Slaughterhouse Five is miles apart from anything else I’ve read, as all great books generally are. It’s easy to overlook its brilliance, though, since much of the essence is concealed behind layers of subtlety.
The opening line reads:
“All this happened, more or less.”
Picking a madman as a narrator opens up several interesting possibilities of storytelling. For instance, he can talk about aliens and time travel, while narrating the allied bombing of Dresden in WWII. His story is a beautiful mess of reality and fantasy, and the reader must take everything with a pinch of salt.
The central theme of the book, as I understood it, leans towards nihilism.
While Billy was a POW, a German guard arbitrarily beat up an American prisoner, and the American is perplexed at the randomness of the event.
“Why me?” he asked the guard.
The guard shoved him back into ranks. “Vy you? Vy anybody?” he said.
Later when Billy is kidnapped by aliens, he asks why he was chosen out of all the humans in the world. Their answer:
“Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber? Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”
The aliens, as we know, can see in four dimensions, including time. For them, the past, present and future are all one; everything is predetermined and there is no concept of free will. Their indifference seeps into Billy and into his past, and eventually into the war.
The most horrific events are described with unnerving casualness and all deaths are readily accepted with the phrase: so it goes.
Yet, in spite of all the hopelessness and lack of emotion, Slaughterhouse Five is an anti-war novel. I can’t explain how, but it is, because it horrifies the reader in ways that explicit descriptions of violence and bloodshed can’t. There in lies the magic. It also has a deep rooted sense of empathy that never surfaces, but makes its warmth felt throughout.
Or maybe it does surface once, in the form of a gravestone that claims: