First of all, I feel kind of dumb because I used to think this book was called The Slaughterhouse Five rather than Slaughter-house-Five which is absurd and sounds more like the name of a J-Pop band than a book about a man who had been a prisoner of war in Dresden during its destruction. Also time travel, or rather time-travel associated with schizophrenia and the annihilation of sanity. “So it goes.”
These moments are what shape the book and give SHF it’s own non-linear structure. The premise upon which this structure stands is that time itself is non-linear, an idea brought to the main character, Billy Pilgrim, by aliens from a far away planet who have no concept of linear time nor of free will. “I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.” It is this suspended acceptance that takes the jab of horror and injustice out of events that normally would induce emotional vomiting. As Horace Walpole said, “life is a comedy for those who think, and a tragedy to those who feel.” It seems like the only way any of us can really exist as a complete human being is if we can pick and choose when we do which.
Vonnegut, when writing about himself in the first chapter, reflects on his time in college where they were teaching that, “Nobody was ridiculous, bad or disgusting,” and how his father comments, before his death, “you never wrote a story with a villain in it.” I’d say he didn’t write a story with a true hero, either, because from the traditional viewpoint, no one in this book has sufficient opportunity to be heroic; even when characters do things that one could glorify as heroic, his actions are portrayed at best as mundane and at worst as futile. A confrontation between Campbell, an American-turned-Nazi and Derby, a middle-aged prisoner of war, an event that would normally be lauded and perhaps even accompanied by strings on film, concludes with remarkable anticlimax. “Campbell just smiled” and “The air-raid sirens of Dresden howled mournfully.” It is nothing more than what becomes a recurring thing very quickly in this short book: a structured moment. According to the fatalistic aliens, we have no more ability to change the structure of a moment in which we are living than bugs can change position while preserved in amber.
It is an idea that provides comfort, time travel between moments in life that always existed and continue to exist. It’s an idea that was slightly bastardized–oopsImeanromanticized!– in The Time-traveler’s Wife except there’s no slapstick nudity nor need to explain one’s appearance in a particular place to anyone else. Billy doesn’t “appear” anywhere. He had always been in a particular place, in a particular moment, and in his life he relives these moments over and over. With the horrors that he endures, this mystical dissociation seems like the most appropriate coping mechanism. It makes it so one can be fatalistic and imaginative at the same time.