“Listen: ‘Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”

These lines, which begin the second chapter of Kurt Vonnegut’s iconic “Slaughterhouse-Five,” echo through Tom Roston’s new book, “The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut and the Many Lives of Slaughterhouse-Five.” When I picked up Roston’s book, I expected one part literary biography and one part literary analysis. What I got was a book about time; or, put another way, a book about how Pilgrim (and Vonnegut) became unstuck in time and how this “unsticking” created “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

If you’re reading, you most likely know that “Slaughterhouse-Five” is a quasi-autobiographical novel about Vonnegut’s experiences in World War II. He had an eventful war. He was captured during the Battle of the Bulge and imprisoned in a cement slaughterhouse in Dresden, the eponymous Schlachthof Fünf (or slaughterhouse-five) of the novel’s title, where he survived the Allied firebombing of that German city, which killed 25,000. The novel closely hews to key episodes in Vonnegut’s experience but extravagantly plays with time, jumping from years before the war to decades after and back again in a single page. “Slaughterhouse-Five” also incorporates elements of science fiction and features aliens from the planet Tralfamadore who experience time differently than we do on Earth. Vonnegut’s book is often categorized as a war novel, but it is about much more than war and, at least to me, feels uncategorizable. Which is probably why it’s beloved and why it endures.

This defiance of categorization is probably why I found myself bristling early on when Roston asserts that his book will seek to answer “whether or not ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ can be used as evidence of its author’s undiagnosed PTSD.” This investigation, which animates much of Roston’s book, seems misguided. Roston himself acknowledges the reductivism he’s engaged in when he writes, “I imagine reducing his book to a clinical diagnosis or, perhaps worse, putting it in the self-help category, would make Vonnegut shudder.” Indeed, I think it would. Nevertheless, Roston soldiers on, casting himself as part literary scholar and part psychoanalytic sleuth. He deconstructs “Slaughterhouse-Five” and the history around the book in search of incontrovertible proof that Vonnegut had what we would today call post-traumatic stress disorder, even though Roston acknowledges Vonnegut’s consistent denials throughout his life that his wartime experiences left him traumatized.

Like Roston, you may think it’s a bit rich to believe that a man who survived the Battle of the Bulge, time as a Nazi prisoner of war and the firebombing of Dresden couldn’t have PTSD. But what is PTSD? Vonnegut, reflecting on his wartime experiences in an interview — in which he described witnessing his Army unit being “wiped out” and later in Dresden seeing “a mountain of dead people” — concluded that those experiences left him “thoughtful.” Could returning from war thoughtful be similar to returning with what we now call PTSD? The difference between the two might tell us about ourselves, and the hyper-sensitized time in which we live, as opposed to shedding new light on Vonnegut.

Contemporary understandings of PTSD seek to define the general through the specific. Can we pinpoint a specific event, a specific trauma (or series of traumas) in a person’s past and, in so doing, understand their struggles in the present? When Vonnegut says his experiences left him thoughtful, this seems a superior diagnosis than that of PTSD. Being thoughtful doesn’t negate the events or the profound way they affect a person; however, the word hints at the individual’s ability to assimilate their experiences into their life and so have agency over them. Ultimately, what differentiates PTSD is that failure of assimilation. But assimilation is a two-way street.

Just as you can’t have a novel without readers, you can’t have the specter of the PTSD-addled veteran without the society in which he or she fails to assimilate. The question then becomes, where does the assimilation failure occur? Is it the job of the individual to assimilate the trauma they might have witnessed into their postwar selves, or is it the job of the society that sent them to war to assimilate those who’ve been touched by the experience — or, made thoughtful — back into that society?

Later in his book, Roston expresses ambivalence about his efforts to saddle Vonnegut with a PTSD diagnosis. This layer of self-doubt enriches his study of “Slaughterhouse-Five” and makes his analysis of Vonnegut more interesting. Roston writes, “We err when we try to pin him down,” and goes on to quote Vonnegut’s daughter, Edith, who said of her father: “Maybe he had PTSD from just being alive. He saw too much. And he felt too much.”

In “Slaughterhouse-Five” Billy Pilgrim’s consciousness flashes forward and backward with abandon, making it difficult for him to hold onto the narrative strands of his life as the past interferes with the present and even the future. The idea of becoming “unstuck in time” is also often associated with PTSD. But it could just as easily be said that it’s a symptom of modern life, a connection that Roston explores at length in the book. Since industrialization — and World War II was the apotheosis of an industrial-age war — it would seem that technology has conspired to accelerate our lives and so unstick us in time. Whether we interpret that unsticking as synonymous with PTSD or grant it a meaning that is less literal seems beside the point. We’re all a little unstuck. And have been for some time.

Ultimately, Roston is happy to leave the question of Vonnegut’s PTSD unresolved, and this is one of the great strokes of the book, because he leaves open a trenchant bit of commentary not only on Vonnegut but on all of us. Roston wrote his book primarily in 2020, amid the pandemic, societal unrest and profound political dysfunction. Given PTSD’s broadening usage and definition, it could be said that it has become a diagnosis for everyone, and so Roston also shows us how — PTSD diagnosis or not — his hero Vonnegut succeeded in writing a book for everybody, one that remains unstuck in time.

The Writer’s Crusade

Kurt Vonnegut and the Many Lives of Slaughter-house-Five

By Tom Roston

Abrams.
260 pp. $26