I just finished reading “Slaughterhouse Five” for the first time. I should have read it years ago; in fact, I attempted to read it my freshmen year of high school, but then was mildly traumatized after reading that a soldier in the novel carried around a picture of a girl attempting intercourse with a Shetland pony. I put the book down for a few years, but now that I’m older and wiser, I appreciate Vonnegut’s humor.
Vonnegut opens the novel with himself narrating, stating that what is to follow is mostly true. He explains that he is writing a novel about the bombing of Dresden during World War II, drawing upon the example of the Children’s Crusade to describe the horrors of war. It is a story within a story, which is pleasantly meta. Speaking of which, I’m not entirely certain when the word “meta” changed, because during the past few years it seems to me that it has lost it’s second half. Normally one would talk about meta-literature, metaphysics, etc. Now it’s appropriate to just call something meta. That statement, for example, was meta.
The inner story is about Billy Pilgrim, a chaplain’s assistant in the war. Billy claims to have been kidnapped by an alien race known as the Tralfamadorians, and to have become unstuck in time. According to the Tralfamadorian worldview, time is nonlinear and an illusion, but rather each moment exists eternally and one can choose to visit the happy moments when one wishes. This also means that free will is an illusion. The narrative alternates between Billy’s middle-class life and his war experiences in a pattern that follows Billy’s own thought process.
There are two different ways of reading the novel. One can assume that Billy is insane, and that the Tralfamadorian worldview is his way of coping with the things that he saw in the war. One could also assume that Billy is indeed sane, and really was kidnapped by aliens and put in their zoo. I don’t think that it makes much of a difference whether or not he is sane, because either way, he is still struggling to cope with his experiences. Billy has a different perspective than most, but he’s also pretty harmless, and his beliefs follow a logical pattern. A more important question might be whether the war itself is sane. Billy’s character is a perfect way to point out the absurdities of war from a naive point of view.