“Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”
Slaughterhouse-Five has one of those memorable opening lines. I heard it referenced recently, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s one of those that is both familiar and distant both at once. After a few days of thinking about it, I decided to read the novel. I discovered that, like Billy himself, the novel is unstuck and does not follow a regular chronological narrative.
A difficult book to summarize, Slaughterhouse-Five is a fractured timeline about Billy and the narrator (most likely Vonnegut himself) trying to piece together fragments of a life affected by the Dresden bombings in 1945. As the narrator tries to compile information about Dresden for a book he is writing, Billy Pilgrim flashes from moment to moment throughout his life. Billy is a type of time-traveler, although he cannot change anything, just experience it over and live through it once again. We snap to Billy as a boy, then to war, then in college, then to his captivity by the alien race, the Tralfamadorians, to his middle-aged career as an optometrist, and all back again. As Billy passes in and out of his own existence, he attempts to come to terms with life, death, and the role of fate over all. Since he has popped in all areas of life, he knows the exact place and time of his death, and he accepts it calmly, “like bugs trapped in amber.” In these snapshots of life, we piece together a mind trying to make sense out of the atrocities of war, death, and evil, both for Billy and for the narrator attempting to write a book. The subtext of why God and men allowed Dresden to occur reigns throughout the story. True to Billy’s story, there is no complete ending to the novel. It, too, is unstuck.
This is one of the books that we should have read in college, and for good reason. It will be a completely different story than most of the novels you’ve read before, and it may be a refreshing change. I especially liked the philosophical nature to asking why terrible events occur, the seemingly meaninglessness of life, and, of course, time travel. While I cannot guarentee that you’ll enjoy Slaughterhouse-Five, and do think that you’ll be glad you gave it a read.
My friend Charlie Cooley has Slaughterhouse-Five as one of his favorite books, and he even painted a picture of Vonnegut (now that’s devotion!). See it here.