Slaughterhouse-Five is commonly cited as an example of a postmodern novel. Postmodernism, a movement that emerged after World War II, is difficult to define, in part because it is not confined to literature. The ideas of postmodernism have appeared across a range of other disciplines: film, art, architecture, music, fashion, and even technology. In addition, scholars disagree about what exactly postmodernism is and precisely when it began. What they do agree on is that postmodernism emerged out of another artistic movement called modernism, which reached its peak between 1910 and 1930. Modernist writers, like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, rejected the boundaries between genres as well as between high and low forms of art. Combining high and low art often resulted in writing that was playful, ironic, and fragmented. Thus, modernist classics like Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Joyce’s Ulysses, both of which frustrate conventional ideas of time, history, and narrative, were significant precursors to postmodern novels like Slaughterhouse-Five .
In modernism, narrative fragmentation functions as a sad reflection of life in an increasingly mechanized world. However, modernist writers still sought to unify human experience and create meaning with their novels. In postmodernism, however, this same fragmentation is celebrated. Postmodern writers usually accept that the world is meaningless, that experiences are random, and that there is no such thing as historical progress or a universal set of morals. Postmodern writing, including Slaughterhouse-Five , tends to present a self-conscious critique of culture, society, politics, economics, and religion. The resulting works can usually be described as fragmented, discontinuous, and even chaotic. In visual art, the works of Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock are held up as prime examples of postmodernism. In film, classic examples include Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, Memento, and The Royal Tenenbaums.
Vonnegut and Slaughterhouse-Five helped pave the way for more recent postmodern novels, like Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985), Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991), and Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School (1984). These novels, like Slaughterhouse-Five , rely on elements of satire, pastiche, and deadpan delivery to create humor and irony. What’s more, these works, like Vonnegut’s, portray acts of violence and are concerned with human brutality. However, the later postmodern novels, further removed from the horrors of World War II, tend to focus primarily on the damaging effects of capitalism and consumer culture rather than on war and its aftermath.