I would have been about 15 or 16 at the time--just old enough to be left at home during summer vacation from school. This is an odd period in one's reading life. You're too old for children's books but maybe not old enough to fully-appreciate adult literature. Rousseau once said that at 16 you have lived enough to know what it is to suffer, but not enough to know that anyone else ever has.
I'm not sure that's entirely true. I was old enough to appreciate Vonnegut's humor, his sadness and his take on human pomposity and human suffering. I'm sure I must have read a lot books I was too young for at that age, but I don't think Slaughterhouse Five was one of them. Even so, there was at least one device used in the novel that makes a lot more sense to me now than it did back them.
In Slaughterhouse Five, the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is'unstuck in time.' Throughout the novel he jumps from one moment of his life to another. We see him getting a swimming lesson from his father (who dumps him into the deep end of the pool, where he sinks straight to the bottom). Then he is a married optometrist in Ilium, New York, and then in the snow during the Battle of the Bulge. We see him have his nervous breakdown and getting kidnapped by aliens and mated to a Hollywood starlet. And, of course, we see him as a POW and being put on corpse detail after the fire-bombing of Dresden during World War II.
I'm pretty sure I found this 'unstuck in time' idea pretty ingenious when I was 16. Vonnegut may not have been the first writer to use a non-linear plot, but he was likely the first writer I ever read who told a story that way. Now some 40-odd years later, the unstuck in time gimmick does not strike me as creative at all. It seems like straightforward non-fiction reportage.
Turns out, everybody gets unstuck in time if they live long enough. At 50--roughly Vonnegut's age when Slaughterhouse Five was published-- most people can recall a few distinct versions of themselves and even some of the delusions they labored under at various points in life. So distinct are these versions and moments and (so wince-inducing the delusions) that life inevitably begins to feel non-linear. You find yourself randomly jumping between memories and wondering how that foolish person with those ridiculous assumptions could ever have been connected to you.
In Mother Night, Vonnegut's narrator meets a braggart in a bar who claims that he can satisfy seven women a night in seven different ways. And the narrator, Howard W. Campbell, Jr, remarks to himself.
“Oh, God — the lives people try to lead.By your 50s you can see yourself as the person in that encounter with a disenchanted perspective on the world and just as easily as that deluded boob. As with the Tralfamadorian concept of time in Slaughterhouse Five, your perspective operates simultaneously in the past and in the present. It's even possible to see yourself in the future looking back on your present and wincing at the delusions you labor under now.
Oh, God — what a world they try to lead them in.”
Turns out, getting older also has a demystifying effect on what you've read.