fact, a bit unhinged. He had been taken prisoner by aliens, who took him to their planet to put him on display in a zoo. After a while the aliens brought him a female human and together they had a child while in the zoo. At the beginning of the book—at the end of his life—Billy is trying to tell others about his experiences with the aliens from decades earlier.
At the end of the book, Vonnegut lets us in on a little secret: this abduction is exactly the same story as in a book that Billy read while recuperating at a mental hospital. Fiction becomes reality for Billy.
And fiction and reality merge for us in Slaughterhouse-five. What bits are real? What bits are imagined? Which experiences are Billy’s? Which experiences are Kurt’s?
Vonnegut relays absurdity not just in the subject matter, but in the words and descriptions that he uses. “Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.” Or the phrase “trapped in the amber of the moment”, comparing us and our experiences to an insect forever caught and frozen in time.
The title Slaughterhouse-Five refers to the address of the building where Billy—and Kurt in real life—was housed in Dresden. The building was a former slaughterhouse with the number five as the street address.
Both Billy and Kurt had been taken prisoner in the Battle of the Bulge and marched with 100 others into Germany to be housed in the former slaughterhouse. Both witnessed the beauty of the architecture of Dresden and then its obliteration. Both worked as prisoners to dig out citizens buried under the rubble and to (re)bury them properly.
Clearly, Dresden stayed with and festered in Vonnegut for decades, becoming the focus of his book about the war. So in the end, Vonnegut did end up writing a book about the war—despite his claims to the contrary.