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Literature and Writing
All this happened, more or less. The war parts anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn't his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I've changed all the names. (1.1.1)
If Vonnegut is writing a novel that is "pretty much true," why write it as fiction at all? What can fiction do that an autobiography can't? What kind of structural experimentation does writing about Dresden in a novel make possible?
I think of how useless the Dresden part of my memory has been, and yet how tempting Dresden has been to write about, and I am reminded of the famous limerick:
There was a young man from Stamboul,
Who soliloquized thus to his tool:
"You took all my wealth
And you ruined my health,
And now you won't pee, you old fool." (1.2.3-4)
First off, we think it's hilarious that the narrator starts off his quoting spree with a dirty limerick. Second, we find it intriguing that he feels almost compelled to write about Dresden, even though it's difficult, and even though it's taking up valuable real estate in his brain. How might writing itself be a form of therapy? What other reasons does the narrator give for needing to write about the Dresden firestorm? And what does this limerick mean, anyway?
"I think the climax of the book will be the execution of poor old Edgar Derby," I said. "The irony is so great. A whole city gets burned down, and thousands and thousands of people are killed. And then this one American foot soldier is arrested in the ruins for taking a teapot. And he's given a regular trial, and then he's shot by a firing squad." (1.3.19)
The narrator talks about Edgar Derby's real-life execution as though it were a moment of dramatic irony, as though the real war were also the product of an author with a dark sense of humor.
As a trafficker in climaxes and thrills and characterization and wonderful dialogue and suspense and confrontations, I had outlined the Dresden story many times. The best outline I ever made, or anyway, the prettiest one, was on the back of a roll of wallpaper [...] The destruction of Dresden was represented by a vertical band of orange cross-hatching, and all the lines that were still alive passed through it, came out the other side. (1.4.2-3)
The narrator talks about writing 5,000 pages of his Dresden novel before actually getting to Slaughterhouse-Five. What makes the event so hard for him to write about? He describes the normal things that go into a novel—"climaxes and thrills and characterization and wonderful dialogue and suspense and confrontations"—none of which Slaughterhouse-Five actually has. Why might a book filled with these things be precisely not what the narrator wants to write when tackling the topic of war?
And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like "Poo-tee-weet?" (1.15.2)
The only sound left after a massacre is birdsong, so birds have the last word. Is this why the narrator also claims that his novel on Dresden must, inevitably, be a failure—because, in the end, there can simply be no words for such an event? Do you agree?
My other book was Erika Ostrovsky's Céline and his Vision. Céline was a brave French soldier in the First World War—until his skull was cracked. After that he couldn't sleep, and there were noises in his head. He became a doctor, and he treated poor people in the daytime, and he wrote grotesque novels all night. No art is possible without a dance with death, he wrote. (1.20.1)
We have been talking about the "dance with death" as something soldiers must do. They have to come to terms with the fact that they may die at any time, without warning. Still, the narrator specifically quotes Céline as saying that "no art is possible without a dance with death." Where do we see this dance with death in Slaughterhouse-Five?
"[E]ach clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message—describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn't any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. (5.3.4)
Slaughterhouse-Five probably comes about as close as anything we have read to a novel with "no beginning, no middle, no end, [and] no suspense." Do you find that the lack of chronological order interferes with your understanding of the book?
[Rosewater] said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov, by Feodor Dostoevsky. "But that isn't enough any more," said Rosewater. (5.21.1)
The Brothers Karamazov is a famous (and very long) realist novel that tackles themes of religion, family, crime, and punishment. Why does Rosewater feel that old stories involving these themes no longer describe the reality he and Billy live in?
"Did that really happen?" said Maggie White. She was a dull person, but a sensational invitation to make babies...
"Of course it happened," Trout told her. "If I wrote something that hadn't really happened, and I tried to sell it, I could go to jail. That's fraud." (8.13.1-2)
Kilgore Trout is being facetious here by claiming that novelists are expected to write only the truth. At the same time, his novels, even if they are science fiction, tackle real and important subjects, such as greed, faith, and morality. With Slaughterhouse-Five, it seems to us that Vonnegut is claiming that many of the ideas expressed in fiction may not be literal or real, but they have a higher philosophical truth.
The master of ceremonies asked people to say what they thought the function of the novel might be in the modern society, and one critic said, "To provide touches of color in rooms with all-white walls." Another one said, "To describe blow-jobs artistically." Another one said, "To teach wives of junior executives what to buy next and how to act in a French restaurant." (9.32.1)
There really has been a discussion throughout much of the 20th century about the so-called death of the novel. Many claim that authors have lost faith in the idea that a person can be conscious of what he does or why he does it, and that we also no longer believe in the rigid, formal presentation of fiction as though it is real.
Slaughterhouse-Five itself experiments with new ways of presenting personal motivation and narrative time without throwing away the novel as a form. So we think Vonnegut is being kind of tongue-in-cheek here by showing all of these pretentious answers to a question about the value of the novel... inside a novel.
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