Friday, January 26, 2018

Going Where He has to Go


“- Why me?

- That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?
- Yes.

- Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”  ― Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five is a time-travelling paradox of a novel. It is written in a simple prose style narrative in which the jerking forward and backward in time somehow becomes mesmerizing. While originally an  experimental work it still seems new fifty years later. Vonnegut is a character in scenes with Pilgrim; he is watching Pilgrim, like the reader is watching them both. Buried in the narrative of Billy Pilgrim is the story of the Dresden holocaust, that the allied forces managed to keep mostly unknown to Americans. The events of Pilgrim's life are often remarkably funny and moving. Yet, through it all Pilgrim is helpless before the larger powers of the universe.

Vonnegut has the ability to implant suggestions in the mind of the reader and then work those suggestions into tangible forms in the text. For example, in the first chapter, Vonnegut says that when he is drinking he listens to talk-radio shows, then, as the novel proceeds, Pilgrim stumbles onto a radio program in which the topic is whether or not the novel, as a literary form, is dead. Also, after the firebombing of Dresden, innkeepers on the outskirts of town offer the soldiers their stable, as a place to sleep. Twenty pages later, Vonnegut reminds the reader of the book’s epigraph, “The cattle are lowing,/ The Baby awakes./ But the little Lord Jesus/ No crying He makes.” Biblical situations are considered more and more often as the book draws to a close. These include discussion of the following: the friends who take Jesus down from the cross; the possibility that Jesus and his father, as carpenters, make crosses on which other people would be executed; and a time traveler who is the first to check on Jesus at the cross to make sure he is really dead before he is taken down. A new gospel is written in which Jesus is not made the Son of God until the very end, when he is on the cross. Until then he is a nobody. Vonnegut implies that if Jesus was the “wrong” person to kill, then there are necessarily “right” persons to kill, and this is inherently a bad idea.

What also impressed me was the way Vonnegut integrated symbolism, imagery and allegory throughout the novel. For example Slaughterhouse-Five uses many elements from the fictional part of the novel, and specifically from Billy's experiences on the planet Tralfamadore, to structure the book as a whole. Not only do the stars in the Tralfamadorian novel appear throughout Slaughterhouse-Five, but the fact that the book is not told in chronological order fits the Tralfamadorian concept of time. Billy Pilgrim says there is no free will, an assertion confirmed by a Tralfamadorian, who says, "I've visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe . . . Only on Earth is there any talk of free will." The story's central concept: most of humanity is insignificant; they do what they do, because they must. A great example of how we use humor to deal with hardship, and the conflict between the way heroism is conveyed through stories for actions in situations that perhaps could have been avoided altogether.

In the first chapter, Vonnegut calls this novel “short and jumbled and jangled . . . because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” His critics have found fault in him and this novel for not taking serious matters more seriously, and for that reason his work was not highly acclaimed or accepted into the academic canon for many years (it has even been banned in many places over the years). Vonnegut is categorized in the genre of science fiction, though he believes his work holds more depth than work in that genre usually has (IMHO he is wrong). With the eventual acceptance of Slaughterhouse-Five, he became classified as a satirist who seeks to make readers laugh, as did Mark Twain and Jonathan Swift before him. The opening sentence of the book reminded me of the opening lines of Huckleberry Finn.

1 comment:

Brian Joseph said...

I love Vonnegut and I love this book.

Your analysis of it is superb James. You wrote "Vonnegut has the ability to implant suggestions in the mind of the reader and then work those suggestions into tangible forms in the text." I think that this is exactly right. When reading his books I have always had a vague sense that something like this was going on, but I would have had a difficult time describing it.

I agree with you in regards to science fiction. If course there are a lot of not so good books out there. But there is are many works of substance that deserve be part of any " Cannon".