Undoubtedly Vonnegut’s most influential work, Slaughterhouse-Five tells the satirical story of soldier Billy Pilgrim, captured by Germans and held in a defunct slaughterhouse. Unmoored to a conventional period in history, the events in Pilgrim’s life occur randomly and without a traditional chronological underpinning. His story deals with themes of free will, fate, and the illogical nature of the human mind.

Adapted for a magnificent George Roy Hill film three years later (perhaps the only film adaptation of a masterpiece which exceeds its source), Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) is the now famous parable of Billy Pilgrim, a World War II veteran and POW, who has in the later stage of his life become “unstuck in time” and who experiences at will (or unwillingly) all known events of his chronology out of order and sometimes simultaneously.

Traumatized by the bombing of Dresden at the time he had been imprisoned, Pilgrim drifts through all events and history, sometimes deeply implicated, sometimes a witness. He is surrounded by Vonnegut’s usual large cast of continuing characters (notably here the hack science fiction writer Kilgore Trout and the alien Tralmafadorians who oversee his life and remind him constantly that there is no causation, no order, no motive to existence).

The “unstuck” nature of Pilgrim’s experience may constitute an early novelistic use of what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; then again, Pilgrim’s aliens may be as “real” as Dresden is real to him. Struggling to find some purpose, order or meaning to his existence and humanity’s, Pilgrim meets the beauteous and mysterious Montana Wildhack (certainly the author’s best character name), has a child with her and drifts on some supernal plane, finally, in which Kilgore Trout, the Tralmafadorians, Montana Wildhack and the ruins of Dresden do not merge but rather disperse through all planes of existence.

Slaughterhouse-Fivewas hugely successful, brought Vonnegut an enormous audience, was a finalist for the National Book Award and a bestseller and remains four decades later as timeless and shattering a war fiction as Catch-22, with which it stands as the two signal novels of their riotous and furious decade.


Author Description

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) is one of the most beloved American writers of the twentieth century. Vonnegut's audience increased steadily since his first five pieces in the 1950s and grew from there. His 1968 novel Slaughterhouse-Five has become a canonic war novel with Joseph Heller's Catch-22 to form the truest and darkest of what came from World War II.

Vonnegut began his career as a science fiction writer, and his early novels--Player Piano and The Sirens of Titan--were categorized as such even as they appealed to an audience far beyond the reach of the category. In the 1960s, Vonnegut became closely associated with the Baby Boomer generation, a writer on that side, so to speak.

Now that Vonnegut's work has been studied as a large body of work, it has been more deeply understood and unified. There is a consistency to his satirical insight, humor and anger which makes his work so synergistic. It seems clear that the more of Vonnegut's work you read, the more it resonates and the more you wish to read. Scholars believe that Vonnegut's reputation (like Mark Twain's) will grow steadily through the decades as his work continues to increase in relevance and new connections are formed, new insights made.


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ROSETTABOOKS BY KURT VONNEGUT