'I Was There': On Kurt Vonnegut
“The cruelest thing you can do to Kerouac,” Hanif Kureishi has a character say in The Buddha of Suburbia, “is reread him at thirty-eight.” If that was true, I wondered as I opened the first two volumes of the Library of America’s ongoing series of the complete novels, then what of Vonnegut at a decade older still? The two are linked, of course, as items on the syllabus of adolescent male samizdat that used to go like this: Mad magazine at 13, Vonnegut at 15, Salinger at 17, Hunter Thompson at 18, Kerouac at 20. (When you got real big, you read Kundera.)
Well, if I’ve grown older and more respectable, then so has Kurt Vonnegut. Those old mass-market paperbacks you used to find him in, with their trippy covers and flaky pages, 50¢ used? They were part of the mystique. Now here he is, decked out in the publishing equivalent of black tie: appendices, chronology, annotations, textual notes and a page layout, as the Library of America boilerplate puts it, “designed for readability as well as elegance.” Elegance? There’s a story in the second volume called “The Big Space Fuck.” “I think I am the first writer to use ‘fuck’ in a title,” Vonnegut once boasted. “It was about firing a spaceship with a warhead full of jizzum at Andromeda.” But never mind; the words cast their spell, the layout is forgotten and Kureishi’s question is answered. No, not cruel. Some of them are worse than I remembered, but some of them are even better.
The volumes begin with Player Piano (1952), a novel that owes its existence, as Charles J. Shields explains in And So It Goes, to Vonnegut’s time in the public relations department at General Electric. (Shields’s biography is badly written and none too penetrating in its literary insights, but it seems to have been thoroughly researched and is, in any case, the only one we have so far.) After a few increasingly sour years puffing nuclear power and home appliances—“Progress Is Our Most Important Product,” went the company slogan—Vonnegut decided to imagine what the future General Electric was trying to create would actually look like.
As its title suggests, Player Piano describes a society in which the vast majority of people have been rendered obsolete by machines. Everything is automated, and a privileged caste of engineers, selected through a ruthless system of aptitude testing, runs the show. The average person, benevolently provided for by his betters, lacks nothing other than purpose, dignity, self-respect and meaningful labor. The novel’s prescience is chilling. Six years before the left-wing English sociologist Michael Young published The Rise of the Meritocracy, a dystopian satire that coined that now-ubiquitous final word, Vonnegut was already there. “He just finished his National General Classification Tests,” says a character about his son. “He didn’t do nearly well enough for college. There were only twenty-seven openings, and six hundred kids trying for them.” With its idled masses made superfluous by technologically driven gains in productivity, the novel is, if anything, more relevant than ever now. It poses Vonnegut’s essential question: What are people for?
Artistically, though, the book is apprentice work—clunky, clumsy, overstuffed. Turn the page to The Sirens of Titan (1959), however, and it’s all there, all at once. Kurt Vonnegut has become Kurt Vonnegut. The spareness hits you first. The first page contains fourteen paragraphs, none of them longer than two sentences, some of them as short as five words. It’s like he’s placing pieces on a game board—so, and so, and so. The story moves from one intensely spotlit moment to the next, one idea to the next, without delay or filler. The prose is equally efficient, with a scalding syncopated wit: “‘I told her that you and she were to be married on Mars.’ He shrugged. ‘Not married exactly—’ he said, ‘but bred by the Martians—like farm animals.’”
The freedom is stunning. Player Piano was science fiction but adhered to realistic conventions of characterization and plot development. Now Vonnegut is making up the rules as he goes along. Like the millionaire Winston Niles Rumfoord, with whom the book begins, the story jumps around apparently at will. It tells us only what we need to know, with no descriptive thickening for realism’s sake, and we are willing for that very reason to believe its unbelievabilities—because the narrator believes them, and offers them without apology.
But the novel’s greatest liberties are of invention. The chrono-synclastic infundibulum, the Army of Mars, the caves of Mercury and the sirens of Titan. Rumfoord and his loyal mastiff, Kazak, stretched out as waves from here to Betelgeuse. The protagonist, Malachi Constant, the richest man in the world; aka Unk, the brain-blasted Martian conscript; aka the Space Wanderer, most beloved and despised men. The harmoniums of Mercury, forever saying to each other, “Here I am, here I am, here I am.” And Salo, the Tralfamadorian robot astronaut, three-eyed, three-legged, four and a half feet tall, the color of a tangerine and more human than any human. Vonnegut’s imagination would henceforth be his superpower. Beneath its darkness and sadness and savagery, the novel unfolds as a continuous experience of wonder.
Also fully present are Vonnegut’s themes. “Things, gentlemen, are ripe for a phony Messiah,” says a character in Player Piano, “and when he comes, it’s sure to be a bloody business.” In The Sirens of Titan, he comes as Rumfoord, and he will come again as Bokonon in Cat’s Cradle, Eliot Rosewater in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and Kilgore Trout, in a more personal sense, in Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions. Vonnegut saw our spiritual anxiety, in the postwar chaos, and as a former public relations man, he knew our mass gullibility. He had also studied anthropology, an experience, he later said, that “confirmed my atheism, which was the faith of my fathers anyway. Religions were exhibited and studied as the Rube Goldberg inventions I’d always thought they were.” Now machines were taking control, so we needed to pretend that something else was in control. Or as he puts it in The Sirens of Titan, “Gimcrack religions were big business.” The Age of Aquarius surely came as no surprise to him—the age of crystals and gurus and mystical hucksters. Charles Manson and Jim Jones surely came as no surprise, and neither did L. Ron Hubbard, a man who started writing science fiction but decided he was writing Scripture.
* * *
Rumfoord, too, is an artist, though his métier is theater. “It’s the contrast they like,” he explains to Malachi Constant, whose every move he’s staged for years, before the book’s climactic passion play. With a decade writing stories for the slicks under his belt (Colliers, Cosmopolitan, The Saturday Evening Post), Vonnegut knew about pushing an audience’s buttons. Later, when he taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he won his students’ reluctant allegiance by eschewing aesthetic pieties and teaching them how to grab a reader’s attention. People want illusions, The Sirens of Titan insists, and they are abjectly grateful to anyone who can offer them. Constant is trapped on Mercury with another man, Boaz. Each knows something about the other that the other doesn’t know about himself. “Don’t truth me,” Boaz pleads with him, “and I won’t truth you.”
Rumfoord’s religion (with Constant as Christ) is called the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. In the novel’s context, the notion comes as an immense relief. Everybody thinks he has free will, and everybody’s secretly controlled by someone else. Constant, on Mars, is controlled by Boaz. Boaz is controlled by Rumfoord. Rumfoord is controlled by the Tralfamadorians, and so is all of human history. This is one of the great terrors in Vonnegut’s work: the terror of regimentation (the Army of Mars, with its vast ranks of remote-controlled soldiers, human machines), the terror of manipulation by unseen forces. For Fate (the determinations of divine providence), Vonnegut substitutes its opposite, Fortune (chance, chaos, luck). All is accident, the endless turning of the wheel. Reversal is the novel’s governing device, and irony its master trope. Constant is up, Constant is down. Salo is blissful, Salo is bereft. The Army of Mars, which had seemed so granitic, turns out to be flimsy as paper. Even the prose has its falls, as moments of intensity tumble, with a flick of Vonnegut’s trademark bathos, into the banal:
Constant sank into a wing chair again. He had to look away from all that beauty in order to keep from bursting into tears.
“You can keep that picture, if you like,” said Rumfoord. “It’s wallet size.”
Fortune makes for satire, the vanity of human wishes. What elevates the novel to tragedy is the fact that Constant isn’t guiltless. The truth Boaz withholds is something dreadful that the other man has done: unwillingly, unwittingly, but done nonetheless. This is high Greek stuff. Our moral beings are not ours to rule, yet we are accountable for them all the same. Tragedy means that, in the end, you do not question what’s become of you, because you know that you deserve it. “Life was like that, Unk told himself tentatively—blanks and glimpses, and now and then maybe that awful flash of pain for doing something wrong.” The novel is punctuated by moments of piercing loss. At the last, like all true tragedy, it leaves us drained and humbled. Salo and Constant are alone together on Titan, two souls at the end of the universe, clinging to what is nearest. A simple, creaturely humanity suffuses the scene. “My mate died today,” Constant tells his friend. Before she went, he adds, they had finally figured out that “a purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.” Later, Vonnegut would justly be accused of sentimentality. Here the emotion is earned. In this, his second novel and his second-greatest, he achieves a sublimity he would never attempt again.
The sense of guilt or moral pollution became the nucleus of Mother Night (1962). The book is anomalous in Vonnegut’s oeuvre, his only novel not to feature elements of the fantastic, and in that sense and others—its sober tone, its attempt to depict mature love—his most adult. The narrator-protagonist, Howard W. Campbell Jr., is an American writer who propagandized for the Nazis at the behest of the US government, which used his broadcasts to transmit messages to agents in the field. But only his handler was aware of his true identity, and now, years later, Campbell sits near Eichmann, self-condemned, in an Israeli cell.
The novel’s major weakness is also its greatest strength. We don’t learn much about what Campbell did and said during the war, so his sense of self-betrayal, self-loathing, remains more notional than felt. By the same token, though, it ends up seeming universal, the result, not of one man’s crimes, but of a taint in human nature. In order to prepare our children for adult life, Campbell remarks at one point, we should have them spend their time “spying on real grown-ups…learning what they fight about…how they satisfy their greed, why and how they lie, what makes them go crazy…and so on.”
The novel’s most brilliant passages are Campbell’s scenes with fellow Nazis. At least a year before Eichmann in Jerusalem, Vonnegut deploys the banality of evil as a moral weapon:
Goebbels asked me where I’d gotten the working title [of a pageant called “Last Full Measure”], so I made a translation for him of the entire Gettysburg Address.
He read it, his lips moving all the time. “You know,” he said to me, “this is a very fine piece of propaganda…. Do you miss America?”
“I miss the mountains, the rivers, the broad plains, the forests,” I said. “But I could never be happy there with the Jews in charge of everything.”
“They will be taken care of in due time,” he said.
“I live for that day—my wife and I live for that day,” I said.
“How is your wife?” he said.
“Blooming, thank you,” I said.
The passage turns back on its reader. If even Nazis cannot see themselves as evil, then how can we be sure that we aren’t evil, too? Campbell had written a play before the war about a knight and a maiden and their incorruptible love. Later it is rendered into Russian. ”Stalin was crazy about it,” someone tells him. Evil people believe in the same sentimental notions that the rest of us do, which means believing in them doesn’t make you good.
* * *
How do people manage to maintain their self-image? Mother Night marks the first appearance in Vonnegut’s novels of a word that would become increasingly important for him: schizophrenia. That is to say, divided consciousness or compartmentalization or what Orwell called doublethink. There are no synthetic religions this time (though Nazism certainly fits the bill), only a continuous display of the universal urge to self-delusion. A novel of disguise and betrayal, Mother Night is full of people who believe they’re really someone else, and its moral, Vonnegut would later write, is this: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
Where was all this coming from, for him? Campbell shares his creator’s vocation, as well as his weakness for sentimentality and the “Jr.” at the end of his name. An obscure sense of anxiety seems to have invested itself in the act of writing for Vonnegut, one that would resurface in the figure of Kilgore Trout—a sense of fraudulence or aphasia or self-division. “I speak gibberish to the civilized world,” Campbell says, “and it replies in kind.”
But the deeper motive, we can guess, was Dresden. Slaughterhouse-Five was three novels away, but the subject had occupied Vonnegut’s thoughts from the moment the bombing took place. That it was on his mind in Mother Night, a book about the moral ambiguities of World War II, is proved by the introduction he wrote for a later edition, his first public treatment of his wartime experience as a POW in that city. “If I’d been born in Germany,” he writes, after making his own German ancestry clear, “I suppose I would have been a Nazi…warming myself with my secretly virtuous insides.” But he’s already decried the massacre, its pointlessness and horror, “the cellars where 135,000 Hansels and Gretels had been baked like gingerbread men.” Campbell did evil in the name of good, and nothing now can keep his insides warm. In the end, he pre-empts the jury’s judgment and pronounces sentence for crimes against himself.
Between them, The Sirens of Titan and Mother Night would seem to have set Vonnegut on a path of deepening moral sophistication and seriousness. Instead, he turned around and walked in the opposite direction. Of all his novels, the one that disappointed me most upon rereading it was Cat’s Cradle (1963), a book that I had taken, like many readers, as second in his corpus only to Slaughterhouse-Five. In The Sirens of Titan and Mother Night, Vonnegut had implicated both himself and us. Now he simply points fingers. The novel is an allegory about nuclear weapons—refigured here as ice-nine, the crystal seed that makes the waters freeze—and an indictment of scientists who evade responsibility for the consequences of their discoveries. These may be valid targets, but they’re also pretty easy ones.
To be fair, Vonnegut had witnessed an apocalypse, one that resembled the aftermath of a nuclear attack, when he climbed out of the slaughterhouse and saw a city in ashes—a scene that’s replayed in Cat’s Cradle. Still, the story is remarkably thin, barely fleshed out around its ideas, without much conflict or tension or narrative complexity to speak of. It all goes by rather fast, a short story spun out to the length of a short novel. Vonnegut’s characters are always insubstantial; they tend to be passive, victims rather than actors, and characterization, in any case, was neither his interest nor forte. Usually, though, he at least provides us a protagonist to root for (a “man-in-the-hole,” as his famous lecture on narrative structure put it). In Cat’s Cradle, the central figure is largely just a witness—I scarcely remember his name even now—traveling among a collection of fellow constructs. The story fails to generate an inner life.
And yet it isn’t hard to see what makes the novel seem so cool, when you’re an adolescent. (Vonnegut’s star was launched when the paperback edition became a bestseller on college campuses in 1966.) Ice-nine is just the first thing that blows your mind. There’s all the Bokononism, too, the most elaborately worked out of Vonnegut’s imaginary belief systems. (Presented in lieu of a thesis, the novel finally got him his master’s in anthropology.) The karass: a group of seemingly unconnected people—an invisible community, as it were—who work together, unconsciously, to perform God’s will. The duprass: a two-person karass, or pair of soulmates. Boko-maru: ritual or spiritual sex, more ecstatic and fulfilling than the other kind, performed by rubbing the soles of your feet together (the pun on “souls” being deliberate, no doubt). Most of all, there’s the magnetic figure of Bokonon himself: wise man, joker, genius, toward whose elusive presence the entire novel runs.
The book is catnip for the adolescent taste, not only for subversion but for new truths. Adults are stupid and evil, it insists, their world and their wisdom a sham. “Pay no attention to Caesar,” goes Bokonon’s version of the saying of his forebear, Jesus. “Caesar doesn’t have the slightest idea what’s really going on.” Running in counterpoint to the grim story of grown-up foolishness and greed are the novel’s wise-ass chapter titles, all 127 of them (“O.K., Mom”; “The Happiness of Being an American”). Like Joyce and Salinger, Vonnegut gives us adolescent skepticism turbocharged with adult intellect and wit. Like Salinger and R.D. Laing (The Politics of Experience was four years away), he shows us a “normal” world full of phonies at best, psychotics at worst.
* * *
He also gives us an alternative creed. Not that anyone ever exactly believed in Bokononism, but it provided a vocabulary of spiritual concepts that sank down into the collective imagination. “I think he’s in my karass,” I remember people saying, and attempting to savor the pleasures of boko-maru was not unheard of. Bokonon’s maxims (“Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God”) were New Age wisdom avant la lettre. But the novel’s larger implications were more important than any of its particulars, and in adolescence, intensely welcome: that the world is mysterious, that there are secret truths and secret pleasures (boko-maru is a lot like drugs), that the chaos of life conceals a greater harmony and higher purpose, that new ways of doing things are possible.
And yet it’s all a pack of lies. Literally. Vonnegut says so right up front, and so does Bokonon himself. “Nothing in this book is true,” reads the novel’s first epigraph, and right below it is a quotation from The Books of Bokonon: “Live by the foma [harmless untruths] that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.” Bokononism is foma: karasses, duprasses, boko-maru, foma itself (which sounds like the Cretan paradox)—all quite openly invented. And yet we somehow forget it—perhaps because the narrator forgets it, employing as categories of explanation the very terms whose origins as fiction he explains, or perhaps for the very same reason that the narrator forgets it. Because, as Vonnegut had been trying to tell us for the last three novels, we are as eager as children to swallow whatever illusions we’re handed.
Note, by the way, that Bokonon’s creed is exactly the reverse of Rumfoord’s, in the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, because it tells us that our destinies are controlled by a puppet-master deity whose purposes are alien to us. It doesn’t matter, though, so long as we have something to believe in. Note also that a karass, the novel’s central concept and solace, is not a community, despite the way it’s been received; it is instead what Bokonon calls it on the novel’s second page: a “machine,” as an army is a machine. Vonnegut seems to be playing an extraordinary game, inviting us to fool ourselves with our eyes wide open. The novel is far darker even than its apocalyptic scenario suggests. A few pages before the end, it prefigures Jonestown: “thousands upon thousands of dead,” arrayed in ranks of meek submission, self-poisoned at the behest of their Messiah, the charismatic Bokonon.
And yet, at the same time, Vonnegut appears to accept the wisdom he offers in Bokonon’s name, much of which is marvelously—dare I say it?—persuasive:
Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, “Why, why, why?”
Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.
Foma is inevitable, Vonnegut implies, so best to choose the kind that makes you brave and kind and healthy and happy—and then to forget that it’s foma altogether.
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965) has all the faults of Cat’s Cradle with none of its virtues. The plot is exiguous, the characters notional, the target—plutocracy—as easy to hit as a pig in a pen. The title character is a rich young heir who lives like a hobo, drinks like a fish and devotes himself to the care of the worthless and hopeless and lazy and fat, “discarded Americans”—another Messiah, albeit on a local scale; another holy fool, like Unk; another crazy and potential suicide; another crumbling comic Christ. The novel is littered with failed utopias and authors.
Two things give it a larger interest for Vonnegut’s work. One is the introduction of Kilgore Trout, authorial alter ego, a writer with a great imagination but no readership, prolific producer of science-fiction pulp that keeps company, in shops, with pornography. Vonnegut had been at the writing game for twenty years with very little success to show for it (this was just before Iowa, just before Cat’s Cradle made it big); the novel’s subtitle, Pearls Before Swine, may be taken as a comment on its audience. The other is Eliot Rosewater’s psychotic vision—it seems to come from nowhere, late in the novel, and have no sequel within the book—as he approaches Indianapolis, the author’s birthplace. “The entire city,” he thinks, “was being consumed by a fire-storm.” Vonnegut’s subject, long deferred, was erupting into his fiction. Rosewater, the narrator explains, has been reading about Dresden. His creator, it is clear, was finally ready to write about it.
Rereading Slaughterhouse-Five taught me two things about the novel: how great it really is, and what it’s really about. It’s not about time travel and flying saucers, it’s about PTSD. Vonnegut never explicitly negates the former possibility, but the evidence for the latter is overwhelming once you start to notice it. Billy Pilgrim, whose wartime experience closely parallels Vonnegut’s own, does not announce his abduction to the planet Tralfamadore, where he is displayed in a zoo and mated with the Earthling porn star Montana Wildhack—with the strong suggestion that he doesn’t imagine it, either—until after the plane crash that replays, in several respects, his wartime trauma. Despite the way we flesh them out in our minds into the semblance of a real story—as Vonnegut surely knew we would—the scenes on Tralfamadore add up to no more than a handful of discontinuous fragments: a moment in the flying saucer, a moment in the zoo and a few moments with Montana Wildhack, amounting altogether to scarcely ten pages. The whole scenario turns out to derive from a Kilgore Trout novel that Billy had read years before (as well as sharing plot points with The Sirens of Titan). And the compensatory nature of the wisdom Billy claims to learn up there is all too clear. The Tralfamadorians see in four dimensions, the fourth one being time. “The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past.”
Billy’s time travel is equally imaginary—or to use a word that Vonnegut promotes to the title page this time, schizophrenic. As he bounces willy-nilly around his life (“unstuck in time,” as the narrative’s opening puts it)—an optometrist at one moment, a hunted conscript in the aftermath of the Battle of the Bulge at the next; now in Dresden, now a little boy; walking out of his honeymoon suite to find himself in a prison camp—what he’s really doing is remembering and, more often, dreaming. “Billy fell asleep under his blanket” (this is in a mental ward at a VA hospital in 1948). “When he woke up again, he was tied to the bed in the hospital back in prison.” Urged by his bride to speak about his wartime secrets, the “things you don’t want to talk about,” Billy says: “It would sound like a dream.”
The novel isn’t about flying saucers, and it isn’t finally about Dresden, either. The raid gave Vonnegut the peg on which to hang the book and goaded him with a sense of occasion—of having stumbled into precious literary material—but as he had lamented to himself for years, he hadn’t actually seen it, safe in the deep, sealed basement of the slaughterhouse. Only once he realized that his true subject was his own long ordeal as a prisoner of war—fleeing, starving, packed for days in a cattle car, put to slave labor, almost killed by German guards and American planes, watching his fellow prisoners die all around him—was he able at last, I believe, to write the book. Billy’s time travel begins when that begins: when he’s lost and alone in the woods and the snow, apparently abandoned by his comrades, ill-clad, ill-trained, ill-equipped, a plaything of forces beyond his comprehension.
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.
* * *
“Billy”—that’s a child’s name. The opening chapter explains the novel’s subtitle, The Children’s Crusade. “You were just babies then!” says the wife of the author’s war buddy, Bernard V. O’Hare, whom Vonnegut has asked to help him reminisce. But the juvenile dimension goes deeper. “One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his,” reads the third sentence. The novel is written in the voice of a child, as Vonnegut said himself: a voice that abjures the authority of adulthood, of knowledge or even artistic control, that insists that we are all children together—and that was therefore very well attuned to the mood of the counterculture circa 1969. (The title page ends with the period greeting, “Peace.”) If that were all it did and was, the novel would read like something by Richard Bach. Instead, it’s Richard Bach plus Joseph Heller. Even more than Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five united two of the most powerful strains in the popular culture of the ’60s and early ’70s: the subversion of books like Catch-22, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and in the Tralfamadorian metaphysics of time, the psychedelic space wisdom of books like Stranger in a Strange Land, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Teachings of Don Juan and Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
None of which is to say that the novel isn’t also an exquisitely realized work of art. The dense web of motifs that connects Billy to Vonnegut and Billy the soldier to Billy the adult is unprecedented in Vonnegut’s work. More remarkable still is the narrative structure. In the long, eighteenth-century-style description that appears on the title page, Vonnegut explains that the novel is written “somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore.” Telegraphic, as the aliens later explain, means their stories are arranged as sets of little scenes that the Tralfamadorians—being above time and therefore beyond linear narrative—apprehend all at once. “There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects.” Somehow, Vonnegut manages to write an Earthling novel that conforms to that description. Billy’s time travel scrambles the chronology so thoroughly that the novel cannot be said to have an end. His grandiose, imagined death as the prophet of Tralfamadorian truth; his erotic idyll with Montana; his psychotic break, which is the last thing we actually see happening to him; the physical end of the book at the end of the war: all qualify, which means that none qualify. The narrative is a labyrinth that the reader, and Billy, can never leave.
Holding it all together, though, the novel’s spine, is the story, perfectly linear, of Billy’s wartime experiences, the lion’s share of the book. Vonnegut’s realism is uniquely virtuosic here. We feel the terror, hear the dogs, see the wretchedness, smell the stink. The governing question, which Billy also asks of his Tralfamadorian abductors—the planet, we realize, stands in for the prison camp—is “Why me?” “Vy you?” a guard sardonically replies, “Vy anybody?” Say the aliens, “There is no why.” No causes, no effects: the world is mad, indifferent, arbitrary, cruel, as it always is in Vonnegut. The story reaches a crescendo of horror in Billy’s stunned encounter, by the boxcars, with an American colonel who is dying of pneumonia:
The colonel coughed and coughed, and then he said to Billy, “You one of my boys?” This was a man who had lost an entire regiment, about forty-five hundred men—a lot of them children, actually. Billy didn’t reply. The question made no sense.
“What was your outfit?” said the colonel. He coughed and coughed. Every time he inhaled his lungs rattled like greasy paper bags.
Billy couldn’t remember the outfit he was from.
“You from the Four-fifty-first?”
“Four-fifty-first what?” said Billy.
There was a silence. “Infantry regiment,” said the colonel at last.
“Oh,” said Billy Pilgrim.
There was another long silence, with the colonel dying and dying, drowning where he stood. And then he cried out wetly, “It’s me, boys! It’s Wild Bob!”
The scene is Dantean, two souls meeting in Hell, a confusion of the living and the dead (“You one of my boys?”). It goes on a little longer, and then Vonnegut suddenly makes his presence felt. “I was there,” he says. And he adds, “So was my old war buddy, Bernard V. O’Hare.” The moment prefigures the novel’s moral climax a few pages before the end. Billy’s in a hospital in 1968, after the plane crash. His roommate is a former Air Force general who is working on a history of the Army Air Corps in World War II. He is wealthy, healthy, masterful, accomplished (his name is Rumfoord, by the way), and he dismisses Billy, in his quasi-comatose state, as so much human refuse. He is telling someone that the raid on Dresden had been kept a secret for so long
“For fear that a lot of bleeding hearts…might not think it was such a wonderful thing to do.”
It was now that Billy Pilgrim spoke up intelligently. “I was there,” he said.
“I was there.” Meaning not, I suffered, but simply: It happened. It doesn’t fit the story that we tell ourselves about the war, but it happened. And I alone escaped to tell the tale. But not completely alone: my old war buddy was there as well, which means you can’t dismiss me as a lunatic. I was there. Or as the novel’s famous invocation, thrice repeated, puts it: Listen.
“I was there”—not, “The death of Dresden was a bitter tragedy, needlessly and willfully executed.” The sentence comes from a short, unpublished manuscript, included in the Library of America edition, that Vonnegut had worked on in the years immediately following the war. Before he could write the novel, I believe, he needed to surrender that sense of judgment. “It had to be done,” Rumfoord finally says to Billy. “I know,” Billy replies, “everybody has to do exactly what he does.” One of the Tralfamadorians’ literary principles, remember, is “no moral.” The book is so jumbled, Vonnegut explains in the opening chapter, “because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” All you can say, like the birds—the novel’s famous final line—is “Poo-tee-weet?”
* * *
With Breakfast of Champions (1973), the final novel of the second volume of the Library of America edition, Vonnegut begins the long, uneven slide that lasted for the rest of his career. There would be eight more novels altogether. This one barely seems to try, and Vonnegut knows it. (“This is a very bad book you’re writing,” he tells himself at one point.) Much of it consists of ad hoc rants against pollution, racism, consumerism and assorted other ills. The only character who seems to interest him at this point is himself. So much that was rare and spare and powerful in Slaughterhouse-Five, that established the novel’s stylistic signature, is pimped out here for cheap effects. “Listen” occurs not three times but ten, whenever he needs to goose the story, until you want to scream, “We’re listening already!” The earlier novel had two line drawings; this one has more than a hundred.
The first one’s of, in Vonnegut’s words, an asshole. He was mooning his audience, flipping us off. Beneath the anger, though, the sense of desperation is profound. Vonnegut had always been a bitter and resentful man, uncomfortable with intimacy, a heavy drinker, the lonely little boy who could never make up for the love he didn’t get. Now he had broken up his marriage and plunged into the maelstrom of celebrity. He was getting old, he felt; his best days, and best work, were behind him. His mother had committed suicide when he was a young man. Here, in one of the novel’s few moments of real feeling, he thinks, “You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did.” Writing the book, which he describes in the preface as an act of purgation, would seem to have been the alternative.
Slaughterhouse-Five had made him not only a celebrity, but a spokesman. He was an idol of the young, a voice of the counterculture, a man whose views would henceforth be solicited for a never-ending stream of interviews, articles, profiles, addresses. He stood for peace, love, decency, humanity—became the Kurt Vonnegut we knew for the final four decades of his life, a figure about whom it was possible to say, in the words of a recent book, that “precious few authors have ever loved mankind so completely.” He became, in other words, exactly what he had always warned against, a prophet of gimcrack religions: in this case, a facile faith of niceness that neatly concealed his bottomless darkness.
And he did it with his eyes wide open. Billy Pilgrim, in the VA hospital, meets Eliot Rosewater, who turns him on to Kilgore Trout. Neither man likes life, or people, very much. Both use Trout’s work “to re-invent themselves and their universe”—in other words, for purposes of self-delusion. Rosewater goes a step further: “He was experimenting with being ardently sympathetic with everybody he met. He thought that might make the world a slightly more pleasant place to live in.” This describes precisely Vonnegut’s public persona. As for his fate, over the last many years of his life, that, too, he had described: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
And yet that’s finally just ephemera. About him all we need to say is this: he gave us Slaughterhouse-Five.