For a short novel, Slaughterhouse-Five packs a lot in. It’s an anti-war novel that centres on the allied bombing of Dresden that also finds time to deal with time travel and alien abduction and is told by a pleasingly post modern narrator. Our narrator kicks things off with an opening chapter explaining just how difficult it has been to write the book and detailing the many false starts and thwarted attempts. It’s not until the second chapter that we are introduced to the hero, Billy Pilgrim, who has “come unstuck in time”. This means that Billy flicks between moments in his life, sometimes into the past, sometimes into the future, without warning.
We first meet Billy in the 1950s but before long he is back in the war, trapped behind enemy lines, captured by Germans and then put to work in Dresden shortly before the bombing. As the story of Billy’s war career plays out, he occasionally skips forward into the future and onto a planet called Tralfamadore, where he is taken by aliens who want to study our species.
The Tralfamadorians live in four dimensions, perceiving all of time at once. As a result they don’t fear or mourn death and choose not to dwell on the negative parts of life. Pilgrim, catapulted backwards and forwards through time, adopts a similar point of view.
Vonnegut’s writing is irreverent and his use of language is enjoyably inventive. But the playful, frequently comic writing doesn’t detract from the seriousness of the themes.
Vonnegut was in Dresden at the time of the bombing and, like Pilgrim, was imprisoned at Slaughterhouse-Five. The horror of what he saw there informs the book, which is propelled by a sense of outrage. It was written during the Vietnam war and it’s easy to see why Vonnegut felt the lessons of the past were not being learned. Only those who live in four dimensions or who are loose in time like Billy can afford to turn away from the bad parts of life.