American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for the wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
I first read Slaughterhouse Five when I was 15 and it instantly became my favourite novel (before being usurped a couple of years later by Catch-22). Having just read Vonnegut’s classic for the third time, however, it may just have overtaken Heller’s again in my estimation.
Slaughterhouse Five is one of those books that you expect everyone to have read, but I’ll try to avoid making that assumption and attempt a summary. It follows the life of Billy Pilgrim, a prisoner of war who experiences and survives the bombing of Dresden in 1945. Billy also travels in time, thanks to the aliens who kidnap and display him as an animal in a zoo, and the novel jumps from one part of Billy’s life to another as he timehops, encompassing his war experiences, his marriage and later life, more war experiences, more civilian life and even his own death. Call it a jigsaw, a jazz piece, interactive, whatever you decide, but Slaughterhouse Five always remains fresh and original.
It’s really an extraordinary and poetic work that’s beyond review. Vonnegut has a masterful way with words, very similar to Heller’s, where he can blend the absurd with the tragic, ironic and unavoidable. He’s also wry and very humourous, often darky as he exposes the sheer hoplessness of human situations. Billy Pilgrim is also a very unusual main character for a book in that he’s fairly weak, dim and charmless; many of the characters he encounters in the novel take an instant dislike to him. But as Vonnegut reminds us:
There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces.
Whenever I reread Slaughterhouse Five I enjoy the opening chapter more and more, where the Vonnegut character sits down to start writing and gives the introduction that provides some snippets of what is to come. It’s one of those books that improves with rereads partly because you do know what is going to happen. Like the fourth dimensional Tralfamadorians and their all-encompassing vision of past and future, and like Billy’s own toing and froing through time, you can view this novel as a whole with no timeline or real beginning, middle or end.
But don’t be put off by the time travel element of this novel if you’re not a science fiction fan. Of course, we only have Billy’s word for it that he’s travelled in time anyway (whover he tells about it naturally thinks he’s crazy and it is revealed that he is suffering from the trauma of a plane crash). The fantastic parts of the book somehow add more weight to the depiction of the awfully real events. The controversial bombing of Dresden wasn’t widely known about or discussed much when the novel was first published in 1969; Vonnegut, like Billy Pilgrim a prisoner of war in 1945, witnessed the devestation first hand. His real experiences are weaved into the fiction of the book magnificently, using repetition of phrases (such as ‘so it goes’) and repetition of the haunting incidents in Billy’s life (the execution of a soldier for the triviality of stealing a teapot).
Whatever Vonnegut might say, Slaughterhouse Five is full of characters I will never forget: the disturbingly dangerous soldiers Roland Weary and Paul Lazzaro; the crazy science fiction author Kilgore Trout; the executed soldier Edgar Derby and Montana Wildhack, Billy’s ‘mate’ on Tralfamadore. Best of all is Vonnegut himself as he lurks in the background, who adds a touch of horrible reality – the flamethrowers used to incinerate the dead; the destroyed Dresden resembling the barren surface of the moon. Like shooting the soldier with the teapot, Man does pointless and futile things. And he will continue to do them.
I love it, what more can I say? Go on, read it. Or reread it. You know you want to.