1970
Friday, June 8, 2012 at 5:01PM
National Book Foundation

Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade

By Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Original Publisher: Delacorte

Current Publisher: Dial Press

Charles Yu writes:

There’s nothing I could say to anyone on Earth about this book that hasn’t already been said and, more importantly, said better than I could say it. That’s not being modest, just realistic. Instead, I’m directing this toward the non-Earthlings who read this blog and are thinking of picking up a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five at the library or bookstore.

First things first, if you are from Tralfamadore, you know all of this already. You also know that Slaughterhouse-Five is, in fact, a Tralfamadorian novel that just happens to have been published on Earth. All of the parts that are brilliant and moving to a reader like me, you probably think of as obvious and commonplace observations about four-dimensional existence.

So this is for you, non-Earthling non-Tralfamadorian aliens. You are wondering, what is this book and why do so many humans think it’s so special?

The main thing you have to know is that the genius of Mr. Vonnegut was not one of creation, it was one of application. To Earthlings, it might appear that Slaughterhouse-Five is a brilliant experiment with form and voice, a metafictional, comic time-travel story about war and the absurdity, fullness, banality of life as a human. But really, as any Tralfamadorian literary critic will tell you, Vonnegut’s real insight was in recognizing the relevance of the Tralfamadorian perspective for the human form called the novel.

In some Earth novels, the characters move through time in a highly artificial way: in a straight line, in one direction, toward death. (Yes, yes, I know you are laughing now. And I don’t blame you. In our defense, I will say that this is mostly just a literary convention, although I admit that human notions of time are primitive and that many people here do actually think this is how time works).

Now, obviously a uniform forward progression of time is not adequate for conveying, in even the most basic sense, the strangeness and mystery of a life, even a life lived through the severely limited perceptual field of someone who can only see in three dimensions, like a human. What Vonnegut realized is that a novel, more than any other Earthling technology, is the closest humans come to transcending these three-dimensional blinders, the closest we get to being able to see things the way Tralfamadorians do. And, in fact, by writing a novel that views life on Earth through a Tralfamadorian point of view, Vonnegut invented a new form, at least for this planet, a way of telling a story that allowed him to have distance, to move in a direction perpendicular to any visible or tangible axis that humans ordinarily perceive, unlocking a new degree of freedom. What Vonnegut did, in effect, was create a three-dimensional story, and place it into a four-dimensional box, allowing the reader to move through the life of Billy Pilgrim in a conventional fashion and, then at certain points, to pop up and out of the story, just the way Billy did in his own life, creating a feeling of being above the story, outside of it, simultaneously enclosed within the space of the novel, and yet not in its timeline. In some kind of envelope around it, some layer where it is possible to get the proper perspective, the necessary perspective to understand a life, to fold time, bunch it up, gather it up by the fistful and examine the stuff.

Sorry, I got kind of carried away there. I should back up.

So, on Earth there is a thing called war and the biggest one was called World War II, which lasted six years and resulted in millions of Earthlings dying, at the hands of each other, many of whom were children, and many others who were practically children. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust. Over a hundred thousand humans died from just two bombs, dropped a few days apart, first on a place called Hiroshima, and then on a place called Nagasaki. I could go on, but I won’t; I’m sure you’ll be looking at the alien equivalent of Wikipedia for the rest. If you had any vacation plans for Earth, I’m guessing you are now calling your travel agent to see if your tickets are refundable. Slaughterhouse-Five is about one massacre in particular, an event known as the fire-bombing of Dresden, in which tens of thousands of people were killed in just a few days. As Vonnegut himself says in the book, “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre” so I’ll just stop trying to say anything more about it now.

Perhaps you see the problem now for us humans. How do you write a novel about life on Earth after World War II has happened? If you are Vonnegut, even though you fought in the war, even though you are a storyteller, how can you possibly tell a story about an event like this, one so disruptive, both personally and globally, that it breaks any frame you try to put around it, that it makes even the idea of a story in general seem dubious, the idea of something tidy with a beginning, middle and end, in which events transpire that seem to have some meaning. How do you make a story after something like World War II calls into question the basic nature of the story-making enterprise, this construction or extraction of meaning out of things that happen in our lives?

Which brings us back to Vonnegut, and the way he answered the question how do you say anything intelligent about a massacre? Answer: you don’t.

Vonnegut puts it better than anyone else, here in the definition of a Tralfamadorian novel:

There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.

Which is not to say that the horror of war has a hidden meaning in the fourth dimension. Certain aspects of human existence that seem nonsensical in three-dimensions still seem pretty ridiculous when viewed in four. What Vonnegut showed us is this: maybe you can’t say anything intelligent about the massacre, but if you can manage to say something about the massacre and also what came before and what comes after, and what, if anything, lives on throughout all of that, if you can speak in two registers at once, vox humana and vox celeste, then you might be able to say something beautiful, not about the massacre, but about all of it, about everything, which includes the massacre, which is maybe not much, but it’s not nothing. It’s something, and maybe something pretty obvious to Tralfamadorians, but to us people, this was a pretty big discovery by our Earthling Vonnegut.

Charles Yu was a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 selection for his short story collection, Third Class Superhero. His first novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, was a New York Times Notable Book and named by Time magazine as one of the Best Books of 2010. His writing has appeared in Harvard Review, The New York Times, Playboy, and Slate, among other places. He lives in Santa Monica with his wife and their two children. (Photo: Michelle Jue)

Fiction Finalists That Year: 

Fiction Winner That Year: Joyce Carol Oates for them

Fiction Judges That Year: Barbara Epstein, Peter Matthiessen, Harvey Swados

The Year in Literature:

More Information: Slaughterhouse-Five was made into a 1972 film of the same title directed by George Roy Hill and starring Michael Sacks, Ron Leibman, and Valerie Perrine. Vonnegut loved the film, calling it a “flawless translation” of his novel.

Article originally appeared on National Book Award Fiction Finalists (http://nbafictionfinalists.squarespace.com/).
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