Let’s start with the title of this fascinating book, with its reference to the “many lives” of Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. This is an allusion to the multiple drafts that Vonnegut wrote over two decades before he was satisfied with his novel. According to Roston, Vonnegut struggled with this book more than the many others that he wrote because it was so personal to him. He was attempting to deal with his experiences during World War II, when he was captured by the Germans, interred as a POW in a facility called Slaughterhouse-Five, witnessed the horrendous Allied firebombing of the city of Dresden, and afterwards was forced to help clean up the many corpses.
I must pause and preface this by stating that I have never read Slaughterhouse-Five. In fact, I have never read any of Vonnegut’s novels. I have read several of his short stories, which I enjoyed, but that’s about it. One of my brothers was a fan and I remember seeing Vonnegut books around the house when I was young, but for some reason, although I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy back then, Vonnegut’s work never appealed to me. Soon after I started reading this book by Roston, though, I arranged to borrow a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five, which I will read forthwith and give you my reaction soon.
Roston’s book has a single overwhelming focus. He wants to equate the writing of Slaughterhouse-Five with the war trauma, now known as PTSD, which Vonnegut presumably brought back from his horrendous experiences during his time as a prisoner. To accomplish this, Roston follows a progression of background information leading up to the questions that are the crux of the book.
After introducing his topic, Roston begins with a brief biography of Vonnegut, including his childhood and youth, his experiences during the war, and his early struggles as a writer until Slaughterhouse-Five became a bestseller and made him a wealthy celebrity. He then looks at the phenomenon of war trauma throughout history. It has always been there, of course, but it has been called by different names and dealt with in various ways. Only recently, beginning with World War I but especially in the decades since the Vietnam War, has the U.S. military been willing to admit that it exists and do anything about it. The term “post traumatic stress disorder,” or PTSD, was coined in the 1970s as an alternative to the term “post Vietnam syndrome,” which referred to the inability of many Vietnam veterans to readapt to civilian life; instead, they experienced guilt, rage, confusion, alienation, and other symptoms.
After tracing the history of war trauma and PTSD, Roston circles back to the questions he posed at the beginning of the book: Does Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of Slaughterhouse-Five, have PTSD? And did Vonnegut have it? There are chapters near the end devoted to each of these questions.
One of the absorbing aspects of this book is how Roston compares Vonnegut’s experience of a veteran writing about war with that of other well-known writers. He solicits the opinions of Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War, and others, about Vonnegut’s work and about PTSD as it influences the work of ex-military authors, and the results of these interviews add depth and insight to a complex subject. The way that Roston approaches his research material takes it beyond the analysis of a single book into the devastating effects of war and how writers deal with the resulting trauma and use it to create works of art.