I came to Slaughterhouse-Five in a roundabout way, specifically after reading The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut and the Many Lives of Slaughterhouse-Five by Tom Roston. I happened upon the Roston volume by chance in the new book section of the library. There was a collection of Vonnegut novels owned by one of my brothers in my parents’ house where I grew up, but I never got into them at the time even though I was an avid science fiction and fantasy enthusiast. My tastes leaned more towards what was termed the New Wave of speculative fiction of the late sixties and early seventies, which included such writers as Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, Samuel Delaney, and James Tiptree, Jr. Vonnegut, on the other hand, was considered more a member of the mainstream literary community than of the science fictional field.
No matter. My past oversight has allowed me the keen pleasure of discovering a work of literary genius now for the first time. It’s not often in recent years that I make such a discovery. When I was young, I would come across wonderful new books and authors right and left, but nowadays… It’s probably a combination of becoming jaded, raising my standards, and having already found many of the writings of the past that are most important to me, but I don’t get that “Wow!” feeling so often anymore. Slaughterhouse-Five, however, gave it.
When Vonnegut was a soldier during World War II, he was captured by Germans at the Battle of the Bulge, taken to the city of Dresden in Germany, and put to work with other prisoners of war as slave labor. He and his fellow POWs were housed in a building that was formerly used for slaughtering animals known as Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut was ensconced with other prisoners and some of their guards in a concrete cellar beneath the slaughterhouse during the horrific Allied firebombing of Dresden. The city center, according to Vonnegut, became a moonscape, and tens of thousands of civilians were killed. After the air raid, Vonnegut and his fellow prisoners were put to work excavating bodies from the ruins.
As Vonnegut struggled in his early career as a writer, he kept coming back to his experience in Dresden, attempting to shape it as a novel. He spent over two decades writing draft after draft until he finally hit on the right style for the material.
In The Writer’s Crusade, Roston claims that Slaughterhouse-Five is a result of Vonnegut attempting to deal with his war trauma, currently known as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. After reading the novel, it is clear to me that this is true. Despite the satire and sometimes laugh-out-loud humor, at no point does Vonnegut glorify war in any way. It is brutal, ugly, sordid, frightening, and debilitating. According to Vonnegut, there is no upside to war. At the same time, the novel is funny as hell. Somehow it all works. The first chapter is a sort of prologue in which Vonnegut explains his difficulties in writing the book. In chapter two, he introduces his protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, who has become unstuck in time. The story has continuity in that it follows Billy’s capture in the forest, transport in an overcrowded train car to Dresden, and experiences as a prisoner before and after the bombing. However, mixed throughout are flashbacks to his past, flash-forwards to his future as a prosperous optometrist, and details of his abduction by extraterrestrials called Tralfamadorians, who put him on display in their zoo along with a porn star named Montana Wildhack.
I could go on and on, but I don’t want to give away too much. It’s better that I allow you the keen pleasure of discovering it for yourself. Slaughterhouse-Five is an example of the only good that can come out of what is otherwise a purely horrific experience: the creation of a profound work of art.