One of the most popular American novels of the twentieth century, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five has found itself in the odd position of having been trivialized by the very labels people have attached to it in order to catalog its greatness. Inspired by Kurt Vonnegut's personal WWII experiences during the firebombing of Dresden in early 1945, the book was released during the peak of the Vietnam War and its counterculture protests. Thus it has always been labeled an anti-war novel due to both its subject matter and its vintage. It is anti-war, but that's not all it is. The category is too simplistic, like calling Les Misérables a crime story. Slaughterhouse-Five is actually a treatise on death — both a pragmatic acceptance of its inevitability, as summed up by the repeated, fatalistic signature phrase "So it goes," and a bold defiance of its power over us.
To the latter end, Vonnegut offers the quintessential everyman, Billy Pilgrim, whose very name evokes the journey each of us makes from one end of our lives to the other. Billy's unique gift is that he has become "unstuck in time." The subtle and clever narrative trick here is that Vonnegut never exactly makes it clear if this is really happening to Billy, or if it's a symptom of madness, of finding final refuge from the horrors of the world inside one's own head, like the hapless hero of Terry Gilliam's film Brazil. (We learn that Billy first becomes unstuck following an accident in which he injures his head.) It's ultimately irrelevant. To Billy, it's happening. He can step through a door in one decade and emerge in another. He has become a sort of human message in a bottle, drifting along the currents of time without finding any particular shore to rest upon.
Once time is no longer an issue for Billy, neither is death. He has seen his death, just as he's seen his childhood, many times, and no longer fears it. He has also become an object of interest and study to comical aliens from the planet Tralfamadore (seen first a decade before in The Sirens of Titan), who observe him in a glassed-in zoo on their distant world. The Tralfamadorians, who look like little toilet plungers, also exist in all times at once, and thus have no need to fear death. For them, any being that is dead in one time period is perfectly all right in another. Our fates are out of our control, so why waste valuable mental energy on fear and angst?
As far as its anti-war stance goes, Slaughterhouse-Five can't be thought of in the same terms as more overt anti-war classics like All Quiet on the Western Front. We never see Billy Pilgrim in any sort of major battle set-piece. Indeed, most of his war experience that we witness involves his stint as a POW in Dresden, right before the bombardment. We don't see the heroics of countless Hollywood wartime propaganda movies. We see desperate men trying to live 24 hours at a time, and becoming hard and mean in the process. (Not for nothing is Billy's fellow soldier and bête noire named Weary.) The book's title is the Dresden location where Allied prisoners are temporarily housed — another institution whose trade, even before the war, was death. Billy is the ultimate detached observer, bearing more resemblance to, say, the angels in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire (a film that seems to carry a small degree of influence from this novel) than to any traditional portrayal of the soldier boy. Billy is both involved in and removed from human experience, and the "So it goes" mantra that follows each notice of death's handiwork isn't so much glibness as resignation and sorrow over a situation no one can control when it comes for you. It's bad enough we have to die in the first place. How stupid and pointless of human beings to speed the process along through the all-too-efficient machine of warfare. The ultimate pointlessness is encapsulated by the execution of an American sergeant, following all the horror and mass destruction of Dresden, for stealing a teapot from the ruins.
As he was wont to do, Vonnegut gets meta and slips himself into the book, first in an opening chapter that is direct autobiography, then as his alter-ego, the marginally talented and perpetually out-of-print SF hack novelist Kilgore Trout. To Vonnegut, a novel wasn't so much a vehicle for make-believe as a way to look at life as reflected in an assortment of funhouse mirrors. Billy meets the acerbic Trout in his temporal wanderings, and through him Vonnegut makes the observation that provides the book with its subtitle: all wars are children's crusades, as all wars are fought by soldiers barely out of their teens, some of whom have never left home before they were called upon by their countries to kill and die. So it goes.
That this book resonated with Vietnam-era readers is a no-brainer. That it continues to resonate speaks to a universal quality that so many novels attempt but few attain. Just over thirty years on, with our nation embroiled in a war that many critics are saying is as wrong-headed, if not moreso, than Vietnam, Billy Pilgrim's strange odyssey speaks to us anew. Would that we could get unstuck in time, just for a moment, to speak to those we've lost, soldiers and civilians and now even Vonnegut himself, and ask, "How did we ever come to this?" Who knows — they might just shrug and say, "So it goes." For now, we have this book, Vonnegut's timeless literary requiem for a world we all want but cannot seem to make for ourselves, where everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.