I've been finished with Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five for about two weeks and I'm still not sure what to make of it. That it involves war, I get. That there are aliens and weird happenings with time travel, I understand. What I don't think it's about at all, even though it claims to be, is the bombing of Dresden, Germany near the end of World War II.
Kurt Vonnegut really was in World War II and really was one of a handful of American POWs to survive the bombing of Dresden. With that in mind, it makes it easy to take his first chapter at face value. He talks about the build-up to writing his "famous Dresden book," about talking to an old war buddy who was with him at the time, and traveling to Germany on a Guggenheim-funded trip. Chapter one is a strange sort of introduction to the book which resulted from all this struggle, especially since it stars not Kurt Vonnegut, but the time-traveling Billy Pilgrim.
Most of this book centers around the namby-pamby Billy Pilgrim. He has become 'unstuck' in time and randomly travels back and forth in his own life. Sometimes he's a young private in the army during WWII, sometimes he's in his middle-aged optometry office, and sometimes he's naked in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore. It was a totally unexpected device in the story, especially since the first chapter reads with something like the flavor of memoir. The structure gives the novel the ability to jump between several story lines, all quite distinct, and yet all in the life of the same character. In fact, this is apparently how Tralfamadorian novels are set up:
...each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message — describing a situation, a scene ... There isn't any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep.
Vonnegut uses this structure of short scenes divided by three dots to move between moments in the story. Reading them front to back, as you would a normal novel, the seperations do not neccissarily denote a shift in Billy's time. In fact, very often the next section is simply a continuation of the last. Nevertheless, the three dots still exist and create a reading experience which is both disjointed and rhythmic. I wonder, if the novel were cut up into its component sections, shuffled randomly and reassembled, would it have any effect? Would it still work as well? I don't think it would. Despite the alien explanation, and the book's apparant adherence to that style, there is still a logical progression. Regardless of time, place or story, the novel always leads inexorably towards Dresden.