Much of Billy’s time is spent during World War II. As an new soldier, Billy is sent to the front, where he is captured at the Battle of the Bulge by the Germans, and sent to Dresden as a P.O.W. Billy is not prepared for war, had just gotten through his training when his father died. He was furloughed home for the funeral, and is sent to the front so quickly after his return that he is wearing dress shoes in combat. Because he travels through time, he understands that he is helpless to change anything, helpless to save anyone, helpless to even control his own time travel. But he has been through all of this before, so he knows who will live and who will die.
The P.O.W.s are kept in a deserted Slaughterhouse, from which they witness the fire bombing of Dresden, a horrific attack on civilians that left tens of thousands dead and decimated a city. This is the pivotal moment in Billy’s (and Vonnegut’s, as he was indeed imprisoned in Slaughterhouse-Five during the bombing of Dresden) life, one that he returns to over and over again, one that flavors the timbre of this anti-war story. When Billy returns to the U.S., he wants to write a book about the bombing, about the everyday people who died, about what he witnessed. He goes to the house of a fellow soldier to discuss the book, and his friend’s wife can barely contain her contempt and disgust at the prospect. Billy doesn’t understand her hostility, until he realizes that she believes they mean to write a book glorifying war, one that will continue the cycle of violence. When she discovers that Billy wants nothing of the kind, that he wants to write an anti-war book, one that tells about how children (such young men!) are sent into battle to die, she warms to him, as do we.
Later in his life, Billy’s daughter worries that he is going insane, and that he will humiliate the family, because he talks openly about his experiences on the planet of Tralfamadore, where he was taken and put in a zoo, where he lived for several years in an exhibit on the reproduction of humans, where he makes love with a beautiful (thankfully human) adult movie star while the Tralfamadorians watch. He is, of course, never missed on Earth, because he is returned at the very moment that he leaves. From the Tralfamadorians he learns that not all beings experience time the way that we do. Not even the way that Billy, unstuck as he is, does. For the Tralfamadorians, all time exists at once, all that was or is or will be, they all exist side by side. From them he also learns the Tralfamadorian saying, “So it goes”. They are not disturbed to see a tragedy, because they are able to see the entire before and after of that tragedy, so they understand that when someone is killed, that is but a moment in their time, and all that has come before is still every bit as real as the fact of their death.
I very much enjoyed Slaughterhouse-Five. I’m not sure how I missed reading it in High School. Perhaps I was too busy reading the short stories of James Joyce (which I adored), or being taught speed-reading (I know, right?).