Fighting for the US army in World War Two, Kurt Vonnegut was captured by the Germans and sent to a forced labour camp in Dresden. There he witnessed the famous Dresden firebombing, when Allied air raids levelled much of the city and killed twenty-five thousand people, mostly civilians. This experience affected him so profoundly, that he tried several years to write a novel that would find sense in it. Eventually he concluded none could be found and wrote Slaughterhouse Five instead.
Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut’s semi-auto-biographical stand-in, is a war veteran who experiences time in a non-linear order after being visited by four-dimensional aliens who can see all times at once. Now, like them, his mind slips between present and past, sudden flashbacks returning him to the war. They should be traumatic: Billy is often in mortal danger – but he experiences it all with a kind of beatific calm, finding curious beauty and humour in the most unlikely places. And yet, why does he return to the present day and find himself sobbing?
By moving between times and places, calling back to earlier events and compulsively repeating phrases and images, Slaughterhouse Five isn’t just a marvellous illustration of post-traumatic stress disorder – it’s also an introduction to postmodernism. This movement shies away from imposing greater meaning on human experience, because it knows to do so is always reductive, and sometimes even a step towards totalitarian thinking.
Despite its name, Slaughterhouse Five has little violence, and much wit. It is a short, self-contained book that ends with a satisfying kind of circularity. It does not linger with questions, but it does its job: Vonnegut writes it, gets it out of his system, and moves on with his life.
These micro-reviews surmise a book, essay or work in 200-300 words. I’m writing them to practice slimming down my prose.