Saturday, August 11, 2012

Two feelings about Slaughterhouse-Five

As I've mentioned before, as a teenager I was a serial reader of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five.  When I read this little frame-up from a long essay on Vonnegut on the Dish, it was an absolute eureka:
William Deresiewicz argues Slaughterhouse-Five is "not about time travel and flying saucers, it’s about PTSD":
The novel is framed by Vonnegut’s account of trying to write about Dresden—of trying to remember Dresden. But a different kind of memory became the novel’s very fabric. "He tried to remember how old he was, couldn’t." This is Billy the optometrist. "He tried to remember what year it was. He couldn’t remember that, either." For the traumatized soldier, the war is always present, and the present is always the war.

He is unstuck in time in the sense that he is stuck in time. His life is not linear, but radiates instead from a single event like the spokes of a wheel. Everything feels like a dream: a very bad dream. The novel is framed the way it is because Vonnegut, too, was traveling in time. He needed to make himself a part of the story because he already was a part of the story.
This drove me to reread Slaughterhouse yet again after an interlude of decades and made me recognize something strange about my teen readings.  I found the book soothing back then -- despite, though also because of, its obsession with remembering, and finding some way to eulogize while denying the possibility or utility of eulogizing, scenes of random death culminating in mass death.

Billy, in his eternal dazed wandering, is anesthetized. The Tralfamadorians are able to concentrate only on life's pleasant moments, but Billy is somehow pulverized into a state in which all moments ultimately appear pleasant, even when people are freezing and starving to death in boxcars: "everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt." So "a very bad dream" isn't quite right. Billy's dazed, numb wonder is like a pair of night goggles through which we perceive the horror, without feeling it the way we would in a normal state. Though perhaps the point is that there is no normal state for those who experience such horror.

There is a night-kitchen calm, too, in the autobiographical first chapter, as Vonnegut recalls long solitary self-medicating nights and a life that's a dazed struggle to process the material he is about to deliver.
Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre,and it always is, except for the birds.
     And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like "Poo-tee-weet?"
This one is a failure, and had to be, because it was written by a pillar of salt.

What Deresiewicz woke me to, after a space of almost forty years, is Vonnegut's pain. Billy is such a surreal figure, perhaps we can believe that nothing hurt him, but not so Vonnegut. So much death, so much cruelty, so much folly:
     Weary drew back his right boot, aimed a kick at the spine, at the tube which had so many of Billy's important wires in it. Weary was going to break that tube.
     But then Weary saw that he had an audience. Five German soldiers and a police dog on a leash were looking down into the bed of the creek. The soldiers' blue eyes were filled with a bleary civilian curiosity as to why one American would try to murder another so far from home, and why the victim should laugh.

There is always that detachment, as if the narrator is a Tralfamadorian. Or a pillar of salt. But if he is emotionally dessicated, it is because he cannot shut down his fellow-feeling for those being destroyed.

I was reminded of my teen response to the book today when I picked up a plastic bottle of honey that my son, home from college for three weeks, had bought.  We haven't had any honey in the house for a while, and I squeezed out a spoonful and ate it. That brought back a Slaughterhouse scene: the POWs in Dresden are made to work in a factory that makes a fortified syrup for pregnant women that "tasted like thin honey laced with hickory smoke."  It's a crime to spoon honey, but all the starved prisoners do it, including Billy:
    On his second day, Billy was cleaning behind a radiator, and he found a spoon. To his back was a vat of syrup that was cooling. The only other person who could see Bill and his spoon was poor old Edgar Derby, who was washing a window outside. The spoon was a tablespoon. Billy thrust it into the vat, turned it around and around, making a gooey lollipop. He thrust it into his mouth.
    A moment went by, and then every cell in Billy's body shook him with ravenous gratitude and applause.
I've thrust a lot of spoonfuls of honey into my mouth since I read that, and I've probably never done it without recalling this scene and imagining my body applauding.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this beautiful and insightful post. Since high school, I have counted Vonnegut as my favorite author. This interpretation of the book never occurred to me. I haven't read it in 25 years or so, and I've mostly forgotten it. It's time for a re-reading.