A somewhat curt piece on Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). New York: Dial Press (2005), 275 pp.
Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake. New York: Berkley Books (1997), 250 pp.
I already said what my greatest reading decision of 2008 was: mustering enough patience to pick up and plow through Gravity’s Rainbow when I had already given up on it. Well, my second greatest reading decision, hands down, was to read Slaughterhouse-Five. Yes, incredibly, I hadn’t ever read any Vonnegut, and Slaughterhouse-Five turned out to be a perfect place to start. Like with Vallejo, I had also been stockpiling recommendations, without ever making an incursion into Slaughterhouse-Five. Pynchon and Vonnegut actually dovetail, in my reading experience: I remember complaining bitterly about Gravity’s Rainbow to someone, and he said, oh, you got American war novels all wrong, you must turn to Slaughterhouse-Five at once. I didn’t. But then, roughly a year later, with her usual forcefulness, my friend Pilar Quintana made me vow to read that novel next, no matter what I had thought of reading next. I stuttered, but agreed, and boy did I not regret it for an instant.
Probably since A Confederacy of Dunces I hadn’t laughed so hard while reading a novel. I did with Slaughterhouse-Five, even to the point of having to put the book down and walk around the table. This is no hyperbole. And, in general, Vonnegut’s novel truly wowed me. I was swept away by the humor, but not just by that. There were also the subtle ways in which big themes are introduced, the technical adroitness of the narrative, the nonchalant manner of allowing surreal elements in. Billy Pilgrim, the main character, was great: honest, puny, silently stubborn, cowardly, determined, resigned. The war setting was very well managed: the text was not over the top with criticism or praise, nor was the war allowed to completely control the narrative. It was still the story of a person, and of that person’s wild although absolutely non-epic meanderings. This is not to say that Vonnegut isn’t critical of war; he is. But he delivers his blows without spite, in ways that leave you speechless: I nurture as one of my favorite literary passages ever the description of a war movie shown backwards (pp. 93-95): with the missiles returning to the earth at the end of that version of the movie, the account becomes a powerful anti-war manifesto (“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” [p. 94]). No coarse language is dispensed; one is left in awe of the capacity for human evil, by being shown its idyllic counterpart. Sort of like the account of swords beaten into plowshares.
There are plenty of passages that are similarly poignant. For instance, one character, an American gone Nazi, says the following about the poor in America: “Americans, like human beings elsewhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue [...]. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times. / Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves” (p. 165).
So much is thought-provoking and striking in Slaughterhouse-Five that I am at odds to glean significant bits for this brief review. The Tralfamadorians, for instance, are wonderful, as is the human zoo they build for Billy. Billy’s capacity to shuttle back and forth in time is ingenious. But I should single out Chapter 1, in part because of an interesting discussion on autobiography that sparked up on a previous blog entry. The opening chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five is deceitfully autobiographical, especially in light of the long-winded description of the author that follows right after his name is mentioned on the title page. The narrator says he is writing a novel about Dresden, he talks about his wife, he describes a visit to a friend from war times, he mentions his dog. It sounds truthful, and the effect is strengthened by the opening paragraph: “All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I know really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I know really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names” (p. 1). But this is the so-called reality effect at work. That first chapter, like the beginning of Chapter 11 in Ulysses (“Sirens”), is at least partly a prolepsis. Several ideas from that first chapter, and even several specific images, haunt other, later moments of the novel. I managed to make a list of eight such recurring images while reading; it is surely incomplete. We are not getting a denuded, and thus “real,” Vonnegut; we are getting a carefully constructed narrator who builds on Vonnegut’s life but is used as an enticing persona and an organizing principle throughout the whole novel.
Autobiography also runs deep in another book by Kurt Vonnegut I read in 2008: Timequake. It is, I should say, probably one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. Part memoir, part fiction, part lunacy, completely funny and trenchant, this book is worth reading, but I’m surprised to see it festooning the cover of every Vonnegut novel. The gist of the work is this: Kurt Vonnegut was writing a novel called Timequake; when done, he thought it was bad, so he scrapped it, and took the best bits and pieces of it for a new book called (also) Timequake. This time, however, the flotsam was interspersed with a lot of Vonnegut’s own anecdotes and autobiographical notes. The result is the new Timequake. As I said, part memoir, part fiction, part… And there is more. What one can glean from the original novel is that the whole world suffered a timequake, meaning, in Kilgore Trout’s synthesis, “that the Universe had shrunk a little bit, but had then resumed expansion, making everybody and everything a robot of their own past” (p. 111). In other words, what happened was that the universe stopped its expansion and sent everyone back ten years. The catch was, though, that everyone had to relive those ten years, without having any free will to change things during that period. After the ten-year rerun was done, everyone was free again to do as they pleased. However, people were suffering from something called “Post-Timequake Apathy,” meaning that they were used to living on autopilot, and, now that they had to choose for themselves again, they were loathsome to act. People who were driving were crashing into things and those who were walking found themselves standing in the freezing cold. It’s a brilliant idea for a novel, is it not?
Of course, one cannot give in and trust that the narrator is the “real” Vonnegut either, even if so many details of his life do match up with what the narrator says. But then Vonnegut comes along and tosses in, say, a dialogue between Vonnegut and Kilgore Trout, a fictional character that runs across Vonnegut’s oeuvre. As if to play with psychoanalytical readings, the narrator throws quite a few bones: Trout is said to represent Vonnegut’s alter ego (p. xv), an excuse for Vonnegut to use story ideas in his novels (p. 17), and a resemblance of Vonnegut’s father (p. 227). Of course, things are not that simple. Fiction is complex, and Vonnegut reminds us in Timequake that he works laboriously in his own novels, “one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before […] go[ing] on to the next one” (p. 137).
I said about Pynchon that I love his work but I recommend it to no one. Not so with Vonnegut. He is so good that I plan to read all of his novels in 2009. If you haven’t read him already, read Slaughterhouse-Five. You’ll have no regrets. I promise. So it goes.