The use of time-travel in ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ is just one of many devices employed by Kurt Vonnegut to prevent his readers getting too comfortable with his tale of war. After the initial reaction, it’s surprising how quickly we can become immune to prolonged exposure to horrific imagery – watching ‘The News’ is testament to that. By constantly fracturing the narrative, we don’t get the chance to adjust. We follow Billy Pilgrim as he ricochets from the extremes of the mundane world of lucrative safe optometry; post-traumatic hospitalization; as well as temporary resident of Tralfamadore, and sporadically interspersed with these are harrowing scenes of his narrow escape from death by a fellow soldier, his suffering as a prisoner of war and the nightmarish flattening of Dresden. The telling is relentlessly darkly comic, but this comedy provides no relief. The cold lack of sentimentality just ramps up the horror.
To me, time travel is evocative of a late ’50s early ’60s preoccupation with science fiction and what advances the future might bring, and even the name Billy Pilgrim sounds like a Superhero from a Comic. Vonnegut subverts this optimistic vision of the future and uses it not only to sustain our terror but to replicate the way in which traumatic memories might suddenly and unexpectedly erupt many years later as vividly as real time, meaning that for many, the horrors of war would never truly come to an end. So it goes.