The Pequod Review:
Kurt Vonnegut witnessed first hand the impact of the Allied bombing of Dresden in World War II, and struggled for years with how to express it in the form of novel. He was astonished not just by the comprehensive destruction of the city (“there must be tons of human bone meal in the ground”) but also by how the incident had been mostly forgotten by Americans (though not the Germans, of course).
The result of Vonnegut’s attempt to come to terms with the event was Slaughterhouse-Five, a chaotic and non-linear work that remains his crowning achievement. Mixing fact and fantasy, the book tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, an American serviceman ill-suited to fight in a war he finds senseless and destructive. Pilgrim is aimless during the war, and lost after it; and the narrative jumps around across time and space as it explores not just the effects on him and fellow veterans, but the reasons for war itself.
In the novel, one of the characters explains why such a chaotic structure is required to explain what war is really like:
It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet?”
The novel is superb of course — humorous and acerbic throughout — but what elevated it from merely an excellent book to a legendary one were two critical factors unrelated to the book itself: (i) its timing, written at the height of the Vietnam War when anti-war sentiment was near its peak; and (ii) its publication in the magazine Ramparts, which gave Vonnegut (who never considered himself a radical) counter-cultural street cred as well as access to a large readership. The result was a life-changing event for both the book and Vonnegut, who became not just a famous author but an international celebrity — a status he would maintain for much of the rest of his life.