Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
It’s difficult to imagine how earth-shattering Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut must have been upon its release in 1969. A sci-fi masterclass pioneering what would later be dubbed ‘postmodern’ storytelling, Vonnegut’s roly-poly but philosophically-tinged time travel narrative is effectively an anti-war treatise with brain-scrambling, hyperreal flourishes. It’s a riotous, abstruse, multi-faceted beast of a satirical meditation on humanity’s obsession with war which certainly marches to its own beat.
The story follows Billy Pilgrim; a man who believes he has been abducted by aliens (a race who, conveniently, teach him how to experience time differently to human beings). This gives Kurt Vonnegut artistic licence enough to depict Billy’s life story in a nonlinear, episodic fashion as we seemingly experience his life totally out of sequence. It’s an unusual and experimental move for an author, for sure, but unsurprisingly the style of Vonnegut’s writing helps it become more accessible than first impressions might suggest.
Going off-kilter by skitting from the Planet Tralfamador(!) to a PoW camp in Dresden during World War II and beyond, Vonnegut’s trademark black humour helps keep things dry and dour as it comes, helping the reader find deadpan humour in the total barminess of Billy’s tall tale. Few writers within the sci-fi genre have mastered prose and dialogue with such deceptively simple finesse as Vonnegut – no matter how ridiculous the plot may appear upon first reading, the frequently ironic dollops of sarcasm help keep the reader grounded despite all the time-hopping.
Ultimately, the sheer lunacy and nonsensicality of Slaughterhouse-Five is the canvas upon which Vonnegut was able to impressionistically paint his disdain about the absurdity of war. As the author himself experienced the horrors of war first-hand, this novel is an outlandish satire on madness lurking in the fabric of our universe and depicts disconnect with the machinations of our world in ways to make surrealists (and possibly Dadaists) proud. It’s easy to see why it left such a significant imprint on the post-hippie literary landscape.
Today Slaughterhouse-Five remains a disjointed, messy, but brilliant piece of work, which (most importantly) doesn’t outstay its welcome for too long. As it’s a very short book, Vonnegut does more than enough to make a lasting impact with a brevity other sci-fi writers would do well to learn from. This breakthrough novel really established Vonnegut’s unique narrative voice, demonstrating how he truly was a funny, one-of-a-kind literary talent (dare I say it, genius) who seemed to be just as much on another planet as Billy Pilgrim claimed he was in the book. Perhaps, in the end, that was entirely Vonnegut’s point. So it goes.
© 2017 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Poet, humorous fiction writer and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.