The Meaning of Slaughterhouse-Five, 50 Years Later

In the time since the publication of Kurt Vonnegut’s seminal novel, the work has never gotten old and it’s never waned in energy.

Kurt Vonnegut, at the age of 46, with Mother Night and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater under his belt, was projected into a state of creative culmination/exhaustion by Slaughterhouse-Five. (Oliver Morris / Getty Images)

There are novels so potent, and so perfected in their singularity, that they have the unexpected side effect of permanently knocking out the novelist: Nothing produced afterward comes close. Had Russell Hoban written no books before Riddley Walker, and no books after it, his reputation today would be exactly the same. Should William S. Burroughs, post–Naked Lunch, or Joseph Heller, with the last line of Catch-22 on the page (“The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off.”), have tossed their typewriters out of the window? Probably. And Kurt Vonnegut, at the age of 46, with Mother Night and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (those twin magnificences) under his belt, was projected into a state of creative culmination/exhaustion by Slaughterhouse-Five.

“I suppose that flowers, when they’re through blooming, have some sort of awareness of some purpose having been served,” he mused horticulturally to a Playboy interviewer in 1973. “Flowers didn’t ask to be flowers and I didn’t ask to be me. At the end of Slaughterhouse-Five, I had the feeling that I had produced this blossom. So I had a shutting-off feeling, you know, that I had done what I was supposed to do and everything was OK. And that was the end of it.”

Fifty years have passed since the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five. It’s the same age as me. And the older I get, and the more lumps fall off my brain, the more I find that rereading is the thing. Build your own little cockeyed canon and then bear down on it; get to know it, forward and backward; get to know it well. So I don’t know how many times I’ve read Slaughterhouse-Five. Three? Four? It never gets old, is the point. It never wanes in energy. This book is in no way the blossom of a flower. Slaughterhouse-Five is more in the nature of a superpower that the mutant author had to teach himself to master—and then could use, at full strength, only once.

The self-training took decades. The mutating event was, as always, brief. Between February 13 and February 15, 1945, Allied bombers dropped nearly four thousand tons of high explosives and incendiaries on the historic German city of Dresden. The effect was elemental: Air became fire. Vonnegut, an American prisoner of war, was there—but 60 feet underground. Captured during the Battle of the Bulge, conveyed to Dresden by boxcar, and billeted in a derelict slaughterhouse as the bombs fell, he was sheltering with some fellow POWs and a couple of dazed German guards in a basement meat locker. They emerged to rubble, ash, twisted metal, death. Somewhere between 18,000 and 25,000 people (we still don’t know) had been killed.

The innumerability and anonymity of this mass death was in contrast to the one very unique and countable corpse that Vonnegut already had in his life—that of his mother, who had died by suicide less than a year before. How did this bereaved and half-starved young man, stepping out into the necropolis of Dresden, manage not to lose his mind? Native resilience, or ontological elasticity, or something else again—his writerly atman maybe, the eternal indestructible essence that blinked its turtle eyes behind all his ironies and observations.

It took him, anyway, 25 years to figure out what to do. There’s a haunting sentence in Charles J. Shields’s Vonnegut biography, And So It Goes: “How to write about a tremendous event of war that he had been there for, and yet had not been there for, because he was suspended underground?” There but not there, midair but buried—suspended underground. This is the limbo zone of Wilfred Owen’s 1918 poem “Strange Meeting,” the behind-the-trenches half-world that the poet enters in a dream or in death: “It seemed that out of battle I escaped / Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped.” In the end Vonnegut had no choice. To get out of the tunnel, he had to write a book about the impossibility of writing a book about Dresden. About the impossibility of even holding a continuous idea of Dresden in your head.

And so, Slaughterhouse-Five, with its jump cuts and freeze-frames, its collapsing facades and self-replacing scenery, its chronological slapstick. It begins with a false start; Chapter 1 is all about how long it took Vonnegut to write the book, a kind of high-wire throat clearing. With Chapter 2, the story begins, except that the story is all over the place. “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963.” Billy Pilgrim is an American soldier who was captured and taken to Dresden. It’s become a critical commonplace to point out that these time hops and abrupt dissociations are symptoms of PTSD.

Rereading Slaughterhouse-Five now that we’re both 50, I became absorbed, in a new way, by the shifting voltage of the phrase So it goes, which appears in the text (just googled this) 106 times—as a tic, then a sigh, then a valediction, then a disconnection, then a blessing, then a fatalistic fuck you, then a tic again. I was struck afresh by the folktale quality of Vonnegut’s narration and its particular synthesis of American deadpan and skull-like Eastern European laughter. “Somewhere the big dog barked again. With the help of fear and echoes and winter silences, that dog had a voice like a big bronze gong.” And I got an especially rarefied buzz, this time, off his Trickster-ish audacity: a kind of euphoria of shredded conventions, exploded genres.

“Reality was giving its lesson,” the poet Ted Hughes wrote in Crow, “its mish-mash of Scripture and physics.” For Vonnegut, the lesson is more of a mishmash of pulp sci-fi and the gravedigger scene in Hamlet. Billy Pilgrim reads a book by his favorite author, the deeply unsuccessful, prophetically high-concept Kilgore Trout; in this unnamed novel, a time traveler visits the scene of the Crucifixion. With a stethoscope. He wants to find out whether Jesus really died. “The time-traveler was the first one up the ladder ... and he leaned close to Jesus so people couldn’t see him use the stethoscope, and he listened. There wasn’t a sound inside the emaciated chest cavity. The Son of God was as dead as a doornail.” (Next line: “So it goes.”)

I appreciate, more than ever, the exultant brokenness of this text. The theologian Paul Tillich once preached a sermon about Saint Paul, specifically about the difficult position Paul was in after getting celestially dislodged from his horse on the road to Damascus. Paul was in psychological pieces at this point, says Tillich. Shattered. But crucially, he didn’t try and pull himself together. Instead he “dwelt with the pieces.” He allowed the pieces to be themselves, and the divine light to shine between them. And that’s what I’ll say about Vonnegut, and the courage and mastery of his art in Slaughterhouse-Five: For this one time, completely, he dwelt with the pieces.