Was "Slaughterhouse Five" Vonnegut's PTSD Novel?Breaking News
tags: Dresden, literature, PTSD, World War 2, Kurt Vonnegut
“Listen: ‘Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”
These lines, which begin the second chapter of Kurt Vonnegut’s iconic “Slaughterhouse-Five,” echo through Tom Roston’s new book, “The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut and the Many Lives of Slaughterhouse-Five.” When I picked up Roston’s book, I expected one part literary biography and one part literary analysis. What I got was a book about time; or, put another way, a book about how Pilgrim (and Vonnegut) became unstuck in time and how this “unsticking” created “Slaughterhouse-Five.”
If you’re reading, you most likely know that “Slaughterhouse-Five” is a quasi-autobiographical novel about Vonnegut’s experiences in World War II. He had an eventful war. He was captured during the Battle of the Bulge and imprisoned in a cement slaughterhouse in Dresden, the eponymous Schlachthof Fünf (or slaughterhouse-five) of the novel’s title, where he survived the Allied firebombing of that German city, which killed 25,000. The novel closely hews to key episodes in Vonnegut’s experience but extravagantly plays with time, jumping from years before the war to decades after and back again in a single page. “Slaughterhouse-Five” also incorporates elements of science fiction and features aliens from the planet Tralfamadore who experience time differently than we do on Earth. Vonnegut’s book is often categorized as a war novel, but it is about much more than war and, at least to me, feels uncategorizable. Which is probably why it’s beloved and why it endures.
This defiance of categorization is probably why I found myself bristling early on when Roston asserts that his book will seek to answer “whether or not ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ can be used as evidence of its author’s undiagnosed PTSD.” This investigation, which animates much of Roston’s book, seems misguided. Roston himself acknowledges the reductivism he’s engaged in when he writes, “I imagine reducing his book to a clinical diagnosis or, perhaps worse, putting it in the self-help category, would make Vonnegut shudder.” Indeed, I think it would. Nevertheless, Roston soldiers on, casting himself as part literary scholar and part psychoanalytic sleuth. He deconstructs “Slaughterhouse-Five” and the history around the book in search of incontrovertible proof that Vonnegut had what we would today call post-traumatic stress disorder, even though Roston acknowledges Vonnegut’s consistent denials throughout his life that his wartime experiences left him traumatized.
The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut and the Many Lives of Slaughterhouse-Five
By Tom Roston