To Be or Not To Be “Unstuck in Time” | Van Kooten on Slaughterhouse-Five

During World War II, at the age of 23, Kurt Vonnegut was captured by the Germans and ended up imprisoned in the city of Dresden, “the Florence of the Elbe.” He was there when the Allies firebombed Dresden in a massive air attack that killed 130,000 people. Vonnegut survived with other prisoners holed up in a meat locker deep beneath the city under a building with

a big number over the door of the building. The number was five. Before the Americans could go inside, their only English-speaking guard told them to memorize their simple address, in case they got lost in the big city. Their address was this: ‘Schlachthof-funf.’ Schlachthof meant slaughterhouse. Funf was good old five. (195)

The traumatic event of his survival and aftermath is probably the most important thing that ever happened to Vonnegut, and, as he writes in the introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five, he’d been trying to write a book about Dresden ever since. Now, at last, he finished the “famous Dresden book.” (4)

Amazingly, he does not even really describe details of the bombing but dances around the event in a highly imaginative novel, opening with the classic “All this happened, more or less” (1) that bounces around in time, slowly filling in the missing puzzle pieces as he goes. It is elsewhere, in the introduction to his Mother Night, that he does provide details in a way that only Vonnegut can:

High explosives were dropped on Dresden by American and British planes on the night of February 13, 1945. . . . There were no particular targets for the bombs. The hope was that they would create a lot of kindling and drive firemen underground. And then hundreds of thousands of tiny incendiaries were scattered over the kindling, like seeds on freshly turned loam. More bombs were dropped to keep firemen in their holes, and all the little fires grew, joined one another, became one apocalyptic flame. Hey presto: fire storm. It was the largest massacre in European history, by the way. (MN, vi)

As a horrific aside, the science of fire storms: it is a conflagration that attains such intensity that it creates and sustains its own wind system as a result of the “chimney effect” as the heat of the original fire draws in more and more of the surrounding air. As the updraft mushrooms, strong gusty winds develop around the fire, directed inward, indeed sucking fleeing victims back into the fire. Those who sought refuge underground often suffocated as oxygen was pulled from the air to feed the blaze, or they perished in a blast of white heat and either disintegrated into cinders or melted into a thick liquid.

But back to the novel: Billy Pilgrim, a funny-looking optometry student who gets drafted to enter the military, is the main character of Slaughterhouse-Five. He is sent to fight against the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge and is promptly captured by a small group of German scouts. After incredibly surviving many hardships, he even makes it through the Dresden firebombing, as did Vonnegut. Early in the novel, we find that he has

come unstuck in time.

Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between.
He says.

Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next. (29)

On top of this ability to time travel, he also claims that he was abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. The Tralfamadorians can see in four dimensions, including time, and teach him that

all moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever. (34)

Vonnegut uses science fiction and aliens as a means of stitching together events in Billy Pilgrim’s life, and of enabling deeper discussions about the nature of trauma, time, and death; however, can Billy really time travel, was he kidnapped by aliens? Either choice results in interesting implications, including those scientific.

Premise #1: No. The time travel is a result of a memory impacted by trauma, and the alien story is a coping mechanism.

Billy’s claims of abduction by aliens only begin after recovering from a serious head injury from a plane crash. The events in the novel may be just happening “in his head,” and much of his story of abduction appears to be strongly influenced by other events in the novel. His story of his life in a zoo on Tralfamadore reflects the plot of a Kilgore Trout novel that he reads. He watches a porn flick featuring Montana Wildhack, the woman with whom he claims to have been placed. The prayer engraved on Montana Wildhack’s locket appears framed on the wall of Billy’s real-life optometry office.

Remembering past events can be considered something akin to time travel, but what about Billy’s ability to see his future as well? In addition to the quote above, there is also this:

As a time-traveler, he has seen his own death many times, has described it to a tape recorder. The tape is locked up with his will and some other valuables in his safe-deposit box at the Ilium Merchants National Bank and Trust, he says. I, Billy Pilgrim, the tape begins, will die, have died and always will die on February thirteenth, 1976. (180)

Note the use of “he says,” bolded both here and in the quote above. He may simply be making these events up, and they may not come true in the future. We have no verification in the novel by Vonnegut as an omniscient narrator. Billy’s life in “novel time” is ambiguous from the entirety of his life (“block time,” see later).

He may also, out of a huge number of thoughts (think of an infinite number of monkeys at typewriters . . . ), just fortuitously come up with what may actually happen in the future:

A famous brain surgeon came up from Boston and operated on him for three hours. Billy was unconscious for two days after that, and he dreamed millions of things, some of them true. The true things were time-travel. (200)

There is no doubt that Vonnegut was heavily impacted by his experiences during World War II. He alludes to possible mental illness in the cover page: “This is a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales.” He wrote this novel about war during the Vietnam War and may have very well been writing about the symptoms of post-traumatic syndrome disorder (PTSD) eleven years before it was acknowledged as a mental illness1 after observing returning Vietnam veterans. Billy Pilgrim exhibits many symptoms of PTSD, such as intrusive memories: constant flashbacks, bad dreams (crying out, kicking in his sleep in the railroad car); avoidance: he hardly discusses the war to his family and avoided his own mother; negative changes in mood: lack of friends and of positive thinking, use of the phrase “so it goes” after every death that may indicate he is too numb to care; and changes in emotional reactions: random but frequent bouts of crying, and being easily frightened. Fright, in this case, was triggered by a flashback:

A siren went off, scaring the hell out of him. He was expecting World War Three at any time. The siren was simply announcing high noon . . . Billy closed his eyes. When he opened them, he was back in World War Two again. His head was on the wounded rabbi’s shoulder. (73)

Using his imagination, Billy Pilgrim “travels” back and forth in time, and uses his creativity to deal with the traumas of surviving the bombardment of Dresden. Another defense mechanism is Billy’s explanation for his time traveling via the Tralfamadorians, where he learns about their view on the concept of time. Because of this fantasy, he can cope with all the crazy tricks that his mind is playing on him. Billy’s solution to his problems seems strange, but science at that time did not have a solution.2

Under this premise, Vonnegut still uses his unique style to give an account that can invoke empathy for a negatively impacted war veteran, both in Billy Pilgrim and potentially for himself.

Premise #2: Yes, Billy is traveling in time and had a splendid time on Tralfamadore.

The novel still makes distinctions between memories and traveling in time:

Billy thought hard about the effect the quartet had had on him, and then found an association with an experience he had had long ago. He did not travel in time to the experience. He remembered it shimmeringly—as follows. (226)

What Billy Pilgrim says about the future may indeed always come true.

This full-on fantastical science fiction premise can be used here just as it was in Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan. In that book, the metaphor of life as a roller coaster is used, and Siren’s Rumfoord and the Tralfamadorians can “see the whole roller coaster” at once just as they can “look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains” (34). I encourage you to peruse a discussion of the “block universe” in my post on the Sirens of Titan. Again, such a bizarre concept of time, where the passage of time is actually an illusion, a current and serious direction in physics research. In a two-dimensional world (and I encourage everyone to read Edwin Abbot’s Flatland!), one can visualize time as the third dimension. Starting with the figure in my Sirens of Titan post, one can enhance it with Vonnegut’s beautiful depiction:

Billy Pilgrim says that the Universe does not look like a lot of bright little dots to the creatures from Tralfamadore. The creatures can see where each star has been and where it is going, so that the heavens are filled with rarefied, luminous spaghetti. And Tralfamadorians don’t see human beings as two-legged creatures, either. They see them as great millipedes—“with babies’ legs at one end and old people’s legs at the other,” says Billy Pilgrim. (110)

Only in the Tralfamadorian world can one potentially cherry-pick the good moments from life to relive endlessly.

An interesting direction is that taken by another Kurt: Kurt Gödel, an Austrian, and later American, logician, mathematician, and philosopher. He suggests a more complex model of the universe, one that agrees with the proposals of a block universe but implies other consequences, particularly the existence of “closed timelike curves,” each of which “is [a curve] that is joined up to itself—a curve that forms a closed loop in space-time.”3 In the visualization of the luminous spaghetti of stars, picture glowing closed loops of spaghetti (SpaghettiOs™?), or as a whole, a universe that is still infinite, but that loops back on itself in space and time. This also allows for time travel as described in Slaughterhouse-Five.4

This notion of time in a loop also originated from Gödel, in essence, that of a “strange loop.” Defined by Douglas Hofstadter in Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a strange loop is a “phenomenon that occurs whenever, by moving upwards (or downwards) through the levels of some hierarchical system, we unexpectedly find ourselves right back where we started.”5 Billy Pilgrim moves around the strange loop of his life, being born, dying, and inevitably leading back to the central traumatic event of Dresden. If we are indeed “bugs in amber” (109) seen from outside the system, then these strange loops match the complex structures described in the novel that endlessly repeat themselves within the confines of their block universe.

These strange loops also manifest themselves in textual structures mirroring the temporal organization of the novel. An example is the endlessly repeating Yon Yonson song that recursively loops back into itself:

My name is Yon Yonson,
I work in Wisconsin,
I work in a lumbermill there.
The people I meet when I walk down the street,
They say, “What’s your name?”
And I say,
“My name is Yon Yonson,
I work in Wisconsin . . .” (3)

There is also the aforementioned repetition of “so it goes” after every single death. Finally, there is an interesting strange loop when Vonnegut inserts himself into the text (“An American near Billy wailed that he had excreted everything but his brains. Moments later he said, ‘There they go, there they go.’ He meant his brains. That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book” [160]). Vonnegut exists in the text as he writes the text in a strange loop like Escher’s famous drawing.

In contrast to the more simplistic situation of Rumfoord in Sirens of Titan, in this novel there is an ambiguity between the two premises of whether Billy Pilgrim is experiencing a block universe or not, or whether the alien Tralfamadorians even exist. Both lead to deep implications. Intentional ambiguity in literature can be a powerful device, leaving something undetermined in order to open up multiple possible meanings and insights on trauma, death, the horrors of war, and how to deal and cope with all of them.


1. PTSD was first officially defined in DSM-III, published in 1980. This is an early version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the handbook used by health care professionals in the United States and much of the world as the authoritative guide to the diagnosis of mental disorders.

2. Susanne Vees-Gulani, Diagnosing Billy Pilgrim: A Psychiatric Approach to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five,

3. Michael, Lockwood, The Labyrinth of Time: Introducing the Universe (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005).

4. Francis X. Altomare, “’This Can Be Useful for Rocketry’: Block Universes and Strange Loops in Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan and Slaughterhouse-Five” (Presentation, American Literature Association 23rd
Annual Conference, San Francisco, CA, May 26, 2012),

5. Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, and Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (New York: Basic Books, 1980), 10. In an even weirder “loop,” Douglas Hofstadter is a professor in Cognitive Sciences right here at Indiana University, the host of Salo University! I read the seminal Gödel, Escher, and Bach as an undergrad. It is the ultimate nerd’s paradise—reading it involves solving puzzles, writing pseudo-code, and working exercises. When I came and interviewed for a faculty position at Indiana University, I was almost finished with a day of interviews when an IU graduate student I knew mentioned in passing that Hofstadter was a professor at IU, and that pretty well cemented the deal for me. Finally, in yet another loop, Douglas Hofstadter’s father is Nobel Laureate (Physics 1961) Robert Hofstadter who was at Stanford University while I was a graduate student there. He was well known for falling asleep in colloquia but waking up and somehow asking the most probing question in the Q&A session afterward. Douglas Hofstadter’s work on strange loops and their role in consciousness is continued in his book I Am a Strange Loop (New York: Basic Books, 2007).