Chronicling the rise and fall of the novelist-celebrity.
Nov 21, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 10 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
The stylistic tics that Vonnegut developed for the book helped as well: the mismatched chapter sizes, the paragraphs of dialogue longer than expository paragraphs from the narrator. Jack Kerouac is buried somewhere in the book’s voice, along with the run-on sentences that Dylan Thomas taught a generation of writers in the 1950s with prose pieces like “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” Rolled all together, Cat’s Cradle seemed to emerge as something unique in American literature: fast, wise, cynical, sincere, light, learned, and altogether new.
Funny, too, which is what Vonnegut tried to bring to the forefront in his 1965 followup, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, a book about—well, it’s hard to say just what the book is about. Kilgore Trout makes his first appearance, an atheist science-fiction writer (possibly based on Theodore Sturgeon) who wanders through several of Vonnegut’s books. In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater he meets Eliot Rosewater, trustee of a philanthropy called the Rosewater Foundation and a man whom the family lawyers are trying to have declared insane. Which he is, of course, but that doesn’t make the family right for having him declared so, and besides, the insane have a kind of wisdom all their own, and . . .
The book is a mess. It would have fallen by the wayside—Vonnegut is much wittier when he isn’t trying to be funny—if he hadn’t followed it with his most famous book four years later. Even the rolling title page conveyed the mad Vonnegut touch: Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, by “Kurt Vonnegut Jr., a Fourth-Generation German-American Now Living in Easy Circumstances on Cape Cod and Smoking Too Much, Who, as an American Infantry Scout Hors de Combat, as a Prisoner of War, Witnessed the Fire Bombing of Dresden, Germany, ‘The Florence of the Elbe,’ a Long Time Ago, and Survived to Tell the Tale.”
The science-fiction elements were still present in this tale of Billy Pilgrim, an eye doctor from upstate New York who comes unstuck in time, bouncing randomly back and forth through his life—from the moment he survived the firebombing of Dresden as a young Allied prisoner of war, hiding with his guards in a German slaughterhouse, to the moment he was kidnapped by fourth-dimensional aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. The mythopoeic boom in the rat-a-tat prose, as well, with the sad irony of “so it goes,” the antiwar novel’s repeated catchphrase:
But yet another element had stumbled into Vonnegut’s writing with God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: an observational intensity and social comedy that Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March and Henderson the Rain King gave that generation of writers. It came to fruition, for Vonnegut, with Slaughterhouse-Five. The book is astonishingly depressing for something so funny. Or maybe, astonishingly comic for something so gloomy. Billy Pilgrim is the most passive character in American fiction, and whether Vonnegut himself is selling America that kind of fatal quietism remains an unanswered question.
He’s certainly selling something in Slaughterhouse-Five. The unnamed narrator intrudes himself into the novel enough to be Vonnegut’s stand-in, the figure who speaks for the author. Of course, Kilgore Trout rambles through the book as well, making strange, wry, and generally pacifist comments, and the science-fiction writer clearly works, in later novels and stories, as Vonnegut’s surrogate.
By any measure, Slaughterhouse-Five is a deeply personal book. The scenes of the prisoners in the firebombed slaughterhouse, for example, are based on Vonnegut’s own harrowing experience as a G.I. in Dresden after his capture. And yet, Slaughterhouse-Five is so personal it becomes impersonal—a book with so many Vonnegut figures walking through it that what’s left is only the book’s simultaneously sad and amusing message that the passage of time is incomprehensible, and free will a story we tell ourselves to stay sane. More or less.