By Kurt Vonnegut
Reviewed by Alan Green
In 1945 the allied forces launched a huge bombing raid on the German city of Dresden. The city was almost completely destroyed and around 130 000 people died. A higher death toll than the attack on Hiroshima later that year. “So it goes.” One man who managed to survive the attack was an American prisoner of war who was fortunate enough to be locked up in a sturdy meat locker, the “Slaughterhouse 5” of the title. That man was Kurt Vonnegut. After the war he went home and became one of the most famous writers of the golden age of science fiction writing, which followed the conflict. He repeatedly tried to write an account of his experiences at Dresden but he constantly found that he couldn’t do it. After years of struggling his war memoir gradually evolved into this unique book. It’s partly a war memoir and partly an antiwar novel but its also an insightful science fiction story that plays with our ideas about time and free will and life and death.
There are any number of books out there that bemoan the horror of war but how many of them feature a race of five dimensional aliens who look like toilet plungers with a hand and an eye on top? This is an unlikely book to rise from the ashes of a terrible massacre but that isn’t a flaw. Vonnegut tried to write a serious factual account of his experiences but the words wouldn’t come. The first chapter of this book is about that struggle. In the end he found that by inventing a fictional alter ego and mixing in some comical sci fi elements he could finally achieve some kind of catharses through writing.
Every now and again Vonnegut writes himself into the plot to remind people that it is loosely based on his own experiences. He appears as a drunken prank caller and a soldier with bowel problems.
Vonnegut’s alter ego Billy Pilgrim is an unlikely hero and an unlikely soldier. He is a bit of a weakling and he serves as a chaplain’s assistant in the army. Apparently that is a post that is looked down on by the soldiers who have to do the messy stuff like actually fighting. Despite having a theoretically cushy job Billy manages to get lost behind enemy lines during a huge German assault. After wandering around in the mud for a bit he is captured and sent to a POW camp in Dresden.
During that ordeal he becomes “unstuck in time”. He experiences the whole of his life in one big sweep before returning to the present. From then on he finds himself experiencing different points in his life at random. After the war he manages to build a very normal reasonably successful life. He becomes an optician, marries the boss’ daughter and has some kids. Once his kids have grown up and his wife has died he suddenly announces that he was once abducted by aliens and put in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore.
He goes on to tell people all about the otherworldly visitors. He travels around the country telling everyone about the Tralfamadoians very different view of life, death and time. They exist in the fifth dimension so they see all of time as happening simultaneously. Each moment is always happening and has always happened. This means that time is as unchanging as a mountain range and there is no such thing as what humans laughably call “free will.” On the bright side it also means that there is no need to worry about death. Someone who is dead at one point in time is alive and well in lots of other moments. When a Tralfamadorain hears that someone has died they don’t mourn they just say “so it goes.” That phrase is repeated throughout the novel as a gesture of resignation to the inevitability of death, war and everything else that happens.
Billy himself and by association the reader doesn’t experience all this as a linear narrative. The story moves backwards and forwards between the horrors of Dresden, his life with his family, his life as a prophet of timelessness and his life as zoo animal on Tralfamadore. The book comes back to Dresden again and again. The story circles that one bloody night. This goes against the Tralfamadorian attitude to life. Since they don’t have to experience their lives one moment at a time they always just concentrate on the happy bits. Arguably a banal message for a book that came out of so much suffering but I think that’s Vonnegut’s point. As he admits in the opening pages of the book “it is so short, jumbled and jangled – because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” No great wisdom comes out of the suffering just horror and silence and a desire to hang on to the happy moments. Of course we have to question if he really wants us to accept that because if he really believes it why did he write this book?
Billy Pilgrim has a good time in the zoo. He learns a lot from the aliens and he is mated with a porn star called Montana Wildhack. There is a possibility that his abduction and potentially even his wandering in time is entirely in his head. He is obsessed with the work of a sci fi writer called Kilgore Trout. A thinly disguised alternate version of Vonnegut himself and a potential inspiration for Billy’s delusions, if that’s what they are. Being mated with a porn star does sound like the fantasy of a sexually frustrated man. The Tralfamadoian view of time could easily be his way of dealing with the scars left by the war. On the other hand he correctly predicts his own death. It’s probably best not to get too bogged down in worrying about whether or not it is all a delusion. Vonnegut leaves it open as an option to keep us on our toes but to obsess about it is to miss the point.
At one point Vonnegut compares writing an anti-war novel to writing an “anti-glacier novel”. His point is that arguably it is a supremely pointless exercise. Wars like glaciers will always be with us. Slaughterhouse 5 was published at the height of the Vietnam War. It didn’t stop the bombs from falling but Vonnegut obviously didn’t think it was going to. It’s a very personal book inspired by painful experiences but it is also sharply witty and deeply thoughtful. It’s not going to stop any wars but the universe is ultimately going to be destroyed by an accident with a flying saucer anyway so why worry? “So it goes.”