On the Bookshelf: ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ – The Manipulation of Structure


For those who aren’t familiar with Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, it is touted as one of the greatest American novels as well as one of the greatest anti-war novels. Whatever opinion you may hold on war in general, or more controversially Kurt Vonnegut, it was a remarkably inventive novel. An offbeat dark comedy satirizing the struggle of a veteran turned professional writer attempting to chronicle his experience of the war; (specifically, the Dresden bombing,) all with an innovative approach (or a F*&% you) to the standard structure of the novel. What I want to discuss is not the subject matter of Slaughterhouse Five but its use of structure in the book as a literary device.

Structure is the often forgotten, often neglected, red-headed-step-child of literary devices. Writers are aware of its existence and its importance in creating the overall theme of a novel, but seldom is it ever used or considered (effectively anyway) outside conventional forms. Usually, the focus is on diction, syntax, character development, irony, metaphors, etc., which is what makes Vonnegut’s heavy (and very effective) reliance on format so innovative.

Slaughterhouse Five is a brazen deviation from the ever-popular Joseph Campbell “Hero’s Journey” format. He is not a pioneer in experimenting with structure, but he did take that experimentation to the next level with Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut masterfully manipulates the novel’s time-space continuum with the plot’s organization.

Without too much of a spoiler, the protagonist is a war veteran and a time traveler. The novel’s structure is crafted around the premise that time is ever shifting and mutable. Vonnegut uses this premise as the catalyst to shift the focus from one story to another story throughout the protagonist’s lifetime at any moment, with or without indication. My summation of it may serve to make it sound lackadaisical, but it yields some of the most intricate and strategic organization I have ever seen. Transitions between time periods are executed seamlessly. I never felt hopelessly lost in the telling of the story. However, there were times where I found myself so immersed in one particular story that when a transition occured, I forgot why the previous had begun, and what it was building off of. In this way, I felt my confusion was intentionally incepted by Vonnegut. In this way, the seemingly loose organization and structure of time echo that of the protagonists’ struggles with time and serve as the bedrock of relatability. The structure is a blueprint that exemplifies the fleetingness and aimlessness of time that the protagonist feels. The overall theme owes itself, mainly, to Vonnegut’s deviation of conventional structure and thus, structure, becomes one of the driving literary devices of Slaughterhouse Five.

Speaking of novels that push the acceptability of a story’s structural integrity, I’d like to elucidate the novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by, my personal favorite, Milan Kundera. The author refers to this book as, “a novel in the form of variations.” Kundera experiments with the stereotypical structure of what makes a novel – unity by plot. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is made up of seven unrelated parts united only by a common theme – laughter or forgetting. Literary conservatives might argue that this format is the definition of a compilation of short stories rather than one homogeneous novel. However, this is precisely the tradition that Kundera is challenging with The Book of Laughter and Forgetting – the mutable power of the novelistic form to adapt variations. Traditionally, what defines a novel is long synthetic prose. The intangible constraint that has seemingly birthed the rigid expectations surrounding the structure of a novel is popularity. Popularity guides conformity, as this is the requirement for marketability. Suddenly, we find the market saturated with the same story, devoid of imagination and teeming with repetition.

Hence, I tip my hat to authors like Kurt Vonnegut and Milan Kundera for pushing boundaries and opening doors.