The Meaning of ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’, 50 Years Later

3

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 grave-digger 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 if 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 St. 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.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.