Metafiction is a literary device employed in a fiction work that writes about fiction. The term meta generally refers to an astute awareness about something or oneself. Authors using this technique depart from ordinary and traditional conventions normally found in novels. Instead, they write fiction about fiction. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is a prime example of the use of this technique.
In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut places himself into the story as an actual character. He purports to be an author who is writing a book about his experiences during World War II and his witnessing of the firebombing of Dresden, Germany during the conflict. With this autobiographical start, the author immerses himself into the action of the novel on a different level than the other characters:
All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I've changed all the names.
The metafiction process allows Vonnegut to flip back and forth between reality and fiction. The seemingly disjointed scenes in the novel jump from the author’s reality as he relates his autobiographical tale and the fiction recitation of his wartime experiences by protagonist Billy Pilgrim. The book-within-a-book that Vonnegut is writing tells the reader about the actual perspective the author has toward the massacre at Dresden. Simultaneously, the protagonist, Billy, renders his version of the tragedy at Dresden from his fictional vantage point.
Using metafiction, Vonnegut throws away the traditional literary convention of simply retelling a story from a single point of view. He places himself into the novel and tells a credible story about himself by means of the incredible fictional tale he pens about Billy Pilgrim. For example, after the war, Billy is treated in a hospital and begins to exhibit signs of mental illness. He rambles about events in his life non-chronologically, often fictionalizing because of his condition: “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” He relates events like being captured by alien “Tralfamadorians.” These happenings mirror the vision Vonnegut himself has when he recalls his wartime experiences:
There was a speaker on the wall. The Tralfamadorians had no voice boxes. They communicated telepathically. They were able to talk to Billy by means of a computer and a sort of electric organ which made every Earthling speech sound.
'Welcome aboard, Mr. Pilgrim,' said the loudspeaker . . .
The terrific acceleration of the saucer as it left Earth twisted Billy's slumbering body, distorted his face, dislodged him in time, sent him back to the war. When he regained consciousness, he wasn't on the flying saucer. He was in a boxcar crossing Germany again.
Vonnegut occasionally interjects his own feelings into the novel. For example, the protagonist, like the author, ponders the question of whether human beings can control their own destinies or are subject to eternal wars. The reader can see that Billy might have such feelings because he was a witness to the Dresden bombing and is now pessimistic about life. The obvious conclusion is that Vonnegut himself suffers the same sense of pessimism for an identical reason. This is a very effective use of metafiction.
Kurt Vonnegut’s novel is an excellent example of postmodern fiction. It delivers a powerful anti-war message in a different manner by means of metafiction.