Let’s get the trivialities, the “givens” out of the way. Vonnegut has a very distinct narrative voice and frequently breaks (read: completely disregards) one of those steadfast rules writers deal with now called “show don’t tell”.
I’m not a big Vonnegut fan (I know- “gasp! horror!”) but am an admirer. This book is the third one I’ve read by him and it easily ranks somewhere in my top “whatever number suits best” books I’ve ever read list. Vonnegut tells a story about a guy named Billy Pilgrim and his experience of the fire bombing of Dresden in World War II. Now, it wouldn’t be a Vonnegut book if it were that linear in scope but that’s pretty much the focus of the novel.
While he uses dips, turns and lifts to bring us closer to Dresden in 1945 he simultaneously weaves the story away from it with tales of aliens from Tralfamadore and parties with a guest list almost exclusively comprised of optometrists- Dresden is the point upon which Vonnegut pivots. It’s the axis of the story. It’s the purpose.
Billy Pilgrim, our faithful conduit, leaps through time and space. When he’s on his honeymoon with his wife he goes to the bathroom and finds himself back in the bathroom at the POW camp in Germany. Sometimes we find him making love with a beautiful ex-porn actress at the zoo, in front of visitors at Tralfamadore, and others we find him walking along in silver boots and an azure toga into Dresden.
What is beautiful, and miraculous, about this piece of literature is its blatant defiance of show vs tell. Vonnegut, through telling, communicates the story in such a way we’re able to jump into the mind, the body of our protagonist while still keeping our wits about us. It’s not a book to read for escape, nor to have someone think for you. It’s not character driven in the modern sense, but instead forces you to see things you might not know.
For me it was this: More people, in all likelihood, died in the firebombing of Dresden than did those in Nagasaki or Hiroshima.
It is my contention Vonnegut is to literature what Kubrick is to film. The images are there, the dialogue readily accessible but it is up to you, your mind, your intellect and your philosophy to discern what is good or bad about the work, and if any of it can be applied to life. While this kind of writing isn’t always my speed (I do so love linear tales showing character development) it is interesting and evocative. One of the rare occasions in which I read something which literally didn’t tug at my heart strings AT ALL and still I can recommend it most ardently.