Saturday, October 1, 2011
I have very few regrets about never becoming a literary scholar.
Occasionally I get frustrated that critics don’t seem to notice the Brechtian influence in Tony Kushner’s plays (It’s really obvious. He talks about it all the time. Someone should notice it already). And I still get annoyed thinking about the complete misapplication of Julia Kristeva’s notion of the abject in Djuna Barnes’ novel Nightwood. I mean, you’ve got an opaque, experimental novel about abortion doctors and people turning into plants and mating with dogs in your right hand and in your left, an opaque, poststructuralist piece of critical theory about the horror people feel when their physical and psychological boundaries dissolve—how could this puzzle be any easier to assemble?
Please don’t stop reading. I promise this is going to get more interesting. Well, to me, anyway.
My real failure, my greatest regret, the reason I should have doggedly pursued a career in academia into whatever town-nobody-wants-to-live-in it called me to, was to declare this:
Slaughterhouse Five is the most brilliant novel ever written.
I am pretty sure I am the only person who knows this. The more I explain this to people individually, the more they stare at me blankly and say, I always meant to read that, the more convinced I become that it was my duty to spread the word on a larger scale, that this was my true calling in getting an English Ph.D., and that I missed my chance.
People who haven’t read Slaughterhouse Five, and also many who have, think of it as a science fiction novel. They should, because it is. But it’s also something much weirder, which is a rare and precious eyewitness war account.
When Britain and the United States firebombed the heavily populated city center of Dresden, Germany during the final weeks of World War II, Kurt Vonnegut was there, a prisoner of war hidden away in an underground meat locker. After the bombing, he and his fellow POWs were released into the rubble that had formerly been a great center of German art, architecture and culture.
So here is Kurt Vonnegut, a writer, one of a handful of American witnesses to an atrocity great enough to be called a war crime by some historians, since there seemed to be no strategic justification for it. It was a show of force, the destruction of life, beauty, and culture, for no reason except to stick it to the Germans for all the suffering they had caused. At least that’s Vonnegut’s perception of it—a heartless act of war committed by his own country, “a massacre” as he calls it. (Though when an acquaintance, hearing this description, reminds him of the concentration camps, he says, “I know. I know. I know.”)
For a writer, this nightmare experience was a gift. He was a witness, a survivor, specially authorized to speak. As such, he could write a memoir, a history book, a historical/cultural critique. Or he could write a war novel, the kind of gritty, naturalistic epic that you can only write if you’ve really been there, if you’ve earned the right.
Vonnegut explains all this in the first chapter of Slaughterhouse Five, a metafictional introduction that explains how he came to write the novel.
“When I got home from the Second World War twenty-three years ago, I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen.”
It was all laid out for him. All he had to do was write it down. Simple. What makes the novel brilliant is that he did exactly the opposite.
First, he stalled for twenty years. Whenever anyone asked him what he was working on, he told them it was his Dresden book. But he wasn’t really writing it. “Not many words about Dresden came from my mind then—not enough of them to make a book, anyway.”
And then, when he finally did write the book, it wasn’t the true-life story of a true-life veteran who had been through hell and lived to tell the tale. Instead, it was a novel about time travel and aliens and mediocre Midwestern optometrists suffering from acute depression and possible traumatic brain injury.
The main character, Billy Pilgrim, experiences roughly everything Vonnegut did during the war: he is drafted in the late stages of combat, hastily trained and improperly outfitted, and abandoned behind enemy lines. As a prisoner of war, he survives the bombing of Dresden in an underground meat locker and is then freed by the Allied troups. He could be a literary stand-in for Vonnegut, a boy-soldier who had no business on the battlefield trying to be an adult.
But Billy has two science-fictiony quirks that make it clear that this novel will not be a straightforward, serious tale of war. The first is that during his brief military career, he becomes unstuck in time. From there on out, he flops spastically in and out of different episodes in his life, creating the twisty structure of the narrative, which begins with Billy being drafted and ends with him being rescued from Dresden, with the rest of his entire life story occurring in a spiraling succession of vignettes in between.
And then, in case that first quirk just seems like some kind of metaphor, there’s a second, much goofier one. In 1967, around the time when Vonnegut would have been completing the novel, Billy Pilgrim is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who hold him as a captive in a zoo and mate him with a human pornographic actress named Montana Wildhack.
Having aliens in the novel seems to clearly mark it as science fiction. But it’s not serious science fiction, the kind where all the fantastical events are physically plausible and scientifically justified and allegorically significant. No, these aliens are really, really silly. The Tralfamadorians are green, shaped like plungers, topped with a single hand that has an eye in the middle of it. They admit without guilt to destroying the universe during a failed experiment (they travel freely in time so they know how the universe ends). Even their name is silly. And their project of breeding two humans (both of whom just happen to have silly names and outsized secondary sexual characteristics) as a form of entertainment could not be any more self-consciously ridiculous.
It’s as though Vonnegut wanted to take the lofty story of his war experience, the couldn’t-get-more-serious historical account that he was specially authorized to tell, and scribble crazy zigzags all over it with mismatched crayons. He even talks about outlining an early version of the plot with crayons, making a tidy timeline for each character. But that’s not what he did. He scrambled his timeline into a giant, messy tangle, illogically topped with not one but two of the most hackneyed science-fictional tropes imaginable.
Of course, this chaos is orchestrated carefully, beautifully even. Every narrative thread is neatly tied up, every scene thematically significant. But the feeling of messiness, silliness, arbitrariness is what Vonnegut wanted. “It is so short and jumbled and jangled,” he tells his publisher, “because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”
Disgusted by his own authority to tell the serious, meaningful war story, Vonnegut takes that story and shreds it to a messy pulp, just to make the point: I will not tell a serious, meaningful war story.
I love about six hundred things about this novel, but this one first and most. To be given the special, authorized privilege to tell a survivor’s tale, and to sacrifice that privilege in the name of art, meaning, and human decency, is an act of beauty that breaks my heart.
Perhaps Vonnegut’s purposeful evasion of seriousness is the reason that his works do not receive the kind of critical attention afforded to great American postmodern authors. Almost all Vonnegut criticism seems to fall into the realm of explication—plot summaries, readings based on Vonnegut’s biography—rather than serious analysis that would explain the author’s significant contribution to modern literature and thought.
If I write that book of serious analysis someday, I will say this about the message (one of the messages) of Slaughterhouse Five: that it asks us to think about our own war stories. What did we learn from them? Are we better off for having gone through that suffering? And when we tell our survivor’s tales, complete with their morals and lessons, are we full of wisdom and insight? Or have we just convinced ourselves that we are, because it feels better to have something intelligent to say about a massacre?