For many, this is the greatest American war novel, the only one that truly depicts the surreal confusion and senseless slaughter of the battlefield. For Vonnegut readers, it’s his masterpiece, the novel with which he finally broke through the traditional structures of storytelling in order to grasp the shattered truth of his own traumatic experience during the Allies’ firebombing of Dresden. The book is most famous for its non-linear structure and metafictional devices, including an appearance by the author himself as a prisoner of war. Vonnegut has us tumbling through time as we try to follow the ill-equipped Billy Pilgrim from the European theater of war and the Battle of the Bulge, to the human zoo on Tralfamadore, to an adult bookstore in Times Square. “So it goes,” we’re told exactly 106 times, but the narrator’s seeming fatalism does little to ease the sting of death or the maddening moral complexities of war. This is a heroic novel about what it means to live a life without heroism, and a meaningful novel about meaninglessness.

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