Slaughterhouse-Five, which was published in 1969, is commonly cited as an example of a postmodern novel. Postmodernism, a movement that took shape 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 Joyce’s Ulysses (1922)  and Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), 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 The Matrix, Blade Runner, and Inception.

While writers including Jorge Luis Borges had produced works that are now considered to be postmodern (including Borges’s short story “The Library of Babel”) prior to and during World War II, postmodern works appeared much more frequently after the war ended in 1945. The boom in postmodern novels includes works by writers such as Vonnegut who used postmodern techniques to convey their own experiences during wartime. As a prisoner of war in February 1945, Vonnegut survived the infamous bombing of Dresden in Germany, which lies at the heart of Slaughterhouse-Five. Another plausible example is Joseph Heller’s 1961 postmodern novel Catch-22. Scholars debate the extent to which author Heller’s experiences as a World War II fighter pilot fed into his classic anti-war and anti-military novel, it is difficult to believe there is no connection. Other well-known postmodern novels of the postwar era include A Clockwork Orange (1962), by Anthony Burgess, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962), and One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel García Márquez.

Postmodern novels from the period after the postwar era include Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985), Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991), and Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School (1984). Like Slaughterhouse-Five, these novels 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, racism, consumer culture, and the everyday pressures of our technology-driven age rather than on war and its aftermath. Postmodern works in the current century include Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000) and Swing Time (2016), Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2011), and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016).