Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
But was I wrong, in “In Defense of Semicolons,” to be so severe in my judgment of Kurt Vonnegut, to castigate him for infantilism? I decided to find out by reading what is regarded as the author’s masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).
Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s sixth novel, and includes characters from many of its precursors and successors. Part of the charm of his books, I imagine, is that each feels like an episode in an ongoing conversation with the author; with each visit, readers receive an update on this fascinating man’s struggle with his preoccupations and obsessions. And what I like best in Slaughterhouse-Five, what still seems original half a century later, and what moreover still seems useful and usable, is Vonnegut’s mix of two modes considered wildly incongruous: memoir and fantasy.
He begins with a chapter about his writing of the novel, the qualms and researches involved in converting into fiction his most notable wartime experience: the firebombing of Dresden in 1945. (The novel takes its title from the slaughterhouse in Dresden where Vonnegut was held prisoner.) Will he glamorize war, as an old army buddy’s wife worries?
“You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them.”
He promises that he will do no such thing: that he will write an anti-war book, that he will represent himself and his fellow soldiers as “babies.” Hence the novel’s subtitle, The Children’s Crusade, and hence Vonnegut’s emphasis that he made the novel’s outline on the back of a roll of wallpaper with his daughter’s crayons.
But Slaughterhouse-Five is a semi-satirical fable, not a realistic autobiographical war novel in the manner of All Quiet on the Western Front or A Farewell to Arms. Its main plot concerns an American everyman named Billy Pilgrim, who is “unstuck in time”: as he slips between all the moments of his life, we are treated, non-sequentially and in brief bursts of narrative, not only to his youthful experience as a prisoner of the Germans, during which time he survived the firebombing, but also to his middle age as a rich optometrist living an American life of “quiet desperation” and to his time as an exhibition in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore.
The Tralfamadorians’s perception of time helps to explain the novel’s structure. For them, time is not a linear flow but an object in space. They liken the past to the part of the landscape you can see behind you and the future to the objects ahead of you. Their fiction, then, reads to Billy like Slaughterhouse-Five reads to us:
Billy couldn’t read Tralfamadorian, of course, but he could at least see how the books were laid out-in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars. Billy commented that the clumps might be telegrams.
“Exactly,” said the voice.
“They are telegrams?”
“There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore. But you’re right: each clump of-symbols is a brief, urgent message describing a situation, a scene, We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. 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.”
This idea of all space and time compressed into one art object is a modernist ambition, from Pound’s Chinese ideogram to Benjamin’s dialectical image. And as Pound’s and Benjamin’s desire to fuse word and picture suggests, the ideal format for such a perception of spacetime is less prose than comics: each page of a comic represents a time-sequence as a spatial array of images. Perhaps the best artistic treatment of spacetime, then, is Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, which I have to imagine took some leads from this novel.
Seemingly aware of this temporal theory’s need for pictures, Vonnegut includes a few cartoons throughout Slaughterhouse-Five; I very much could have done without them, particularly the climactic middle-schoolesque drawing of the banal serenity prayer hanging between a pair of crudely-rendered breasts. But the novel’s simple telegraphic style itself moves away from narration, from literacy, and toward the juxtaposition of images. It is a graphic novel avant la lettre.
But if the novel’s form sides with the Tralfamadorean desire for fiction with “no moral,” how does that square with Vonnegut’s avowed intention in the first chapter to produce anti-war fiction? The best answer is “uneasily.”
Without a plot, exactly, Slaughterhouse-Five is structured by its verbal refrains and motifs, from the depiction of “blue and ivory” feet to signify death to the repetition of a dying colonel’s poignant declaration, “If you’re ever in Cody, Wyoming, just ask for Wild Bob!” The most insistent of these motifs is “So it goes,” the phrase with which the Tralfamadoreans greet news of a death; the novel’s narrator repeats it any time he has to tell that anyone has died. If death is unimportant because a person’s life persists elsewhere in the solid structure of time, then what does it matter if anyone is killed in a war?
Opposed to the Tralfamadorean quietism and aestheticism (their recommendation is to “spend eternity looking at pleasant moments” rather than dwelling on such unpleasantries as war) is a countervailing anger in the novel at all forms of cruelty and injustice. This anger animates Vonnegut’s satirical portrait of upper-class Americans’ empty, privileged, self-satisfied lives, and his frequent mockery in particular of the political right.
Billy reads a novel by the (invented) science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout which traces injustice to an ethical flaw in the Biblical narrative of Christ’s life. Because the story tells us that humanity erred in “lynching” a man who was really the son of God, it allows us to go on thinking that there are people, not sons of God, whom we may legitimately lynch. The story should be revised so that the Christ-figure really is powerless, as Trout imagines an alien’s new gospel revealing:
The visitor from outer space made a gift to Earth of a new Gospel. In it, Jesus really was a nobody, and a pain in the neck to a lot of people with better connections than he had.
Trout’s alien is anti-Tralfamadorean; those amoralists don’t care at all about Jesus:
On Tralfamadore, says Billy Pilgrim, there isn’t much interest in Jesus Christ. The Earthling figure who is most engaging to the Tralfamadorian mind, he says, is Charles Darwin—who taught that those who die are meant to die, that corpses are improvements.
I’m not sure that is a fair summary of what Darwin taught, and I’m also not sure we should judge scientific theories by moral criteria; nevertheless, Vonnegut several times inveighs against a cruel social Darwinism that upholds the brutal calculus of those who make war, those who regard human lives as expendable in the name of profit or power. This theme comes out especially when Billy encounters the wealthy Air Force historian Rumfoord in a hospital:
The staff thought Rumfoord was a hateful old man, conceited and cruel. He often said to them, in one way or another, that people who were weak deserved to die. Whereas the staff, of course, was devoted to the idea that weak people should be helped as much as possible, that nobody should die.
The moral of the novel is clear enough, then, but the form of the novel works directly against it. This is not only because the kaleidoscopic narrative structure endorses the fatalism of Tralfamadore, but also because Vonnegut won’t, and perhaps can’t, create characters of sufficient depth to validate his crypto-Christian humanism, his sense that we are each inherently worthwhile and irreplaceable and so ought not to be oppressed or slaughtered:
There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces.
Because humanity is no more than a pawn of inhuman forces, the old way of writing novels, rich in character, is out of date. In a mental hospital, Eliot Rosewater and Billy Pilgrim turn to science fiction to help them “re-invent themselves and their universe,” a task at which older fiction can’t assist them:
Rosewater said an interesting thing to Billy one time about a book that wasn’t science fiction. He said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov, by Feodor Dostoevsky. “But that isn’t enough any more,” said Rosewater.
Even leaving aside the problem of how to “re-invent” self and universe in a deterministic cosmos, though, Vonnegut’s taste for cartoons over characters contradicts his humanism even more directly than does his novel’s fatalistic structure. As James Baldwin wrote of Harriet Beecher Stowe, as Franz Kafka wrote of Charles Dickens, sentimentality is often an overcompensation for cruelty. Consider two of this novel’s characters. The first is a mean and pitiful soldier whose stupidity leads to Billy’s capture by the Germans:
Roland Weary was only eighteen, was at the end of an unhappy childhood spent
mostly in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He had been unpopular in Pittsburgh. He had been unpopular because he was stupid and fat and mean, and smelled like bacon no matter how much he washed.
The second is the woman Billy will marry:
His fiancee was out there now, sitting on the visitor’s chair. Her name was Valencia Merble. Valencia was the daughter of the owner of the Ilium School of Optometry. She was rich. She was as big as a house because she couldn’t stop eating. She was eating now. She was eating a Three Musketeers Candy Bar. She was wearing trifocal lenses in harlequin frames, and the frames were trimmed with rhinestones.
Their grotesquery, their selfishness and foolishness, is never mitigated or explained. They are never given any deeper background than this: they are simply detestable, and Valencia’s death in particular is played for laughs.
Stowe and Dickens at least would have imagined them as fantastic, visionary gargoyles even if they would not have deepened their characters with pathos, as, say, Chekhov or George Eliot might have done. But Vonnegut seems incapable of even the highest level of caricature: the likes of Uriah Heep or Miss Havisham are as beyond him as are three-dimensional characters in this novel that claims to represent the fourth dimension. We are left with cruel cartoons against cruelty, fat Americans who stand in for American greed and meanness, and Vonnegut performs the artistic equivalent of firebombing them.
So for all this novel’s originality of design and thought-provoking fabulism, I conclude where I began with Vonnegut: his artistic simplicity is not an indirect route to depth but rather over-simplification. As for Slaughterhouse-Five‘s quarrel with itself over fatalism and humanism, amoral vs. anti-war fiction, I see a lazy indulgence of confusion passed off as complexity. I will keep faith with Dostoevsky and semicolons.
[…] Crane, William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Jack Kerouac, Jerzy Kosinski, Ishmael Reed, Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Louise Erdrich, Jenny Offill, and Lisa Halliday. […]
Good essay. Thanks. Though a fan of KV’s work, I like reading all sorts of literary criticism, like some people like watching golf or football. V’s slap- dash absurdism is fun to read and reminds me sometimes of Stendhal. His sentences can make me laugh. Will post on fb as a friend of mine is a rabid V fan and we like to argue about books.
Also, the 2 most recent reviews of Mann, just wonderful. Presently slowly rereading Goethe’s Faust.
Thanks very much! I read literary criticism the exact same way. I never thought of the Vonnegut/Stendhal comparison. Considering the quick happenings, the straightforward prose, and the clear-eyed view of violence in both, it’s a great observation.
Arggg….literary critics, always with a turn of phrase holstered, loaded, ready….thought the little old lady.
Will file your blog so as to visit now and again.
Excuse my use of periods substituting for other symbols as I am using an old android.
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