Modern Library, 2019, $26, 240 pp.
Fifty years ago, Billy Pilgrim became unstuck in time, and a classic 20th-century novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, was born. Published in 1969, the novel catapulted the 47-year-old Kurt Vonnegut into the popular and literary mainstream by speaking directly and poignantly to the anxieties of the rising countercultural generation about technological progress, the Vietnam War, and nuclear holocaust. But as novelist and Iraq War vet Kevin Powers notes in his excellent foreword gracing Modern Library’s 50th anniversary edition, the book still speaks about the horrors of war in a way that today’s veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the rest of us, can understand and appreciate.
Re-reading it half a century after its publication, I was struck by the fact that in the very pages of the novel that cemented his literary reputation Vonnegut calls the book a big, fat failure.
He tells us as much in the first chapter, which, in fine postmodernist form, isn’t about Dresden, or Billy Pilgrim, or Tralfamadore, but rather about how he came to write the book. Vonnegut says he originally thought writing about his wartime experiences would be an easy way to establish himself as a writer, “since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen.” More than 20 years and thousands of pages of false starts later, in a note of apology to his publisher, he concludes that the book he’s handed over is such a jumbled and jangled failure because “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” Much later on, in chapter eight, he breaks the fourth wall (as he does frequently) to tell us:
There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.
Vonnegut even chalks it up as a failure as an anti-war novel. “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?” a friend asks him. “What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.”
So how is it exactly that Slaughterhouse-Five—a book the author calls a failure—came to be regarded as one of the finest 20th-century World War II novels? I think we can answer that, first, by understanding and speculating a bit about how Vonnegut’s masterpiece fit into his life, and, second, by looking at Billy, the Tralfamadorians, and their unusual views of time, and considering whether there is actually anything unusual about them at all.
But before we talk about Billy Pilgrim coming unstuck in time, let’s look at how Kurt Vonnegut got stuck in it.
Being glued to a particular time and place seems like the most fitting way to describe the impact of Vonnegut’s wartime experiences. As Powers notes in the foreword, anyone who has fought in a war can understand how the past can be “an irresistible force, particularly in the case of those who have trauma at the center of their experience.”
We don’t need to engage in too much speculation to say that the time to which Vonnegut is glued begins at roughly the same moment Billy comes unglued: just before Christmas 1944 at the start of the Battle of the Bulge, somewhere in the Ardennes Forest. Under-equipped, under-trained, freezing, and near starvation, Private Vonnegut and thousands of his comrades-in-arms were rounded up by the Wehrmacht, crammed into boxcars, and shipped by rail to holding facilities en route to forced labor camps dispersed throughout Germany. He eventually ended up in Dresden, working by day in a factory making malt syrup as a nutritional supplement for pregnant women, and housed at night in a disused slaughterhouse (mostly empty because meat was a scarce commodity by that point in the war). It was in one of the facility’s subterranean meat lockers that Vonnegut, his fellow prisoners, their guards, and several animal carcasses hanging from meat hooks (so it goes) would take shelter overnight as hundreds of Royal Air Force bombers dropped thousands of tons of high explosives and incendiaries on the center of Dresden, creating a firestorm that turned the picturesque city known as the “Florence on the Elbe” into heaps of stone and ash and bodies.
Vonnegut and the other survivors emerged from their shelters on the morning of Valentine’s Day 1945 to find a moonscape. The Germans set Vonnegut and the other POWs to the task of recovering bodies, which he called “a terribly elaborate Easter egg hunt.” They dug holes into the ash and rubble, lowered a ladder into the empty space, and began bringing up the remains of those whose shelters had turned into suffocating tombs. “Thus began the first corpse mine in Dresden,” as he puts it in Slaughterhouse-Five. And for the corpse miners, business was booming.
Exactly how many died has been a matter of contentious debate, not least in German politics, and you can see the way in which the horrors he had seen in Dresden exerted a tight grip on Vonnegut throughout his life in the fact that he accepted the inflated casualty counts proffered by controversial historian (and Holocaust denier) David Irving and stuck with them long after they had been discredited. As late as 2005, Vonnegut was still citing 135,000 dead, a number derived from Irving. (A 2010 historical commission—established by the city of Dresden to combat right-wing propaganda—reviewed wartime records to establish the number at somewhere between 22,700 and 25,000 dead.) This made the Dresden firebombing, according to Vonnegut’s reckoning, “the largest massacre in European history”—provided you accept his peculiar definition of a massacre as “something that happens suddenly.” Vonnegut was not a Holocaust denier—far from it. Nor, I think, did he stick to the high number to promote the idea of a moral equivalence between Nazi Germany and the Allies; he just didn’t care to get the number right, on the chance that doing so would mean allowing someone to suggest that a lower number of dead reduced the moral significance of the act he had carried with him his entire life.
After the war, when Vonnegut sought to write about what he had seen in Germany, he found that the words didn’t come to him. He would tell people who asked what he was working on that “the main thing was a book about Dresden,” which reminded him of a song of infinite recursion he includes in Slaughterhouse:
My name is Yon Yonson,
I work in Wisconsin,
I work in a lumbermill there.
The people I meet when I walk down the street,
They say, ‘What’s your name?’
And I say,
‘My name is Yon Yonson,
I work in Wisconsin…”
All while he was failing to write “my famous Dresden book,” he did a stint in graduate school at the University of Chicago studying sociology (he left the program without a degree after his thesis was rejected), worked as a reporter, and eventually took a job in public relations at a GE research laboratory in Schenectady, New York.
There at the GE lab in upstate New York, surrounded by machines that were replacing more and more factory jobs by the day, he wondered what would happen to the factory workers these machines were replacing—to their dignity and sense of self-worth? What would our society look like if automation took all the jobs? The result of those musings became his first novel, Player Piano (1952). But the themes—uncritical adoption of technology and vast, uncontrollable forces grinding down those left behind—would find their way into Slaughterhouse-Five. Somewhere along the way the publishers decided that only science fiction fans would be interested in a novel about machines and social change, so the novel gained little traction outside genre circles. Vonnegut had ambivalent feelings, shading toward hostility sometimes, about being pigeonholed as a science fiction writer: “The feeling persists that no one can simultaneously be a respectable writer and understand how a refrigerator works, just as no gentleman wears a brown suit in the city,” he wrote.
Nevertheless his next novel, The Sirens of Titan (1959), embraced the conventions of the genre (as a means of satirizing them), with a plot centered around a Martian invasion and time travel. This book, too, introduced characters and settings that would eventually find their way into Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), including the planet Tralfamadore and a wealthy New England aristocrat named Rumfoord. Elements of his next three novels also appear in Slaughterhouse: 1961’s Mother Night gives us American Nazi/OSS agent Howard W. Campbell, Jr., who would take shelter in the meat locker with Billy Pilgrim; 1963’s Cat’s Cradle tells of a scientist whose invention, all too predictably, leads to a global apocalypse; and 1965’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater introduces the man who would share both a hospital room with Billy and stacks of novels by a Vonnegut alter-ego, hack sci-fi novelist Kilgore Trout.
In fact, re-reading Vonnegut’s collected works from the vantage point of 2019, I had the strange experience of believing that all along Slaughterhouse had somehow been reaching its way backward in time into Vonnegut’s literary career. It was as if the book were to Vonnegut what Billy’s wartime experiences became to him: a moment in time, trapped in amber, surfacing randomly in his work, unbidden, frequently unwelcome. Dresden haunted Vonnegut’s life, and Slaughterhouse haunted his career—this “short and jumbled and jangled” book, a “failure.”
So how does an understanding of the three unique temporal perspectives contained in Slaughterhouse-Five—our own, Billy’s, and the Tralfamadorian one—help us appreciate this “failure” of a book?
I don’t think I need to explain how we experience time. You’re doing it right now.
Billy Pilgrim’s view of time starts out like ours, but somewhere in the Ardennes Forest he begins to jump randomly across his own personal timeline. He watches his own life pass by like a streaming movie on Netflix, except a mischievous God has his hands on the toggle, scrubbing Billy’s life forward, backward, fast, or slow, according to His whim—and He’ll be doing it this way forever. Theoretically, Billy could use his knowledge of past, present, and future to make different choices, but—almost inexplicably in the course of the novel—he doesn’t, even to the point of boarding (and not just boarding but actually chartering) an airplane that he knows will crash, killing everyone aboard except himself.
The Tralfamadorians, the green, plunger-shaped aliens who abduct Billy Pilgrim to put him on display in a zoo, have a panoramic view of time. They see past, present, and future all at once, the same way we might behold an entire mountain range, with all the peaks and valleys representing high points and low points in their lives. The lowest point comes at the end of everything, when, they explain to Billy, they will accidentally destroy the entire universe, Earth included, while “experimenting with new fuels for our flying saucers.” If you know this, Billy asks, why can’t you stop it? Because, they explain somewhat scornfully, “the moment is structured that way.”
We are, of course, intended to see Billy as pathetic, passive, fatalistic. “Preposterous,” Vonnegut calls him, “six feet and three inches tall, with a chest and shoulders like a box of kitchen matches. . . . He didn’t look like a soldier at all. He looked like a filthy flamingo.” What kind of fool would board an airplane he knew was going to crash? What kind of wimp wouldn’t stand up and say something to save all those people from dying?
We’re also meant to see the Tralfamadorians as impossibly alien, grotesquely aloof. What kind of monsters would conduct a scientific experiment that they knew would destroy them—and not just them, but everyone and everything?
But we are the Tralfamadorians, collectively, creating nuclear weapons because “if we don’t, someone else will.” We did so knowing just as well as they do that, given enough time (and there will be plenty of time, right up until the end of it), someone will eventually push the button that blows up the human race, if pollution or climate change or any number of other eminently predictable man-made calamities don’t finish us off first.
And we are Billy, each of us as individuals. We could stand up and yell, “Don’t get on that plane! It’s going to crash!” But Billy “didn’t want to make a fool of himself by saying so,” and we don’t want to sound like fools either.
What makes Slaughterhouse both a failure and a masterpiece is the fact that it’s an anti-war book that knows it’s engaged in a hopeless quest: “an anti-glacier book.” And despite it all, it laughs, and makes us laugh too. That laughter is, to be sure, a defense mechanism in the face of unspeakable trauma and loss, but one that is palliative rather than panicked. Vonnegut’s black humor is dedicated, as Powers says in the foreword, “to the alleviation and prevention of human suffering in the face of its inevitability, and I can think of no braver moral position to take than that one.”
At the end of the first chapter Vonnegut calls to mind the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and in particular the fate of Lot’s wife. She knows the people back there behind her were bad, that the world is better off without them. She knows that God himself has warned her not to look back. Likewise the godlike Tralfamadorians counsel Billy to “concentrate on the happy moments of his life, and to ignore the unhappy ones—to stare only at pretty things as eternity failed to go by.” But trauma doesn’t work like that, for Billy or for us. We can’t help looking back. Nor could Lot’s wife, “and I love her for that, because it was so human,” writes Vonnegut. “This one is a failure,” he says of Slaughterhouse, “and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.” So the book is simultaneously an indictment of our failures as individuals and collectively, a recognition of their inevitability, and an act of contrition and consolation for them. Slaughterhouse is a failure because it yearns for, even demands, something that it knows is impossible. That ineffable desire in the face of inevitable loss is a quintessentially human act.
All in all not bad, as failures go.