In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five’s first chapter, the narrator (who is probably Vonnegut himself) recounts how he came to write about how he survived the firebombing of Dresden during World War 2, an account that would form the contents of the rest of the novel.
The book within the book introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier captured by the Germans towards the end of the war and forced to labor in Dresden before it was destroyed by the British and American bombers along with its 135,000 inhabitants. Billeted by the Germans in a slaughterhouse, he and other prisoner of wars survived the air raids.
But did he really escape the bombing unscathed? At the outset, we are told that “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” During stressful moments, Billy travels across time and “he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next.” Whether he really moved back and forth in time or this operation happened entirely in his mind, it is up to us readers to interpret.
The narrative follows Billy’s random visits to the events of his life during and after the war. Back in America, Billy is treated for a nervous collapse. He becomes an optometrist and subsequently marries a rich wife. Subsequently, he becomes the lone survivor of a plane crash afterwhich, he begins to act strangely to the people around him.
One thing I found fascinating in the novel is the mention of Kilgore Trout, a fictional author of science fiction whose pocketbooks greatly influences Billy Pilgrim.
In Madame Bovary, Emma’s seeing of her life through the lens of the romantic novels she read ultimately led to her tragic end. Meanwhile, a delusional Don Quixote romped through the Andalusian countryside with his sidekick, tilting wind mills, and following other ridiculous quests, blinded by the Chivalric romances he read.
We see exactly the same phenomena at work in Slaughterhouse-Five, but with both tragic and comic consequences. It is revealed that Billy was kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, which we are told closely resembled those from one of Kilgore Trout’s stories, and is made to live in a zoo with a porn star, who we are also told Billy saw in a movie.
Here we see parallels between Billy’s peculiar condition and the alien’s ability to see the past, present, and future simultaneously. For the Tralfamodorians, “[a]ll time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is.”
From this revolves an entirely fatalistic outlook. Asked about the idea of preventing war, the aliens answer:
we have wars as horrible as any you’ve ever seen or read about. There isn’t anything we can do about them, so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments… p. 117
Billy never recovered from the traumas of war. It slowly altered his perception of reality. The aliens of Kilgore Trout’s stories gave Billy the crutch to make sense of his experiences. Like the Tralfamodorians, Billy only had to recall other memories whenever the mad horrors of war began to invade his mind. ■