Having decided to read Slaughterhouse 5 as an extension of a postmodernism essay – i thought i knew what i was in for.
Slaughterhouse 5 encapsulates everything that we as a society are now unable to do – regain a sense of past, and the book embodies the attempts to make that bridge to an extremely far removed event – World War II. Upon reading the blurb, i thought, wow, this is slightly ridiculous. The narrative revolves around a guy named Billy Pilgrim who has been abducted by an alien race called the Tralfamadorians and also has the ability to time travel. I made the ignorant mistake of thinking, ‘wow, that’s pretentious’, until i actually began reading the novel and gave myself a nice big slice of humble pie.
The novel all in all is unbelievably tragic, and i’m shocked (well, not shocked – we all remember the Gove curriculum anarchy circa 2014) that it isn’t taught in British schools and at sixth forms. It powerfully portrays the trauma’s and post-traumatic stress of war and its lingering effects into the present. The fact that Billy feels most happy whilst being probed on Tralfamadore suggests the isolation he feels after experiencing the horrors of Dresden. His ability to time travel echoes the non-linearity of time he experiences inside his head; he becomes ‘unstuck in time’ because subconsciously his mind is still trapped inside the trauma of WW2.
The novel had more of an impact on me than any historically accurate textbook of World War II ever has and i’ll tell you why – because in my opinion, it is honest about war. Textbooks can only do so much – give us dates and pictures – it can never give us feeling. That’s why Slaughterhouse 5 is simply a great novel – Vonnegut is showing our inability to connect to a trauma that is so far removed from our society – and that is truly frightening. We can learn about war in school and we will walk away from it feeling as if we have learned something truly great, and that we are now better because of it – when really, we aren’t.
Reading this novel has shown me that the past is an empty shell, and we, as spectators and inheritors of the past – can only know it from a distance – we can never really feel that pain. I think there is something truly heartbreaking in that – and Slaughterhouse 5 breaks the fall, just a little.