DIY MFA Reading List: “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut

“Listen:

Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”

So begins Kurt Vonnegut’s psychedelic masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five, “a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore, where the flying saucers come from.”

But “begins” is such a precise word, really. The narrative itself starts in an earlier chapter (ostensibly told from the author’s point of view), in which Vonnegut sets the stage for this poignant space opera, his best attempt to make sense of his experiences during World War II, when the author was captured and held in a German prison camp in Dresden, a city so beautiful is was once dubbed “the Florence of the Elbe.” Until British and American forces destroyed it in a bombing raid so apocalyptic in nature, a mission so successful, that the military tried to keep the story under wraps for fear its violence might turn public sentiment against the war effort.

Vonnegut says that more than 130,000 men, women, and children died in the Dresden fire-bombing, a much higher number than current accounts, which estimate total casualties closer to 25,000. The discrepancy fits perfectly with Vonnegut’s story, however, a more “human” look back at the war than we’ll ever read in the textbooks, those consumer-driven fantasies written by the reigning corporate interests: “We went to the New York World’s Fair, saw what the past had been like, according to The Ford Motor Car Company and Walt Disney, saw what the future would be like, according to General Motors.”

Vonnegut compares his short, almost fairy-tale like novel to the parable of Lot’s anonymous wife: commanded by the powers that be not to look back at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the woman cannot help herself, and Vonnegut invokes her all-too-human weakness as the muse for the story that will follow:

“But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.

So she was turned to a pillar of salt. So it goes.

* * *

People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.

I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun.

This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt. It begins like this:

Listen:

Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

It ends like this:

Poo-tee-weet?

Here’s the plot: Billy Pilgrim is an aspiring optometrist from Ilium, New York. Billy is drafted into military service and deployed as an American infantryman in World War II. Pilgrim and the rest of his unit are captured during the Battle of the Bulge by German forces. The prisoners are herded like cattle into railway containers, and shipped to Dresden, Germany, where they witness the horrors of the fire-bombing campaign there.

After the war, Pilgrim returns to Ilium, marries an enormously fat woman named Valencia, finishes his education, realizes his dream of becoming an optometrist. The Pilgrims have two children: a daughter and a disappointing son, who eventually becomes a Green Beret and ships off for Vietnam. Billy is injured in a plane crash (he’s the only survivor), and while he recuperates in the hospital his wife Valencia dies in a freak carbon-monoxide poisoning accident.

On February 13, 1976, – thirty-one years to the date after the Dresden raid began – Pilgrim is assassinated by a man with a laser rifle. Billy is trying to give a speech about the importance of time travel to the future of the human race … something he learned during his imprisonment on the planet Tralfamadore. Where he was studied by indigo-colored aliens shaped like toilet plungers. While on Tralfamadore, Pilgrim was “forced” to mate with the sexy earthling porn star Montana Wildhack, in a kind of alien zoo exhibit intended to teach Tralfamadorians about the human species.

I’m guessing I might have lost you with that last bit … the part about the alien toilet plungers and such?

Pilgrim first becomes “unstuck in time” just before being captured by the Germans, in the heat of battle. I chose to read this as a kind of defense mechanism, the young soldier’s response to trauma, which then dogs him throughout the war and the remainder of his life – like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. As Pilgrim’s imprisonment becomes more surreal, his time-traveling episodes intensify. Like the needle on a skipping record, we hear of the protagonist’s death, his post-war middle class existence, his childhood, and his time on the planet Tralfamadore … all of it in psychedelic, B-movie flashback fashion.

Specific, haunting images appear and reappear throughout the text: Pilgrim’s icy blue feet, the blue radium dial of a watch, “starving Russians with faces like radium dials”; soft cooing – of prisoners, doves, infants; a green, coffin-shaped cart; plus a smattering of songs and parables, in particular the Alcoholics Anonymous plea for the ability to “accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to tell the difference.” The effect is a kind of literary déja-vu, with each new scene building upon some surreal version of its predecessor.

Pilgrim seems to be helpless against his dreadful memories of Dresden, which haunt him in his later years back in America. In Ilium, Billy frames the mantra quoted above to his wall, trying to express “his method for keeping going, even though he was unenthusiastic about living”. And as Vonnegut widens his perspective to other, future aggressions – the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, the slaughter that becomes Vietnam – human history (as written by those in power), becomes an endless series of senseless massacres, and “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” Thus the seemingly senseless wandering of this narrative.

Like the military historian recuperating alongside Billy Pilgrim in the hospital, Professor Rumfoord, you might be tempted to dismiss Vonnegut’s imaginative story as pure fantasy. But this would be a mistake. Professor Rumfoord initially assumes Billy Pilgrim is insane, “suffering from a repulsive disease”, when Pilgrim asserts that Dresden was somehow worse than the damage caused by Hiroshima. But Pilgrim is insistent, patient, and forces the professor to actually LISTEN to his story. Eventually, Pilgrim wears the historian down, and the military man admits that Billy must have been in Dresden.

Vonnegut, through Billy Pilgrim, is speaking truth to power with this poignant parable. And he’s addressing his narrative to YOU … to the reader … asking us all to question the motives of the larger forces operating around and behind everyday events. In a world like that, a world where the history books are written by the helpless, the textbooks might read like Billy Pilgrim’s fantastical vision here:

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 a 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.

The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn’t in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed.

Now that’s a history worth looking back over your shoulder at, one where, “everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.”

This review is one in a series for what I’m calling the The DIY MFA in Creative Writing.

Click here for the comprehensive listing of titles, and check back often for updates on other selections from the list.

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