[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
Kurt Vonnegut was a POW in Dresden during World War II. He only survived the allies’ bombing of Dresden because the Germans housed the American prisoners in a meat-locker in a building they called Slaughterhouse-Five. For years afterward, Vonnegut attempted to write a book about his experiences, and in 1969 he eventually produced Slaughterhouse-Five, a fictional biography of one of his fellow soldiers who he calls Billy Pilgrim. In the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut explains that his novel will be short and “jumbled” and that it’s “a failure” because “people aren’t supposed to look back” and “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” Well, the book is short and jumbled, but it’s not a failure — it’s interesting, irreverent, and very funny (if you like bleak black humor).
Billy Pilgrim has become “unstuck in time” — he seems to move up and down his own timeline, experiencing his life — his uneventful childhood, his inglorious experiences as a POW, his mundane marriage, his time in an insane asylum, his dull but lucrative career, and his death — out of order and repeatedly. Billy also believes that he was once abducted by aliens and taken to the planet Tralfamadore where they put him in a zoo so they could observe human behavior. The Tralfamadorans, who experience four dimensions and are outside of time, have a fatalistic philosophy of life, war, and death, which Billy embraces.
Vonnegut’s non-linear narrative and his repetitive imagery and language evoke a feeling of bizarreness, disorientation and impotence, which mirrors Billy Pilgrim’s feelings about his life — especially his feelings about the war where he was a weak, ineffective soldier who did nothing but get caught by the Germans and witness the deaths of thousands of innocent people. Vonnegut keeps repeating the phrase “And so it goes” after any mention of death. The phrase is used over 100 times and, rather than becoming irritating, it lends a fatalistic air. It also gets funnier each time, in a gallows humor kind of way. (The phrase is even used after we’re told that the champagne is flat.)
Along with the jumping around in time, Billy’s delusions about Tralfamadore make us assume that he’s insane. Was he insane before he went to war, or does he have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a disorder that, at that time, the military either didn’t recognize or didn’t acknowledge?
On the surface, Slaughterhouse-Five, though entertaining and funny all the way through, seems absurd and pointless. But that is the point: War is absurd and pointless. It’s illogical, irrational, and unstoppable. Vonnegut never overtly condemns war — the novel feels fatalistic instead; there is war, people die, and so it goes. If Slaughterhouse-Five is a condemnation of war, it’s a subtle condemnation, and maybe that’s why it works so well. Nobody likes to be hit over the head with a Message. Instead, Slaughterhouse-Five makes us consider the absurdity of war for human beings who, unlike the timeless Tralfamadorans, live in only three dimensions.
I listened to Harper Audio’s production of Slaughterhouse-Five. The narrator, Ethan Hawke, was amazing. This was one of the best audio productions I’ve listened to recently. Hawke, who sounds laid back and like he just smoked a couple of joints, speaks almost in a whisper. He sounds intimate and philosophical. Hawke’s narration greatly enhanced my enjoyment of Slaughterhouse-Five. There’s also an interview with Kurt Vonnegut at the end of this Harper Audio production.
Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) is probably Kurt Vonnegut’s most famous novel, and has been analyzed and debated by readers and critics alike for almost 50 years. It’s been listed as one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century by several organizations, and it’s fatalistic catchphrase “So it goes” is an iconic expression of Vonnegut’s view of the death and destruction of World War II, embodied in the firebombing of Dresden that he survived as a POW in an underground slaughterhouse. The book has also been the subject of numerous attempts to ban it from libraries and literature courses as obscene or irreverent, which automatically piques my interest, and the US Supreme Court weighed in against censoring it based on content.
In many ways I think this book is a culmination of many of Vonnegut’s views about the absurdity of war, the fundamental randomness of life, the lack of any divine being overlooking and directing people’s lives, and finally the pathos that Vonnegut has for people living with the harmless lies that make their lives bearable. Over 20 years after reading his books in high school, I chose to revisit them this year by listening to audiobook versions of The Sirens of Titan, Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle, and finally Slaughterhouse-Five. For this book, Ethan Hawke is the narrator and he does a really nice job of capturing the resigned tone of Billy Pilgrim, who really doesn’t understand the events of his life, and at the same time capturing the ironic but knowing tone of Vonnegut the author and narrator, who uses humor to tackle a subject like World War II that would otherwise be too painful to confront.
You can see the steady progression in his meta-narrative, as he repeatedly explores his experiences of war and the absurdity of everyday life in fictional form, getting closer and more intimate until we are finally placed shivering in a pitch-black slaughterhouse, huddled with other US and British POWs, as US bombers drop incendiary bombs onto the German city of Dresden, a very deliberate strategy to cause massive civilian casualties in order to crush the German spirit and hasten the end of the war. The same rationale was put forth for the US dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut broke the rules of contemporary fiction and addressed the reader directly in the first chapter, stating “All this happened, more or less.” Furthermore, he apologies for the book, saying “It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again.” Vonnegut himself is the narrator of the story in chapter one, and it’s not until chapter two that he switches to omniscient third-person to tell the story of Billy Pilgrim, a hapless young man thrust into war with little idea what to do and no survival instinct whatsoever.
The most impressive literary technique employed by Vonnegut is the continual shifts between past and present since his protagonist Billy Pilgrim has got unstuck in time. It’s not the first time that a story moves in such fashion, but perhaps the first in which the protagonist himself (not just the narrator) is slipping back and forth continually without any control of the process. From moment to moment Billy finds himself in Dresden as a soldier, as a young man growing up, in his prosaic postwar life with his wife and children in Ilium, NY as an optometrist, getting in a plane crash, losing his sanity and claiming to be put in a zoo by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who we also met in his novel The Sirens of Titan.
It is through the Tralfamadorians that Vonnegut is able to deliver his most important messages about time, fate, and the meaning (if any) of our lives. The Tralfamadorians live in four dimensions, so all moments in time are available to them. They don’t see any purpose behind the random events of our lives, and are perplexed by human’s insistence that everything needs a reason or explanation. Here are some relevant passages:
The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “so it goes.”
All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.
There is a lot of debate about what Vonnegut’s message is in Slaughterhouse-Five. Is it completely pessimistic and hopeless? That mankind will forever be deluded by his lies and continue to make war and visit misery on himself? You could certainly take that interpretation if you think that the fatalism and passivity of Billy Pilgrim are the same as that of Vonnegut, but I don’t think that’s right. Although the horrors of Dresden and World War II are kept one step removed as Billy flits back and forth in time, and we are constantly reminded that we cannot prevent death, I still think Vonnegut cares very much about how people should view their lives. He strongly condemns the cruelty and absurdity of war, as this quote illustrates:
I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee. I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that.
He also has a lot of sympathy for the plight of all people who are desperately seeking meaning in their lives. And for those who’ve lived through a traumatic experience like war, perhaps it is best that they do not look back at all, if all that remains is pain. Instead, they should focus on the happier moments of their lives.
And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned into a pillar of salt. So it goes. People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.
If I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I’m grateful that so many of those moments are nice.
I found this quote below particularly poignant, and something that really sums up Vonnegut’s view not only of life and how to live it, but the purpose of art as well, including books. It’s rare for him to spell it out, but this was very succinct:
There isn’t any particular relationship between the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.