The Authorial Power/lessness in Kurt Vonnegut

Chapter One
The "Loss" of Authorial Power
in Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions

IntrodChapter 2
Sarah Chen-Chi Hu
  1. What is Authorial Power ?
  2. The Author Figures v.s. the Author
  3. On the Back of a Roll of Paper¡K
  4. A Comic Book?
  5. Poo-tee-weet?
What is Authorial Power ?

The challenges of authorial power as I have discussed in the introduction are not only caused by the social and political contexts of postwar America but also by critical literary discourses. In this chapter, I will do a focused examination of authorial control in the literary contexts of Vonnegut's SF and BC. I aim to examine the authorial control in terms of the author's textual control and his ability to offer meaning and solutions through his fictional world. In terms of textual control, the author's power over the characters, plot, structure, and verbal expression in the fiction are what I will examine in this thesis. As the author has control over these elements in the construction of his fiction, he is the source of meaning and the provider of solutions. Yet, Vonnegut loses certain authorial control as he adopts metafictional elements in composing his novels and thus seems "powerless." Therefore, I want to identify Vonnegut's loss of authorial power as he presents a negative image of a writer, problematizes the author identity, breaks the coherent narrative structure and chronological plot, and offers seemingly meaningless and nihilistic views on life.

To discuss Vonnegut's authorial control, I will first introduce authorial control in the tradition of realist and modernist literary presentations, since the latter are the backgrounds against which Vonnegut constructs his ideas of authorial "power" and "powerlessness." As Waugh suggests, in the realist tradition, especially in the case of nineteenth-century realism1, the authorial power is generally "derived from a firm belief in a commonly experienced, objectively existing world of history . . . " (Waugh 6). Therefore, for Waugh, the forms of fiction, and "the conflict of languages and voices," are "resolved . . . through their subordination to the dominant 'voice' of the omniscient, god-like author" (6). According to Waugh, the god-like power of the author over the text refers to "the well-made plot, chronological sequence, . . . the rational connection between what characters  'do' and what they  'are', the causal connection between  'surface' details and the  'deep',  'scientific laws' of existence" (7).

In addition to the omniscience and omnipotence assumed by nineteenth-century realist writers, the modernist presentation of the artist figure and its individual mental world is another frame of reference for the discussion of Vonnegut's novels. Take Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as an example, Stephen is an artist figure whose "development along esthetic lines as an artist . . . combines the religious functions of priest-teacher and sinner-scapegoat" (Scholes and Kellogg 170). As the novel develops, however, Stephen is the transcending artist figure who finally gains his own aesthetic view and the courage to fight against the rigid world of religion. Whereas the realistic novelists regard the external world as objective truth, the modernist is concerned "with the mind as itself the basis of an aesthetic, ordered at a profound level and revealed to consciousness at isolated  'epiphanic' moments (Waugh 23). Although readers will receive an " open ending" in a modernist fiction such as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the conflicts of "open ending" will always be resolved (Lodge 226). Waugh supports Lodge's idea by suggesting that "in modernist fiction, . . . the reader may be temporarily dislocated when point of view . . . is shifted, but is allowed to reorient him or herself to the new perspective and recontextualize each new piece of discourse (101). One good example of this shift of narrative perspective is the writing strategy of "stream of consciousness:" the author is powerful in penetrating the inner world of the characters and providing the reader with some kind of vision. Thus, in both the realistic and modernistic tradition, the author dominates over the fictional world, whether it be external or psychological, has absolute control over its meaning, and functions as the source to offer solutions to the problems in the novel and the meanings to the objective world. In other words, the "author" I discuss is not Vonnegut the person, but the authorial presence and control he inscribes into the text.

The Author Figures v.s. the Author

In discussing Vonnegut's authorial power, I should first stress that this presentation is definitely not a biographical study of Kurt Vonnegut, nor an attempt to associate his real life incidents with the stories in his fictional works. Nor is it a psychological analysis of Vonnegut's mental health as a means to validate the credibility of his writings. Rather, one obvious sign of "the author" is author figure in these two novels of Vonnegut. Kilgore Trout, a reflection of the author image, is generally presented as an unpopular and trivial science fiction writer in contrast to the traditional sacred image of the author such as that of Stephen Dedalus.

In SF, Trout is described as a negative writer figure who does not treat writing seriously. "He himself [Kilgore Trout] has no idea how many novels he has written possibly seventy-five of the things. Not one of them has made money. So Trout keeps body and soul together as a circulation man for the Ilium Gazette, manages newspaper delivery boys, bullies and flatters and cheats little kids" (166). In BC, neither is Kilgore Trout presented as a professional writer: "he made his living as an installer of aluminum combination storm windows and screens. He had nothing to do with the sales end of the business¡Xbecause he had no charm" (20). Not only is Kilgore Trout never appreciated as a writer, his novels are usually associated with pornography. Even more miserably, his science fiction novels are used as toilet paper in jail by one of the characters in BC, and ironically the character becomes the only person who has ever read Kilgore Trout except for his secret fan, Eliot Rosewater. Metaphorically, Vonnegut implies the loss of the god-like power of the author as he presents Trout as a writer who cannot even control and decide what kind of illustrations to go with his novels. Trout's novel is equivalent to garbage, since its creator is a trashy artist or no artist at all. Also, Trout's frustration and personal problems as a writer in the story hold parallel to those of the author's. In BC, Trout has a depressing childhood, which possibly explains his pessimistic views of life. Trout might also pass his unhealthy ideas to his readers in the fiction. Through the clownish presentation of the powerless author figure, Vonnegut challenges the author as the source of meaning and the provider of solution as in the traditional narrative.

In addition to the belittled image of the author by the writer figure Kilgore Trout, in the text, there is a "Vonnegut" surrogate, by which I mean that Vonnegut appears as an author figure who embodies the biographical features of Vonnegut and interacts with the fictional characters. The various arrangement of the authorial intrusion is one of the most puzzling yet intriguing elements in Vonnegut's fictional work. A brief overview on Vonnegut's treatment of "the author" and "the narrator" in the other two of his metafcitional novels, Cat's Cradle and Mother Night, will help explain the more complicated relationships between the author and the narrator in SF and BC.

In Mother Night, Vonnegut plays a trick which complicates the discussion of author. Although Vonnegut presents the story of the double agent through the first-person narrative of Howard Campbell himself, Vonnegut also reminds his readers that behind the narrator "I, " there is actually an omniscient author, Vonnegut. In the "Editor's Note," Vonnegut tricks his readers by playing both as the author and editor of Cambell's autobiographical confession. As the author, he writes, "As for my own tinkerings with the text, they are few, I have corrected some spelling, removed some exclamation points, and all the italics are mine" (x). Traditionally, the "Editor's Note" functions as background information or explanation to the composing of the novels. But here, it raises doubt to the credibility of Campbell's stories rather than give any support to the documentary-like narrative. Also, the author Vonnegut becomes as much fictional as Campbell. Contradictorily, however, the author of Mother Night still possesses a certain degree of the traditional omniscient power, since the author still remains in control over the stories, which are presented as Howard Campbell's biographical documents in a realistic sense.

Another example of the doubling of the author appears in Cat's Cradle, which is written by two writer figures, John or Jonah, and Vonnegut. The novel, moreover, is about John's process of writing a book called "The Day the World Ended," which is still left unfinished at the "end." Here, Vonnegut does leave an ambiguous connection between Jonah the writer figure and the author of the book when Jonah suggests that the "screwy name" on the pedestal is "my last name, too" (54-55). The point is not to associate Jonah with the biographical Vonnegut so as to find out the mysterious identity of Jonah. In this novel, the writer figure is without doubt the author of "the book within the book, "but is also becoming the author of the book Cat's Cradle. Therefore, Jonah functions as the double of the author as the author constantly reveals the writing process of the very book readers are reading. Although Vonnegut makes the traditionally invisible author figure present in the novel as the writer figure, Jonah, and exposes his writing process, the omniscient power of the author still remains in his over-manipulation of meaning through 127 subtitles.

While Cat's Cradle and Mother Night show the author and the narrator as double and fictitious, in SF, Vonnegut gives more challenges to the identity of the traditional author. Usually, readers are not supposed to mistake the narrator of the book for the real life author. However, unlike Cat's Cradle and Mother Night, in which the author still remains at the outside of the ficitonal frame, in SF, the third person authorial voice of the narrative occasionally shifts into the first person "I," and enters the narrative as a character. As Klinkowitz points out, "what distinguishes Vonnegut's novel is that its real-life author is present within the text: as the narrative's central character in its first and last chapters, and as a person who appears three times within the action that evolves in chapters 2-9" (Reforming the Novel 21). In SF, Vonnegut is the omniscient narrator of the text and also a fictional writer figure in the text. Thus, the god-like position of the author in the text is challenged. For instance, the stories of Billy Pilgrim being unstuck in time and his experiences in the Second World War and the planet Tralfamadore are intruded upon by the author. When Billy is experiencing the tragic moment of the dying of the colonel, Wild Bob, Vonnegut interrupts it by reminding the reader that "I was there. So was my old war buddy, Bernard V. O'Hare" (67). When Billy's eyewitness of the American soldiers' sickness in the latrine is presented, the scene is shattered by an interruption: "An American near Billy wailed that he had excreted everything but his brains. . . . That was I. That was the author of this book" (125). On Billy's way to Dresden, Vonnegut breaks into the movement by associating the scene with his experiences in the Second World War: "Somebody behind him in the boxcar said,  'Oz.' That was I. That was me" (148).

In BC, Vonnegut as the author of the book actually turns himself into one of the "main" characters in his novel, who converses with his characters as he creates them and tells the stories of his own life. In SF, Vonnegut does turn himself into the character "I," but most of the time, the Vonnegut persona stays out of the narrative as the third-person narrator of the story. However, in BC, the existence of the authorial voice and the development of the characters are mutually dependent. The characters need the author as much as the author needs his characters in the text. Vonnegut challenges the author's dominance over the text because the authorial intrusions undermine the omniscient power of the author as in SF. The strategy of narrative intrusion is even more frequently used in BC. Moreover, it is not only done in the form of intrusion, but actually through the author as a character. This strategy reveals the author narrator's daily life and personal problems. For example, some factual information in the ordinary life of the author narrator disrupts the fictional world he is creating: "Patty Keene hadn't heard the big news yet. Neither had Dwayne, Neither had Kilgore Trout. I only found out about it day before yesterday" (143-144). "I do not know who invented the body bag. I do know who invented Kilgore Trout. I did" (32). A body bag is a kind of invention to carry the bodies of soldiers who die in the Vietnam War. Also, the story is intruded upon through the association of the figure in real life and the fictional character: "Bunny's mother ate Drano. My mother ate sleeping pills, which wasn't nearly as horrible" (181). Moreover, the intrusion goes further as the narrator turns himself into one of the characters whose stories are largely revealed and intermingled with the other characters in the novel. The author surrogate enters into the text and also has interaction with them: "I had come to the Arts Festival incognito. I was there to watch a confrontation between two human beings I had created: Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout" (192).

In both novels, with the act of narrative intrusion, the identity of the author becomes doubled, fictitious and trivialized, and thus, compared to the author in realistic or modernist narrative tradition, their omniscient and omnipotent power is greatly reduced. As Waugh points out clearly,

The author attempts desperately to hang on to his or her  'real' identity as creator of the text we are reading. What happens, however, when he or she enters it is that his or her own reality is also called into question. . . . The  'author' discovers that the language of the text produces him or her as much as he or she produces the language of the text. (133) While the author breaks the borderline between the creator and the created by descending from his superior position and entering the very text he is composing, he is not only questioning the god-like power of the realistic author but also breaking the narrative coherence and the structural control by the act of authorial intrusion. Thus, authorial intrusion makes the author powerless in terms of the author position in the text and structural control over text.