Slaughterhouse-Five is Kurt Vonnegut’s fifth novel; it was an overwhelming success and established him as one of the best fiction writers of his era. He wrote it while he was a writer-in-residence at the University of Iowa. With money from a Guggenheim Fellowship, he went to Dresden, Germany, to complete his research. Vonnegut appears in the first and last chapters, as a journalist reporting on the work at hand, and he appears three times during the narrative. Unique to this novel, this device is extremely effective. It was a great boon to experimental writing and was thought to be a progressive step in the evolution of literature and narrative stance. Vonnegut makes clear to the reader that he is not Billy Pilgrim. Vonnegut is a character in scenes with Pilgrim; he is watching Pilgrim, like the reader is watching them both. Vonnegut is telling an astounding truth, of the Dresden holocaust, that the allied forces managed to keep mostly unknown to Americans, while he tells the remarkably funny and moving tale of Pilgrim, who is helpless before the larger powers of the universe.
Vonnegut has the uncanny ability to implant suggestions in the mind of the reader and then work those suggestions into tangible forms in the text. For example, in the first chapter, Vonnegut says that when he is drinking he listens to talk-radio shows, then, as the novel proceeds, Pilgrim stumbles onto a radio program in which the topic is whether or not the novel, as a literary form, is dead. Also, after the firebombing of Dresden, innkeepers on the outskirts of town offer the soldiers their stable, as a place to sleep. Twenty pages later, Vonnegut reminds the reader of the book’s epigraph, “The cattle are lowing,/ The Baby awakes./ But the little Lord Jesus/ No crying He makes.” Biblical situations are considered more and more often as the book draws to a close. These include discussion of the following: the friends who take Jesus down from the cross; the possibility that Jesus and his father, as carpenters, make crosses on which other people would be executed; and a time traveler who is the first to check on Jesus at the cross to make sure he is really dead before he is taken down. A new gospel is written in which Jesus is not made the Son of God until the very end, when he is on the cross. Until then he is a nobody. Vonnegut implies that if Jesus was the “wrong” person to kill, then there are necessarily “right” persons to kill, and this is inherently a bad idea.
All these examinations and refigurings are counter to orthodox Christianity, and they are couched in writing that makes extreme pleas for the kindness that people should show to other people. In the first chapter, Vonnegut calls this novel “short and jumbled and jangled . . . because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” His critics have found fault in him and this novel for not taking serious matters more seriously, and for that reason his work was not highly acclaimed or accepted into the academic canon for many years. Vonnegut was categorized in the genre of science fiction, though he believed his work holds more depth than work in that genre usually has. With the eventual acceptance of Slaughterhouse-Five, he became classified as a satirist who seeks to make readers laugh, as did Mark Twain and Jonathan Swift before him.
In this book so conscious of time traveling, and postulating that all of one’s life can be seen like an expanse of the Rocky Mountains rather than as a one-way train ride, how very fitting for the Pilgrim family car, in the year 1967, to have a bumper sticker on it that said, “Reagan for President.” The book was published eleven years before Reagan became president of the United States in 1980. It was not something Pilgrim could have known about, dying as he did in 1976, but still it was an auspicious thing for Vonnegut to have slyly dropped into this book.