Vonnegut Reissues

Richard Rayner from the LA Times talks about some reissues of Vonnegut’s early works.  If I may have a soapbox moment, I think he misses an important point about Slaughterhouse-Five.  The opening line of the main narrative “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time” does not lead to an either/or argument about Billy’s sanity.  He doesn’t have to be sane and truly (re)living the events depicted in the novel nor does he have to be necessarily insane.  By being unstuck in time Billy wanders back and forth through events in his life while at the same time he’s actually enacting our day to day entrapment in history.  This is part of the beauty of a book that deals with so hellish a reality as the fire bombing of Dresden.  On a simple level we each have experiences that we cannot let go of, or are not allowed to let go of, and The Children’s Crusade is certainly representative of one of those.  To be unstuck in time is partially to be stuck in time.  The traumatic experiences of the war cannot be escaped and whether or not Billy is sane is of secondary importance to the larger trauma that keeps Billy bouncing around in a book.  Tralfamadore is as real as the book since the experience of time that they propound is the experience of reading:

All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist.  The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance.  They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them.  It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads ona string, ant that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.” (27)

What Vonnegut beautifully takes out of the equation for a human experiencing time as the Tralfamadorians do is control.  So Billy and the reader both bop through time continually haunted by events not entirely different from the way trauma leads us to relive things.

The irony that a novel focusing on this aspect would continually serve as the haunting point of return for damn near every review ever written about him would, of course, come as no surprise to Vonnegut.

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3 responses to “Vonnegut Reissues

  1. Sarah October 18, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    Very well said!

    You know, it’s only recently (when someone else suggested it) that it even occurred to me that Billy Pilgrim might be insane, that the events of his story might not be true within the world of the novel. As “duh/doh!” as that felt at the time, I think it speaks to your point, which is that Billy’s sanity or not isn’t the point. What he’s been forced to endure is.

  2. Pingback: Lethem, Miller and Vonnegut « Post 45

  3. Nick October 18, 2009 at 7:33 pm

    Sarah,
    Thanks. I’ve had the same sort of experience. Since the “duh/doh!” moment I’ve tended to think of Billy as dangerously sane in sorta the Catch-22 sense.

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