In 10th grade English, as our final book of the year, my class cracked open Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel “Slaughterhouse-Five.” After a grueling year of classics like “Gulliver’s Travels,” “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “The Canterbury Tales,” I assumed that “Slaughterhouse-Five” would be more of the same long-winded stories that had populated our classes up to that point. The title reminded me of “Animal Farm” and filled me with expectations of complex allegories or tedious legends from a slaughterhouse. But as I read the first few chapters, I was surprised to find that “Slaughterhouse-Five” was, well, good.
Now in college, I remember very few things from that first time I read Vonnegut’s novel. I remember something about aliens and a celebrity named Montana. I remember descriptions of the Dresden firebombing, which at the time I didn’t realize was a true historical event. Most importantly, I remember a description of an idea of time, one that may have come from the book itself or possibly my teacher attempting to explain this complex idea. The way to think of the timeline of someone’s life, according to Vonnegut’s ideas and my teacher’s careful explanation, is not as a straight line, as we tend to think, but similar to a book. When you hold a book in your hands, you hold the entire story, start to finish; every event in the book has already been written. While we are logically programmed to read the book from start to end, this is not the only way to experience its events. You can open the book to any page, any time in the story and you will be able to experience that event even if it is done out of order. This is the idea of time as a fourth dimension, beyond the three dimensions of space.
Vonnegut’s novel itself is utterly perplexing in many ways. “Slaughterhouse-Five” is partially first-person, narrated by a stand-in for Vonnegut, and partially third-person, with a grand sense of omniscience. In the introduction, the narrator tells you exactly how the book will begin (“Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”) and exactly how it will end (“Poo-tee-weet?”). It’s a novel impossible to place into a single genre, filled with war and aliens and inherent human grief. It toes a line between historical fiction and science fiction that few authors have accomplished. But what is most perplexing is the way that “Slaughterhouse-Five” proposes the concept of time, a proposal that forever changed the way I thought about time.
“Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time,” the narrator tells us at the beginning of the first chapter. Billy’s journey throughout the novel is not linear, but spastic, bouncing between events in his life without rhyme or reason. These jumps tend to be triggered at particularly desperate or traumatic moments and often result in skipping full decades. This is connected to Billy’s experience as a soldier in Dresden, Germany, where he survives being a prisoner-of-war as well as the destructive firebombing of Dresden in 1945. After the war, Billy is hospitalized for PTSD; it’s around this time that he starts becoming unstuck, and the two things are clearly linked.
Even if being unstuck is the product of a psychiatric disorder, it’s still fascinating to consider. Despite his position in time, Billy also believes that he was abducted by the Tralfamadorians, an alien race that keeps him in a zoo. Importantly, the Tralfamadorians see in four dimensions; rather than the three dimensions of space that humans remain limited to understanding, the Tralfamadorians see our three dimensions plus time. According to the Narrator, this means that they view the idea of life and death differently: “When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments.” This view of time means that one can view their life much more holistically; rather than focus on the loss of one moment, the Tralfamadorians find the life in previous moments. This ties to the common Tralfamadorian saying: “So it goes.” What has happened has happened, and what is going to happen will; so it goes.
Films, books and other media dealing with time travel often try to explore the idea of changing the past or the future. Plotlines are based around acting on questions like “What would I have done differently?” and “How do I prevent this from happening?” I’ve sometimes heard questions like “would you kill baby Hitler” thrown around, often jokingly and with little regard for the reality of the space-time continuum. In Vonnegut’s proposed version of time, however, these questions are irrelevant. Changing the past means that this version of the future would not exist, and if we’ve learned anything from Disney Channel’s “That’s So Raven,” it’s that trying to change the future usually results in making it happen.
I should clarify that I don’t believe this means we don’t have free will, nor that we should believe that actions don’t have real consequences. In the novel, Billy becomes fatalistic, believing that all events and actions come down to destiny. I don’t agree. Instead, it’s about trying to find a balance in between these ideas — finding a way to live in the moment without dwelling on a past or a future over which you have no control. It’s the idea of viewing time not just as a long line stretching somewhere into the future, but into something a bit more elastic in both directions.
There’s a reason “Slaughterhouse-Five” stuck strongly in my mind for the past four years. Time as a fourth dimension is fascinating and oddly comforting: There is no use trying to change the past. That much has always been clear, but it’s nice to look toward the future and realize that there always will be a future. There are many parts of time that I’ll never understand no matter how hard I try, but it’s a comfort to know that no matter how messed up things are in the present, life goes on. There will be deaths, war and pandemics. There will be moments where it feels as though we will never make it through this moment. But if I’ve learned anything from “Slaughterhouse-Five,” it’s that there will be another moment after this one, and another moment after that. So it goes.