Slaughterhouse-Five is about a man called Billy Pilgrim who time-travels frequently. He was in the Second World War and, captured, was sent to Dresden to work in a malt syrup factory before the city was bombed. He studied optometry and had a nervous breakdown. He married the daughter of a rich optometrist, and became rich as well. He was abducted by aliens called Tralfamadorians, who put him in a zoo with a young porn actress, Montana Wildhack, whom they also abducted. He had a daughter called Barbara and a son called Robert. He was in a plane crash that killed everyone except him and the co-pilot. Rushing to the hospital in frantic worry, his wife Valencia dies in a car accident. He gets to meet his favourite author, an unsuccessful sci-fi writer called Kilgore Trout. "Slaughterhouse-Five" is the name of the building where the American POWs lived in in Dresden.
Because the narration jumps around as frequently as Billy does, you learn everything early on and then simply revisit it all. The fractured narrative is worse than watching ads in a commercial break, or those horrible pop songs where the scenes and costumes change every two seconds - it gives you a headache. It's extremely boring, and hollow, and unsatisfying.
I'm not a huge sci-fi fan, as you know. But I do like time-travel stories. Billy is nothing like Henry from The Time Traveler's Wife. For a start, not even a second seems to pass in "real" time while he is travelling - no one ever notices. It seems less like time-travelling than like reliving the past, present and future of your life, all at once, because it's his consciousness that does the travelling. What isn't clear, at all, is which is the real Billy? He moves so much, you have to wonder how he doesn't become completely dislodged from his own corporeal self and go mad.
The time-travelling predates the abduction-by-aliens, but the aliens themselves see the past, present and future simultaneously, and teach Billy their philosophy of not really caring about anything, since nothing can be changed etc. etc. Fatalism.
I think I hated this book, but not quite. Hate is a strong emotion and I don't think it brought that out in me. It wasn't even frustrating, nor even particularly confusing, though the repetition of the Tralfamadorian expression "so it goes" was so irritating I saw red a few times. The bits about the 100 American POWs being welcomed by the British POWs in a German prison camp was delightful, though boldly stereotyped, and I loved the excerpts from the work on American soldiers and prisoners-of-war by the American-turned-Nazi, forget his name, something Campbell. A lot of it - and it's a small, short book - could easily be skipped. The temptation was very strong.
In short, it's a very "postmodern" story, and like all things postmodern, it's impractical, disjointed, a bit wanky, tries too hard, is extremely out-dated and, at the end of the day, rather useless. Vonnegut is also very heavy-handed and bangs you on the head with his messages. It doesn't really inspire me to read more of Vonnegut's work. I guess he's a love-him-or-hate-him kind of story-teller.