Billy Pilgrim can’t sleep because he knows aliens will arrive to abduct him in one hour.
He knows the aliens are coming because he has become “unstuck” in time, causing him to experience events out of chronological order. Over the course of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-five, he hops back and forth between a childhood trip to the Grand Canyon, his life as a middle-aged optometrist, his captivity in an intergalactic zoo, the humiliations he endured as a war prisoner, and more.
The title of Slaughterhouse-five and much of its source material came from Vonnegut’s own experiences in World War II. As a prisoner of war, he lived in a former slaughterhouse in Dresden, where he took refuge in an underground meat locker while Allied forces bombed the city. When he and the other prisoners finally emerged, they found Dresden utterly demolished.
After the war, Vonnegut tried to make sense of human behavior by studying an unusual aspect of anthropology: the shapes of stories, which he insisted were just as interesting as the shapes of pots or spearheads. To find the shape, he graphed the main character’s fortune from the beginning to the end of a story. The zany curves he generated revealed common types of fairy tales and myths that echo through many cultures. But this shape can be the most interesting of all.
In a story like this, it’s impossible to distinguish the character’s good fortune from the bad. Vonnegut thought this kind of story was the truest to real life, in which we are all the victims of a series of accidents, unable to predict how events will impact us long term. He found the tidy, satisfying arcs of many stories at odds with this reality, and he set out to explore the ambiguity between good and bad fortune in his own work.
When Vonnegut ditched clear-cut fortunes, he also abandoned straightforward chronology. Instead of proceeding tidily from beginning to end, in his stories “All moments, past, present and future always have existed, always will exist.” Tralfamadorians, the aliens who crop up in many of his books, see all moments at once. They “can see where each star has been and where it is going, so that the heavens are filled with rarefied, luminous spaghetti.” But although they can see all of time, they don’t try to change the course of events.
While the Trafalmadorians may be at peace with their lack of agency, Vonnegut’s human characters are still getting used to it. In The Sirens of Titan, when they seek the meaning of life in the vastness of the universe, they find nothing but “empty heroics, low comedy, and pointless death.” Then, from their vantage point within a “chrono-synclastic infundibulum,” a man and his dog see devastating futures for their earthly counterparts, but can’t change the course of events. Though there aren’t easy answers available, they eventually conclude that the purpose of life is “to love whoever is around to be loved.”
In Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut’s characters turn to a different source of meaning: Bokonism, a religion based on harmless lies that all its adherents recognize as lies. Though they’re aware of Bokonism’s lies, they live their lives by these tenets anyway, and in so doing develop some genuine hope. They join together in groups called Karasses, which consist of people we “find by accident but […] stick with by choice”— cosmically linked around a shared purpose. These are not to be confused with Granfalloons, groups of people who appoint significance to actually meaningless associations, like where you grew up, political parties, and even entire nations. Though he held a bleak view of the human condition, Vonnegut believed strongly that “we are all here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is." We might get pooped and demoralized, but Vonnegut interspersed his grim assessments with more than a few morsels of hope. His fictional alter ego, Kilgore Trout, supplied this parable: two yeast sat “discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.” In spite of his insistence that we’re all here to fart around, in spite of his deep concerns about the course of human existence, Vonnegut also advanced the possibility, however slim, that we might end up making something good. And if that isn’t nice, what is?