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Vonnegut's wildly imaginative, witty and affecting novel tells Billy Pilgrim's story in just that fashion. It spins back and forth through time, layering in the elements of Billy's life, which begins, chronologically, in 1922 in the upstate New York town of Ilium, and ends over 50 years later, when he is a successful middle-class optometrist with a wife and two grown children. Like Vonnegut himself, Billy was a World War II draftee and a prisoner of war in Dresden when the Allies firebombed the city early in 1945. All of these facts are significant, and the novel emerges as a powerful anti-war statement, dominated by the experience of surviving the Dresden nightmare.
But not in the expected ways - for these facts are splintered, rearranged and transformed by another element in Billy's peculiar tale. Late in his life, he is abducted by wise aliens, from the planet Tralfamadore, who teach him that they, unlike humans, can see time all at once, as a continuum, where the past, present and future exist together, each moment a permanent thing. Thus does Billy come to experience his life unstuck in time,zigzagging from his childhood to his death, from his abduction to Tralfamadore (where he mates with another captive, a starlet named Montana Wildhack) to the ever-present experience of Dresden. It is a fractured but transcendent journey toward understanding and acceptance amid the violent certainties of modern life.
Published in 1969, Slaughterhouse Five (the title alludes to the makeshift prison where Billy and his fellow prisoners are kept in Dresden) became one of the most popular and enduring novels of its time. Its indelible ironic tone, its trippy plotting and its bold, even hilarious use of science fiction make it an utterly unique reading experience. Slaughterhouse Five remains perhaps the signature work in Vonnegut's large and varied catalogue of writings. In reviewing the novel for Life magazine, the critic Wilfrid Sheed called it splendid art ... a funny book at which you are not permitted to laugh, a sad book without tears.