Monday, May 1, 2017

The Many Rooms of Slaughterhouse-Five

One of the mental games I play sometimes with great books is to ask how the story might have played out if it had been written by someone else.

Consider the actual plot of "Slaughterhouse-Five" if it had been rendered by an author schooled in dramatic realism - Billy Pilgrim, a native of Illium, N.Y., survives the firebombing of Dresden during the Second World War after being taken prisoner by the Germans. Following the war, he returns to America and is treated for the psychological trauma he experienced (which included the accidental shooting death of his father while Billy was on manuevers). He undergoes shock treatments and is released.

He then begins a successful and somewhat conventional career as an optometrist, gets married and becomes a father of two. He is prone to fits of weeping (for no apparent reason) as he ages, and begins to undergo the inevitable outlines of a midlife crisis when, in 1968, he sustains a head injury during an airline crash in Vermont. He is the sole survivor. His wife Valencia, en route to his hospital, dies of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Billy recovers, but after this series of mind-numbing tragedies, he begins to exhibit signs of severe madness, telling anyone who will listen (including the listeners of a radio program) that he was kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore the previous year and held in a zoo with film ingenue Montana Wildhack. He says he is no longer is conscious of time, experiencing past, present and future simultaneously. He says he knows the exact date and circumstances of his death. His daughter concludes she must institutionalize him for his own good.

But in recounting his weird story, Billy dwells on the tragic wartime death of Edgar Derby, a high school teacher whose character caused him to be elected leader of the POWs during the war. Derby was killed in Dresden, though not by the incendiary bombs. He was executed after a trial for stealing a teapot from the ruins of the burned city. In the greatest conflict in human history, Derby didn't even get a hero's death - instead perishing for a bit of larceny in the midst of the Holocaust. 

Imagine if John Updike, James Jones, Philip Roth or Norman Mailer had written "Slaughterhouse-Five." Imagine the scene where Billy Pilgrim witnessed the execution, or perhaps just the arrest, of Edgar Derby. Imagine the scenes where Billy Pilgrim's children struggle against his madness, and wonder why he seems obsessed with the Serenity Prayer and the obscure science fiction novels of Kilgore Trout. Imagine the black scene when Billy's daughter has to tell her father in the hospital that his wife is dead, only to hear him say, inexplicably, that he already knew she was.


But "Slaughterhouse-Five" was written by Kurt Vonnegut, an actual survivor of Dresden, who puzzled for decades over how to render what he had seen in prose. The magnitude of even mundane experience is sometimes daunting to translate into words. "I would hate to tell you what this lousy little book cost me in money and anxiety and time," Vonnegut announces in the first chapter, which serves as a prologue to the story. So his strategy was not to write a book about Dresden, but a book about experience - living a life bordered by time and tragedy, coming to terms with age and the certain knowledge that life is probably half over, and the uncertain feeling that it might mean something but, as yet, has not disclosed that meaning.

Much is made of the novel's "postmodern" feel. Vonnegut breaks so many basic rules of novel writing in this slim book. Often he does not "show" so much as "tell." The characters are names and situations, with the reader left to figure out motivations, thoughts, etc. The action is fractured because we simultaneously live inside and outside Billy Pilgrim's consciousness, so that past, present and future are happening (supposedly) at the same time. This renders the experiences on Tralfamadore as real as those in Dresden. The entertainment value is often burlesque - Vonnegut is not above fart jokes, sex jokes and dirty limericks just to break up the talk of war, tragedy and madness. The refrain whenever a character dies - "So it goes" - is used for the death of Christ (three times) and a champagne bottle going flat. There is little attempt at dramatic tension - as Vonnegut tells you what will happen to Derby and then renders his death in one paragraph in the final chapter. More than 60 million people were killed in World War II - why should you dwell on this one?

Any writer, whether rendering reality or the invented, benefits from the manipulation of time and perspective. The writer calls attention to the detail, speeds up or slows down the action, freezes it for comment, or obliterates it to draw attention to something else. "This is what you need to see," the author says. "This will tell you what you need to know." Sometimes, the writer may even be lying. The writer may only want you to turn the page. That is what makes reading Vonnegut so rewarding. He wants you to keep reading. He'll do practically anything to keep you reading. He gives you the last line of the book, the sound of a bird tweeting, at the end of the first chapter, in hopes you'll stick around to see why it matters. He even announces the strategy when describing the typical Tralfamadorian book, which is a "brief, urgent message":

"There isn't any particular relationship between all 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."

He is no hack. When he describes the German reserves who guard the POWs as "violent, windburned, bristly men" with "teeth like piano keys" who take "wolfish bites from sausages," the grime that coats the casual evil of men at war sticks to your fingers from the page. One of the most incandescent passages in "Slaughterhouse-Five" comes when the 44-year-old Billy, unable to sleep on the evening of his daughter's wedding, finds a war movie on TV showing American bombers in action. But Billy is "unstuck in time," so he sees the entire cycle of war and life playing backwards. Bombers do not drop incendiary bombs on German cities - they suck up the flames into canisters which are then transported to America, disassembled, and their parts put back into the earth. War is rendered harmless, and even Hitler is transformed into an innocent baby, and all of humanity taken back to Adam and Eve.

This is another part of Vonnegut's strategy. As he is writing this novel, as a survivor of war in his forties, America is again at war in Vietnam and the tide of opinion is beginning to turn against the nation's war leaders. A country that views itself, rightly or wrongly, as historically isolationist has been in some kind of conflict for nearly 50 years, now on its fourth "shooting war" and its second as part of a larger Cold War with the threat of global annihilation added. Vonnegut, and his surrogate Billy Pilgrim, have nothing more than the power of the witness at their disposals to tell the story: "I was there. (something Vonnegut will occasionally stop to point out.)  This is what war does to a human being, even a war engaged against genocidal fascists. It causes young men to drop bombs on a city, largely made up of civilians, just to burn them up."

The book is called "Slaughterhouse-Five" because that is where Billy was when the bombs dropped - a German slaughterhouse. A killing floor becomes a place of refuge. This may be why Vonnegut returns several times to the image of Christ - specifically, the death of the crucified Christ. Deep within, not mentioned, is the idea of Christ's death as salvation. But Vonnegut's burlesque is more humanistic, because there is no resurrection. In fact, an extended riff from a Kilgore Trout novel, "The Gospel from Outer Space," speculates that the real message of the Gospels is not to be merciful as God is, but not to kill anyone "well connected." Is Vonnegut saying that Christianity is somehow responsible for the firebombing of Dresden?

Perhaps, but human beings were killing each other long before the advent of monotheism, much less the Crucifixion. I suspect what Vonnegut is really against is meaning, of any kind. Within the pages of "Slaughterhouse-Five," Vonnegut creates an experience that is unlike the conception that many of his readers would have had in 1968 as inheritors of a western Judeo-Christian worldview as citizens of the United States of America. For them, time is moving forward, with progress perhaps not inevitable but hoped for. The good will be ultimately rewarded. The unrighteous will be judged and punished by a merciful, righteous God. All of this will happen at the end of history. Until then, we are the sum total of the choices we make in reacting to the seeming chaos of the world. We must have faith that good will endure until that day. What we do here matters in time and eternity. God is watching.

No, says the novel, though its jokes, nervous tics, absurd caricatures, stock images and haunting memories of men dying in filth, forced to stand shoulder-to-shoulder on Christmas, locked inside a boxcar headed into a genocidal, dying empire. Time is meaningless and absurd. We live at the nonexistent mercy of largely impersonal historical forces. We have no free will. If there is a God, He is unconcerned with us, as the corpses of Dresden and plane crashes prove. Instead, all events play out at the same time. We are largely witnesses to the spectacle around us. Your life will ebb out much faster than you realize and eventually, you're going to die. Try to do it with dignity and cheerful acceptance. That's the best you can hope for. This is what I did. "There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre."

"Slaughterhouse-Five" is sometimes referred to as an anti-war novel. That has much to do with the starkness of its vision, and when it first burst into view. But it's more accurately described as an anti-meaning novel - as giving meaning to existence is often what brings on war in the first place. But even that meaning is an illusion, as evidenced by the doomed Edgar Derby, going off to his slaughter "mournfully pregnant with patriotism and middle age and imaginary wisdom." Perhaps the most postmodern thing about the novel is that it gives meaning to a meaningless story to illustrate the meaninglessness of life.

But that figure of Jesus, ever recurring in the book, hanging on the wall before a man named Pilgrim, the Savior's lifeless corpse being pulled down from the cross to the lyrical mourning of his family and followers, taunts that vision with endless, endless meaning.

I previously wrote about Kurt Vonnegut here. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

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