Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death by Kurt Vonnegut was published in 1969. The book details the WWII experiences, as well as the time traveling experiences, of Billy Pilgrim. Yes, I said time traveling. The book is also known by the longer version of the title, Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut, a Fourth-Generation German-American Now Living in Easy Circumstances on Cape Cod [and Smoking Too Much], Who, as an American Infantry Scout Hors de Combat, as a Prisoner of War, Witnessed the Fire Bombing of Dresden, Germany, ‘The Florence of the Elbe,’ a Long Time Ago, and Survived to Tell the Tale. This Is a Novel Somewhat in the Telegraphic Schizophrenic Manner of Tales of the Planet Tralfamadore, Where the Flying Saucers Come From. Peace.
The time traveling doesn’t seem so out of place now, does it?
The novel is slightly autobiographical (and the narrator’s voice transforms from passive observer telling Billy’s story to Vonnegut himself): the novel’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is a chaplain’s assistant in World War II and is captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and was kept in a slaughterhouse in Dresden, Germany, like Vonnegut. They both survive the fire-bombing of Dresden because Slaughterhouse-Five, as it’s called, is located deep underground. Unlike Vonnegut, however, Billy becomes “unstuck” in time and experiences the events of the novel in a non-linear fashion.
Billy travels both backwards and forwards in time. This means he goes in the past, the future, and an alien planet named Tralfamadore, where he’s displayed in a zoo exhibit with Montana Wildhack, who they’ve paired together for them to mate. The Tralfamadorians have already seen every instant of their lives. They say they cannot choose to change anything about their fates, but can choose to concentrate upon any moment in their lives, and Billy becomes convinced of the veracity of their theories — hence the unsticking.
He relives several moments of his life, such as his time in the war, specifically Dresden. He is also able to “relive” his murder, which will happen in the future as of the publication of the book.
One of the major themes of the book is free will or the lack thereof. Billy isn’t able to choose what experiences he has, like reliving his death before it happens. The Tralfamadorians believe that everything simultaneously exists, therefore, everyone is always alive. They, too, have wars and suffer tragedies (they destroy the universe whilst testing spaceship fuels), but, when Billy asks what they do about wars, they reply that they simply ignore them. The Tralfamadorians counter Vonnegut’s true theme: life, as a human being, is only enjoyable with unknowns. Tralfamadorians do not make choices about what they do, but have power only over what they think.
Vonnegut expounds his position in chapter one, “that writing an anti-war book is like writing an anti-glacier book,” both being futile endeavours, since both phenomena are unstoppable. This is reiterated with the refrain “So it goes.” What happens happens and not much can be done about it.
One of the main things that was unsettling, for me at least, was that the book was written as if it was unstuck as well, almost like it was a Tralfamordian novel. The fact that it is written in “the author’s voice” and that Vonnegut experienced the bombing of Dresden adds to the seriousness of the themes of the novel, like human senselessness — the bombing, the death and destruction, and the murder of a petty thief illustrate the time that is taken for punishment.
Good book. It’s a weird book, for sure, and the unsticking takes some time to get acclimated to, but it’s a good book.