Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time. He travels throughout his life experiencing its events out of sequence. He exists as an optometrist, a husband, a father and a mental patient. But it is Billy's time in Dresden during the Second World War, where he is held prisoner in a disused slaughterhouse, that form the core of the story. Based in large part on Vonnegut's own experience as a prisoner of war, this incredible book stands as a towering literary achievement.
In its opening chapter our narrator explains that this is an anti-war novel. The very notion of such a thing is mocked by one of the narrator's friends who quips, "Why don't you write an anti-glacier book instead?". Point taken. And so it is from here that Vonnegut begins exploring these notions of the inevitable, of free will, of fatalism and the illogical behaviour of man. The results are often very funny, very tragic and, usually, quite bizarre. We learn early on of a particularly absurd occurrence. Following the bombing of Dresden - an allied air raid which claimed the lives of 135,000 German civilians* - an American soldier is executed for stealing a tea pot. The anecdote is referenced frequently up to, and after, we meet the soldier in question. The absurdity of the event, initially bordering on comical to the reader, takes on a different tone as the soldier's story progresses. Ultimately, it is quite devastating, and one of the most effective dramatic tools that Vonnegut employs in his non-sequential approach.
There are aliens in the story as well. Our protagonist is abducted by the extra-terrestrial Tralfamadorians and held as a zoo attraction on their home planet. Despite being far more advanced beings than those on Earth, the Tralfamadorians have waged war and destruction throughout their history. They even destroy the universe, though quite by accident. This fact is known to them as they exist in a fourth dimension and possess the knowledge that there is no such thing as time. All events exist simultaneously. Anything that has ever, or will ever, happen is happening, now and always. Given this inevitability, the Tralfamadorians opt simply to ignore the unpleasant occurrences in their existence and, instead, focus on the good ones. It's a brilliant and hilarious mockery of the fatalistic attitudes adopted by so many of us back here on Earth.
I loved this book. It is one of the most original, intelligent and hilarious books I have ever read. I put off reading it for over a decade, figuring the subject matter and non-linear narrative would make for a rather inaccessible and depressing read. I could not have been more wrong. This is one of the most delightful and life-affirming books I have had the pleasure of coming across. I recommend this book to everyone that has ever, or will ever, exist.
*As I am reviewing a literary work, rather than a historical document, I felt it appropriate to include the same numbers employed by the author. For the sake of accuracy, however, it is worth noting that the number of civilian casualties has been the topic of much debate over the years. An independent investigation commissioned by the city of Dresden most recently identified 18,000 victims and the most current estimated number of fatalities is put at about 25,000.