A Series of Accidents #7: Slaughterhouse-Five

A Series of Accidents is a chronological read-through of the books of Kurt Vonnegut. You can check out earlier articles in the series here.

Slaughterhouse-Five - Wikipedia

Slaughterhouse-Five begins with a true story. It all happened, Vonnegut tells us, more or less. He is having drinks with his old war buddy Bernard O’Hare, and mentions that he thinks he will finally write his novel about Dresden. This is likely not the first time O’Hare heard this. The Dresden novel has been one Vonnegut has been trying to write since the beginning of his literary career, if not earlier. It should have been easy: Vonnegut and O’Hare were directly at the bombing of the German city, one of the most brutal and controversial Allied actions of the war. It was an object of import, and Vonnegut had a unique perspective on it. All he had to do, he thought, was to write what he had experienced. But this proved impossible. So instead he wrote about space aliens, and the end of the world, and (most unbelievable of all) benevolent millionaires.

The prospect of a novel about her husband’s traumatic experience incensed Bernard O’Hare’s wife Mary. According to Vonnegut, this is what she said:

“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. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.”

Kurt promptly swore that there would be no role for John Wayne or Frank Sinatra in his movies. This story sounds at least a little fictionalized, although the O’Hares never disputed it. But it serves its function in the narrative: as a disclaimer that this novel will not be, like so many other World War II narratives, a heroic adventure where good conquers evil. Instead, it is the story of a man whose trauma sits outside of that narrative, unable to progress past a massacre which the world has told him is basically unimportant. In Vonnegut’s account of submitting the novel to his editor Seymour Lawrence, he says that “It is so short and jumbled 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.”

In the end, it was all of the silly sci-fi stuff that allowed Vonnegut to finally tell his story. The protagonist of Slaughterhouse-Five, named for the building that was used to house the author and other prisoners of war, is not Vonnegut but Billy Pilgrim. After his experience of the war, Pilgrim comes to believe that he is “unstuck in time.” He constantly floats between past, present, and future. This gift is linked to the Tramalfadorians, returning from The Sirens of Titans, who all experience time in the same way. In the most outlandish part of Pilgrim’s worldview, his experiences include being abducted by Tramalfadorians and placed in a human zoo alongside film star Montana Wildhack.

Many writers would try to give the reader a reason to believe that Billy is telling the truth, or at least be uncertain – perhaps having him know something that he logically couldn’t. But if your reading of Slaughterhouse-Five is that Billy is simply crazy, then Vonnegut will do nothing to dissuade you of this idea. He plants in the narrative reasonable explanations for where this delusion could have developed. Billy reads a Kilgore Trout novel with a similar plot, and he fully becomes “unstuck” after a plane crash where he could have acquired head trauma. Ultimately, the question of whether or not the Tramalfadorians are “real” is irrelevant to the story – what matters is that they capture something true.

Pilgrim’s condition of being “unstuck in time” serves as a capacious metaphor for the experience of trauma in the war, of finding oneself constantly revisiting the past. No matter how successful Billy is in his postwar life, it all seems hollow and unreal, compared to the vibrant violence of the past. No doubt this captures some of what Vonnegut felt, haunted by his war memories. At the same time, the space aliens and sex fantasies prevent it from being too neat a comparison and making the novel seem didactic.

This experience is convincing because the novel itself mimics Billy’s cognition. Like him, it skips back and forth in the chronology, goes off on tangents and wanders into other people’s perspectives. This is perhaps exemplified best in one of the novel’s most famous passages, where Billy watches the film of a bombing in reverse, transforming it into a narrative of the triumph of human goodness and peace:

“It was a movie about American bombers in World War II and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this: American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers , and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans though and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.”

This section has gone on to inspire myriad academic analyses, artistic responses, and attempts at imitation. (This was before video casettes and rewinding becoming a common concept.) Martin Amis wrote an entire novel in this mode of narration, Time’s Arrow, reversing the life of a Holocaust perpetrator so that he understands himself as a saviour, creating men out of ashes. There’s an understandable appeal to this perception. As we get older, it seems like the world becomes darker and darker, so much so that we can believe that a simple process of reversal would bring us back to some innocent, primordial goodness. This is not quite the point of Slaughterhouse-Five, but the fact that this passage has touched so many nerves suggests the temptation the fantasy provides.

This section is also an almost literal example of the war of postmodernism and deconstruction. Vonnegut takes a text that has a straightforward ideological meaning (the jingoistic war film) and disrupts its internal logic, revealing that it has always contained the antithesis to its thesis. By this time the postmodern movement was already on the rise in America, growing out of the works of authors like William Burroughs and John Barth and developing through writers like Robert Coover, who taught alongside Vonnegut at Iowa, and Thomas Pynchon, who had published The Crying of Lot 49 a few years earlier. Readers no longer demanded realism and conventionally satisfying narrative payoff. The world had come around to what Vonnegut had been doing for decades.

In this spirit, Vonnegut deconstructs and subverts the grand narrative that was America’s conception of war. Specific novels and other texts are referenced frequently, works that Vonnegut is trying to surpass or at least suggest the limitations of. One such example is the childish soldier who bullies Billy and sees his other squadmates as part of a grand adventure, the Three Musketeers. He imagines his war as being one of those triumphant narratives with parts for John Wayne and Frank Sinatra. But the other “musketeers”, who had no idea they had been cast in these fantasy roles, abandon him. Heroic war narratives, then, are blindfolds preventing people from seeing the discordant reality they are living in.

Slaguhterhouse-Five turns a similar trick with Stephen Crane’s seminal war novel The Red Badge of Courage. Crane’s novel is about a man who struggles with cowardice during the Civil War but eventually triumphs in battle, proving his strength. Billy Pilgrim, by contrast, is a relatively courageous man whose experience on the winning side of a war leaves him a shell of a man. Crane’s novel, Vonnegut argues, is part of the heroic narrative of war which is completely undermined by experience with the actual thing.

What’s remarkable about Slaughterhouse-Five is that despite its literary allusions and anti-war message, it never becomes dry or dour. Vonnegut’s prose is at its best, snappy and poignant in equal measure, and the novel mixes in enough light elements that its darkness is never suffocating. This is what made Vonnegut so distinct and beloved as an author: his ability to write works with serious literary and theoretical ideas that are nonetheless accessible and enjoyable.

Kurt Vonnegut’s career as an author finally began to turn around when he received an offer to teach at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, a favour from an old friend who knew he needed work. Under the tenure of Paul Engle, Iowa had become a mecca for the brightest creative writing students and professors. To this day it is still the most prestigious MFA program in America, and probably the world.

Iowa is also accredited with popularizing a particular kind of literary writing that combined the minimalism of American modernism with a kind of hard-bitten realism. Flannery O’Connor, who was a student early in the Workshop’s life, would become frequently taught as an exemplar of terse and effective writing, as would later authors like Raymond Carver and Lydia Davis. This style had the advantage of being comparatively easy to teach: you can’t tell a writer how to come up with a new idea, but you can tell them how to pare down their flowery language to produce lean, efficient description. (For more on Iowa, its style and ideology I would recommend Mark McGurl’s The Program Era.)

Vonnegut was not a perfect fit for this aesthetic, but his terse writing certainly matched the house style. He was brought in to teach students how to be working writers – how to churn out a story that a magazine would pay for, how to work with editors, how to handle the less glamorous parts of writing for a living. Students at first had no idea what to make of him, but he quickly became one of the most popular instructors. Among Vonnegut’s students were the novelist John Irving and the TV showrunner David Milch, both of whom would have a similar ability to straddle the worlds of highbrow literature and popular fiction.

At Iowa, Vonnegut was part of a community of writers for the first time. He felt energized, and his work began getting a new appreciation. His enterprising new agent Seymour “Sam” Lawrence had his books republished by Delacourt, with a contract for three more books to follow, and Vonnegut began to be recognized more in the literary world. This would lay the groundwork for the success of Slaughterhouse-Five.

Vonnegut was also energized for another reason. While in Iowa, he began an affair with one of his students, Loree Wilson. The women of Slaughterhouse-Five very much feels like the work of a man having an affair: Pilgrim’s wife is a blameless but unattractive woman who he remembers marrying only out of a lack of resistance (she is literally de-sexed, having had her uterus removed), while Montana Wildhack is nubile, loving, and doesn’t have very many thoughts of her own. Another woman is described as “a dull person, but a sensational invitation to make babies.” So it goes.

While he was only at Iowa two years, the support and encouragement it offered was a turning point for Vonnegut. Following his tenure, he resolved upon finally finishing the Dresden book. He traveled back to the site of the bombing with his war buddy Bernard O’Hare, having to travel beyond the Iron Curtain to see Dresden again. He returned home ready to put the ghosts of his past to rest – at least to as much as rest as he could.

Slaughterhouse-Five was adapted into a film only a few years after its release. The movie is directed by George Roy Hill, one of the most underrated directors of the New Hollywood era, and he makes about as strong an attempt as one can at adapting an unadaptable novel.

The film is more or less a straight adaptation of the book, adopting its unique structure as well as its fatalistic attitude. Michael Sacks heads up a largely unheralded cast, playing Billy Pilgrim. Perhaps the biggest name associated with the film is pianist Glenn Gould: Slaughterhouse-Five is one of just two movies he supplied music for. It won the Prix du Jury at Cannes, and Hugo and Nebula awards. From all accounts Vonnegut loved the movie, writing that “I drool and cackle every time I watch that film, because it is so harmonious with what I felt when I wrote the book.”

And yet the film doesn’t leave me with a shade of the emotional reaction I had, and still have, towards the novel. The cutting back and forth between different time periods that feels so disruptive and revolutionary in prose feels de rigeur in film. The comparison perhaps helps to illuminate the brilliance of the novel even more. Like Billy playing the film backwards, Vonnegut takes the tools of cinema and postmodern mass media in general and incorporates them into the seemingly straightforward framework of the novel. Slaughterhouse-Five is a novel for the age of film, so naturally a film for the age of film doesn’t have quite the same impact.

It’s tempting to describe Billy Pilgrim as a fictionalized version of Vonnegut, a way to deal with his own still resolved trauma over his war experiences. But the book itself argues against such an easy identification. Vonnegut occasionally mentions himself in the first person as a witness to the events that were transpiring, a simple “I was there, too.” And the cosmic fatalism that Billy Pilgrim adopts was not Vonnegut’s. At this time, he frequently spoke and wrote against the Vietnam War and in favour of other causes, actions that do not suggest he had given up on influencing the tides of history.

Rather, I think Billy Pilgrim is a cautionary tale, the kind of passive spectator Vonnegut feared becoming. Whether or not we view his encounter with the Tramalfadorians as “real”, Billy allows himself to become both literally and figuratively imprisoned by his memories, something that causes no small amount of distress to those who love him. So I think Vonnegut ends up with a worldview that is fairly close to my own: the world is determinist, chaotic and cruel, but we should still try to make it a better place.

In the end, Vonnegut was never able to write about Dresden in the way he wanted. The most obvious absence in the text is the bombing itself, which is never described except in distant and glib summaries by those who were not there. Vonnegut would later say that he couldn’t remember the actual bombing. So we have the crater rather than the impact itself, the impression left on the psyche by a trauma that can never be represented.

But Slaughterhouse-Five did, ultimately, exorcise the demons that had been haunting Vonnegut for two decades. He said after writing that if it was his last book, he would be happy. At times the book has the atmosphere of a curtain call, with names from past Vonnegut novels like Rumfoord, Rosewater, Howard Campbell and Ilium, New York appearing.

However, it ended up being far from the end. Slaughterhouse-Five became a surprise bestseller, capturing the imagination of a generation of anti-war youth. Vonnegut was writing about their parents’ war, the one that was already held up as a consecrated example of The Good War, but doing so in a way that they could relate to.

The success of Slaughterhouse-Five would allow Vonnegut to have a long and prosperous career as a writer, public intellectual and general literary man-about-town. At the same time, it would represent a high water mark that he would never quite surpass, the work that would always be mentioned next to his name. So Kurt Vonnegut found himself sitting at his typewriter, having achieved the success he had been working towards for too long, wondering what you write after writing your masterpiece.

The next entry will be looking at Happy Birthday, Wanda June and perhaps some of Vonnegut’s other plays. I’m hoping not to have this much time between entries again, but who knows.