The list of genre authors who are or were recognized by the literary world at large is not great in length. Despite the amount of attention and success she has received within the field, Ursula Le Guin has never been able to fully crossover. Gene Wolfe, through all of the literary pretense, has yet to engage the non-genre community in any significantly manner. Iain Banks had to add a middle initial to keep his two writing personas separate. Orwell and Huxley are lauded by everyone, genre aficionados to the literati, but their careers began and were built on writing literary realism and non-fiction. Michael Crichton is one of the few who has more readers on the mainstream side despite the fact his stories are clearly science fiction, and Stephen King, well, he is just a force of his own. Ray Bradbury was/is a successful crossover, but if you remove Fahrenheit 451 from his oeuvre, his recognizance outside the field drops significantly. One of the few who have successfully and consistently made the jump is Kurt Vonnegut, and the subject of this review is his most read work Slaughterhouse-Five.
The novel is the story of Billy Pilgrim. Time having no hold, Pilgrim slips back, forth, and all around—past, present, and future. He swims in a pool in his youth; he is an eye doctor in old age; he’s in an shopping mall; he’s meeting with aliens; and above all, he doesn’t know or seem to care why. But the majority of his narrative is spent as a soldier in WWII. Likewise indifferent to the affair, things happen around him, people die, bombs are dropped, he becomes a prisoner of war, but, like the aliens, nothing seems to have effect. So what then is the point of it all?
Pilgrim’s story only one part of the novel, occupying equally significant places (typically reflective positions) are the variety of side characters. Roland Weary, desperate for recognition, invests himself body and soul in the war effort as soldier, his heroism a two-edged sword. Edgar Derby, while seeming a minor player, plays a key role in the story, his nationalism inspired to the point of destiny. Paul Lazzaro is a vengeful soul who, along with being a former thief, ends up alongside Pilgrim as a POW. These characters, and a handful of others, fill out the conversations and dialogue of Pilgrim’s wild ride through time, providing point and counter-point to the ideals under discussion.
A bleak cynicism, a black sense of humor, a post-modern expression of fatality to the mounting scalability, malleability, impermanence, and the relativity of life in war—however you want to state it—imbue Slaughterhouse-Five. This worldview based on his real-world WWII experiences and imprisonment, including survival of the Dresden firebombing by Allied troops, the novel is an artistic statement from a heavily satirical angle—an idea punctuated by the line “So it goes.” every time a character dies.
In the end, Slaughterhouse-Five is a blackly humorous tale of the fated soldier Billy Pilgrim and his time as a POW in WWII and life at large. An anti-war novel (which Vonnegut openly states), Pilgrim is numbed to indifference by the persistence of violence and death, and as a result transcends participation in war to the point of fatalism. Some of the novel’s other qualities lacking, it is not Vonnegut’s best, but does have impact.