In the very beginning of the story, the author explains his fractured and surrealistic style of writing by following Tralfamadorian literature tradition. Tralfamador is a planet populated by aliens who, as he claims, abducted him and taught him their way of thinking. Author (now not as a character but as himself, who definitely wasn’t abducted by any aliens) adds that the book may seem schizophrenic and offers the readers the role of the protagonist’s psychotherapists going with him through his story and helping him find inner peace.
It is very easy to get confused while reading “Slaughterhouse Five” because of the scattered narrative style and constant time travelling causing even more mess in the storyline. We, as readers, also have a hard time understanding which facts are from Vonnegut’s own biography and which are from the life of Billy Pilgrim, a young man who serves as author alter-ego in the alternative reality. Or shall I say in different simultaneous alternative realities, some of which are situated far away from our Solar system. Yes, it’s that complicated…
After the disclaimer above the author briefly describes us the biography of Billy Pilgrim, a young man, who, as Vonnegut himself, was a soldier during World War II, then became a prisoner of war and one of the several survivors after the shelling of Dresden. But after that, as attentive readers, we spot the differences in two biographies: Pilgrim moved back to America, to his native (nonexistent) city of Ilium, enrolled the optometrist school and later got engaged with the daughter of the school owner named Valencia Merble.
He never recovered from PTSD he got at war. He wasn’t ready for its horrors, he was just an assistant of the company chaplain and in his first battle he didn’t even have a gun to protect himself from the enemy. Later, the mocking, threatening and torturing from his fellow soldiers and even another prisoners after Billy’s incarceration. The shelling of Dresden and countless bodies torn apart by explosions. (By the way, it’s not obvious, but the camp of prisoners of war was situated in the abandoned slaughterhouse building and this building was numbered five. That’s where the title of the book comes from). Billy and some more survivors saved themselves in the airtight fridge, while other people suffocated because of burnt oxygen or were incinerated alive.
Even the peaceful life as a family man and business owner doesn’t help Billy to erase these events from his memory. He even suffers a nervous breakdown and seems to be cured but from then on he has a habit to curl in the corner and cry for no apparent reason. Later he goes to the international optometrist convent and his plane crashes. Billy is the lone survivor again, as it was in Dresden, but he gets a severe head injury. When he recovers in the hospital he learns that his wife Valencia, who he was happily married to for twenty years and had two kids with, has poisoned herself with carbon dioxide in the car.
We see Billy as a senior widower sleeping in his bed, but then he wakes up as a young man at the eve of his own wedding. He goes to the radio show to talk about his experience as a prisoner of war, but instead Billy decides to claim that he was abducted by Tralfamadorians who have utterly different sense of time and reality. Moreover, he is still abducted and lives on Earth in several timeframes at the same time. He describes this as being unstuck in time.
Billy says that he was placed naked into the Tralfamadorian zoo to be exposed like a rare animal. Later he was mated with the retired cinema star Montana to produce children. Billy describes Tralfamadorians as perfectly reasonable beings seeing themselves and every other specie as biological machines. They can’t grasp the concept of free will and pleasure of emotions that humans value so much. Tralfamadorians know everything and are borderline fatalists who thinks that everything, including them destroying the universe, shall happen “when the structure of the moment is suitable”. They are content with their machine-like state, saying that it frees them from excessive doubts and sufferings, existential questions and expectations from the world. They can focus on the positive traits of current moment instead.
It may sound strange, but grasping and accepting the Tralfamadorian worldview really helps Billy with his PTSD. He just ceases to feel the trauma and even when we see his son serving as a Marine in Vietnam, Billy thinks of him as of “shooting machine” that is “functioning well and according to the orders”. He knows that the possible death of his son is just an illusion, because it’s just one of the countless moments we all live into at the same time. Billy himself saw and experienced his own death and birth for so many times he just doesn’t care anymore. He knows that his life is already written in the fabric of the Universe, and was always there, so there is nothing he can do about it at all.
But as random as they may seem, Billy’s time-travels are following the same pattern. Wherever he is: on Tralfamador, in American ghetto, in Vietnam or again in Dresden, the less humane are actions of the participants the better they cope with the situation. Dresden tragedy is portrayed as perfectly planned military operation where people are referred as units, and at the same time we see there the death of a single person, an American named Edgar who was shot for “looting” because he accidentally touched the teapot while trying to save people from the buildings wreckage. The Germans who executed him are shown as excellent soldiers who obeyed the order perfectly.
In American ghetto of 1967 Billy is the president of the aristocratic Lions Club who is riding a luxurious cadillac with his wife in furs and jewels. He observes the neighborhood that was recently “pacified” by the National Guard. Now the people in the ghetto (who revolted because of discrimination and unbearable conditions) are either shot or threatened to obedience and aren’t dangerous for society anymore, so that the fancy cars can again drive through that part of the city.
The events in Vietnam are at first glance so similar to Billy’s experience at the World War II that he doesn’t bother to make a difference. He listens the report of one of the commanders, who offers the plan of extremely cruel attack that will utterly destroy the Vietnamese resistance. Billy doesn’t find anything that is wrong in that plan and agrees that it is very reasonable way to win the battle on that part of the battlefield. Even the potential deaths of hundreds of people doesn’t stop him from approving the plan with all the Tralfamadorian fatalism.
Just to make things more difficult to understand, the narrative is interrupted by quotes of another imaginary fiction writer named Kilgore Trout. They seem to be unrelated to the main story even more than the main story is to itself, but they still follow the same pattern. For example one of his short stories is about the machines who burnt people alive bombing them with jellied gasoline. Their disguise was so perfect that no one could differentiate them from ordinary people: they smiled, danced and socialized, obeying all the social rules. One of such machines had a bad smell from its mouth, and, despite everyone knew it killed real people in such a horrible way, the bad smell was the only thing they objected. When the machine managed to fix this drawback, it was welcomed by society at once and no one was worried by the fact it was non-human and mass-murderer.
We can see the clear parallels between the killing machines and the soldiers who bombed Dresden killing thousands of people and then were met as heroes. It looks like the detached Billy, who accepts everything as the true Tralfamadorian, can express himself only through that “fiction in a fiction” using the bitter and sarcastic portrayal of the real life society.
Again and again Billy returns to Dresden, experiencing all the horrors of war and enduring the threats from the other soldiers of his regiment. He again meets Roland Weary, who tortured him in the barracks and Paul Lazzaro, a psycho that promised Billy to hire a killer to kill him after the war. Then Billy finds himself on the radio show again and, using his knowledge of the timeline says that Lazzaro will indeed hire a killer and that is the way Billy dies. He also predicts some future catastrophes, also connected with future wars.
We start to notice that his time-and-space-travelling is usually triggered by something: a morphine injection, a sound, a word, a reminder of war or even a bad dream. This mechanism is similar to the real life flashbacks that are experienced by people suffering from PTSD. Billy’s daughter, Barbara is sure that these are the consequences of PTSD, so just before the radio show where Billy confesses of his abduction, she takes him to the hospital. Barbara insists that her father is deeply mentally scarred and now is unable to take care of himself. Billy doesn’t object because he saw this moment of his life countless times before. He just patiently wait for “the right structure of a moment” to escape the hospital and participate in the radio show. Billy is sure that it is time to reveal to humanity what he seen on Tralfamador.
The last moment we see is Billy after the Dresden shelling. He and his fellow soldier search for dead bodies to bury them and they hide in the stable to wait for the war to end. The war does end and they are rescued from the stable. Billy hears the bird, singing the same song he heard before, at the beginning of the story, like asking the same meaningless question: “Poo-tsee-weet?”