In The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut and the Many Lives of Slaughterhouse-Five (Abrams, 2021), I examine Vonnegut’s masterpiece by going on a biographical and literary journey into the author’s life, from the trauma he experienced in World War II through his career and up to his final years as an ornery New Yorker. I also talk with contemporary authors, such as Tim O’Brien, to shed light on how Vonnegut integrated his experiences and was able to write a “true” war story. The excerpt below is adapted from the book.
Before the sun rose February morning we first spoke on the phone, Tim O’Brien was doing dishes in his home in Austin, Texas. He was thinking about The Things They Carried, which he wrote 30 years ago, and how it no longer belongs to him. “I feel divorced from my book,” he told me later that day. “The book is there on the shelf and it’s not mine anymore. It once was when I was writing it. But I don’t remember writing the sentences or the words or taking this or that clause out. A book starts to belong less and less to the author and more and more to the world.”
O’Brien reminds me that it’s delicate and dicey writing about the relationship between a book and its author. “I don’t think any writer is ever comfortable with any declaration about a book that he or she has written,” O’Brien says. “Especially when you can’t declare it to yourself. How can someone else know what it is you wrote if you don’t?”
“My books are in some ways mysteries to me,” he says.
But that’s how it should be. As much as I’ve tried to pull out the threads on [Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel] Slaughterhouse-Five to determine its relationship to war trauma, a book can never be just one thing. That includes what its author intended. It also often includes its genre; the best war novels aren’t just about war.
As it turns out, a warped sense of time and a splintered sense of self does more than describe the impact of war; it also provides a pretty good primer on life in the 21st century. “Vonnegut is getting more and more astute in diagnosing the American pathologies that are getting worse and worse and yet he’s doing it from a greater remove,” says writer Steve Almond. “It’s right there in front of us. We have these powerful devices and screens that disembody us and take us out of the place and also out of the present. You can be in your house right next to somebody and they are somewhere else.”
“Slaughterhouse-Five can be seen as a parable of the divided self,” he adds. “We are constantly in more than one place at one time. And that disrupts a coherent, singular narrative where we can know ourselves. We are off fleeing the chaos of our inner lives.”
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By fracturing reality, time, memory, and Pilgrim’s identity, Vonnegut aestheticized one of the primary effects of trauma, dissociation, in which there is a disconnection or lack of continuity between one’s thoughts. “Normal, nontraumatic memories are owned and integrated into the ongoing story of the self,” David Morris writes in The Evil Hours. “In contrast, the traumatic memory stands apart, like a feral dog, snarling, wild, and unpredictable.”
But it’s not just the clinically diagnosed traumatized person that Vonnegut depicted. Almond notes that Vonnegut was very concerned with our “big brains,” and how our innovations in science and technology could endanger all of us. Vonnegut passed away in 2007, before our smartphones and social media became the mediums through which we see ourselves, literally and figuratively, but check this out: Reliving the experience (flashback), avoiding the event, having negative thoughts, experiencing hyperarousal, having troubled sleep, blaming self or others, social withdrawal, loss of memory—all of the attributes of PTSD could easily describe my 16-year-old daughter’s daily intake of Instagram.
No wonder PTSD has become a signature mental disorder of our age. There is more than mere correlation happening here: If there are similar attributes to being glued to a screen and to experiencing PTSD, then they will reinforce each other in individuals and the culture at large. There is a symbiotic relationship.
What I find remarkable about Slaughterhouse-Five is that Vonnegut used his insight, observational powers, and narrative skills to convey the impact of war trauma, and then the book takes a life of its own and transcends its place in history by anticipating the PTSD diagnosis. But it doesn’t do it by magic or time travel. It is because Vonnegut captures the delicate relationship between the human condition, pain, memory, and time. By doing this, he tells us who we are and he deciphers how our culture is changing.
PTSD is, after all, a “product of culture as much as a hard-wired biological fact,” writes David Morris, who references Otto Fenichel, one of the pioneers of modern psychology, who wrote that neuroses, or what we’d now call mental disorders, are not a physical inevitability like aging; they emerge within a context. “Neuroses are social diseases,” he wrote, “corresponding to a given and historically developed social milieu. They cannot be changed without corresponding change in the milieu.”
Vonnegut was a part of that change. PTSD can be construed as an “invention,” according to McGill University’s Allan Young, a medical anthropologist. This is not to say that it isn’t real, but, as quoted in Morris’s Evil Hours, “the disorder is not timeless, nor does it possess an intrinsic unity. Rather, it is glued together by the practices, technologies, and narratives with which it is diagnosed, studied, treated, and represented and by the various interests, institutions, and moral arguments that mobilized these efforts and resources.”
For example, Morris pinpoints the development of the flashback symptom, the telltale sign of PTSD. He finds the roots in the dawn of the moving image. Early-20th-century filmmakers coined the term to refer to jumps backward within a movie. And according to London’s King’s College researchers, flashbacks were nearly nonexistent among soldiers who fought before the age of film. Morris notes that Civil War veterans tended to describe their involuntary episodes of mental images, of “seeing things,” as phantasmic visitations. Those were the days when people attempted to speak to the dead through seances.
“It is tempting to wonder if film, television, and increasingly, video games don’t provide the lion’s share of our modern traumatic vocabulary,” Morris writes. “Teaching us how to see our memories in the way that photography taught us how to see (and not see) sunsets.”
Vonnegut poked at the deep connection between cinema, trauma, and memory in Slaughterhouse-Five, on the night that Pilgrim is abducted by the Tralfamadorians, when he watches a war movie and becomes unstuck. Pilgrim watches the movie backward so that American bomber pilots fly their planes backward from an English airstrip, backward over Germany, where their bombs are returned to their bays and the fires below are extinguished and the bombs are returned to the factories where they are dismantled and the American soldiers are returned to being fresh-faced high school kids.
It’s such a poignant, elemental, and entirely relatable sequence, one which may not have been entirely original—science fiction writer Philip K. Dick had implemented a similar device in his 1967 novel, Counter-Clock World, and there are reverse-chronology examples dating back to the Aeneid—but in the context of Billy Pilgrim’s disassembling mental state is nonetheless particularly touching.
It is a widely beloved moment in the book. I was most moved by the story that Fred Greybar, a former marine and Chicago suburban native who fought in Vietnam in 1968, told me. I met Greybar in Indianapolis 50 years to the day that he flew out of Da Nang. He recalled his father having warned him before he enlisted that “in six months you are going to be sitting in a swamp with a gun in your hand and not wanting to be anywhere near there,” Greybar said. “He was off by four months.”
After Greybar came home from Vietnam, he was confused by what he had just experienced. He appreciated how his parents pushed him to put the war behind him by going back to college while he worked a nightshift as a machinist. He was assigned to read Slaughterhouse-Five for a class. One night while on a break at work, he took the novel to read in a bathroom stall. He read the scene of Billy Pilgrim’s war movie being reversed—and, by extension, imagined everything he had just experienced in Vietnam also being erased—and wept an unstoppable stream of tears there on the john.