You’ll either love it, or push it back in the science-fiction corner declared The New York Times in its review of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. I did neither. I certainly didn’t love it but neither did I relegate it to the science fiction corner (I don’t happen to have one since this is one of my least favourite genres). I did however push it to the back of the bookshelf while I tried to wrap my head around what I’d just read. I dug it out again earlier this year when it was chosen by one of the members of my book club.
The central event in the novel is the firebombing of Dresden by the Allies in 1945. It was one of the most controversial actions of the war because of the huge loss of life in a city which had little strategic importance. Vonnegut, who’d been captured by the German army the previous year, survived the attack by sheltering in a meat locker beneath a slaughterhouse in the city. He emerged to find a scene of unimaginable destruction. More than 130,000 civilians were dead or injured and most of the magnificent baroque and rococo buildings were in ruins. Prisoners of war like Vonnegut joined the survivors to search for anyone who had escaped the cataclysm, digging graves for those who did not.
This attack is a central event in the life of Vonnegut’s protagonist in Slaughterhouse Five. Billy Pilgrim is drafted into military service and then captured at the Battle of the Bulge. Honourably discharged at the end of the war he returns to his native New York state to resume his career as an optomotrist. But his life is far from quiet in the succeeding years. He suffers post traumatic stress disorder as a result of his ordeal in the war, becoming “unstuck in time” so that he has “no control over where he is going next.” Then in 1968 he is the sole survivor of a plane crash on top of a mountain in Vermont. While he is recovering his wife is killed in a carbon monoxide accident. Eight years later Billy is assassinated by a crazed man wielding a high powered laser gun.
All of this sounds a rather extraordinary series of mishaps for one man. But there are two more, even more extraordinary aspects to Billy’s life.
Firstly Billy believes that on the night of his daughter’s wedding he was kidnapped by a flying saucer from the planet Tralfamadore, flown there through a time warp, and exhibited in a zoo with a movie star named Montana Wildhack. The Tralfamadorians are two feet high with little green hands and eyes on their palm. Because they are they teach Billy Pilgrim many things, including the fact that death is just an unpleasant moment.
The second extraordinary feature is that Billy can time travel. He is “unstuck in time” and can move both forwards and backwards through his lifetime. Because he “never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next” the cycle of events depicted in his narrative is arbitrary. This shifting of time and non-linear sequence of events is Vonnegut’s answer to the problem he encountered when writing Slaughterhouse Five: how do you relate an unrelatable story. The deliberate dislocating of time and jumbling of events in the narrative is his response to the jumbled, unfathomable nature of war.
As clever as this technique is and I can appreciate what Vonnegut set out to achieve, I still couldn’t get over the absurdity of the concept of Tralfamadore and little green men. Every time we got to one of those scenes, my interest waned and I longed to get back to the ‘real’ events. Having read it twice, I’m now certain that this is not one for me.