The Authorial Power/lessness in
Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-V
and Breakfast of Champion

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

Introd.Chapter 2
Sarah Chen-Chi Hu
A Comic Book?    Poo-tee-weet?
A Comic Book?

Furthermore, Vonnegut has seemingly loss of control over verbal expression in both novels. The author in the tradition of realistic and modernist narratives has superb, if not absolute, control over language in constructing his fictional world with not only a coherent plot but also images and symbols which function to suggest deeper meaning. However, in BC, Vonnegut seems to have given up this attempt by using a lot of seemingly meaningless drawings as though he is offering readers a comic book. The illustrations are mainly rough sketches of some ordinary objects, such as hamburgers, fried chicken, and apples. There are even offensive drawings of a "wide open beaver," "female underpants," and "an asshole" in the book. The pictures will often follow right after the narrator mentions the object he is describing. For example, we will have a picture of a gun when we read "this was a tool whose only purpose was to make holes in human beings" (49). We will see the image of a cow when Vonnegut tells us the unnecessary fact that "a hamburger was made out of an animal which looked like this" (124). Just as Vonnegut says in his preface that "I am programmed at fifty to perform childishly¡Xto insult"(5), these graphics appear to be ridiculous and redundant to a piece of literary work, which ought to be a construction in verbal language. The shift of expression from linguistic construction to graphic presentation suggests a challenge to traditional artistic narrative. Whether the author loses this power in verbal expression to gain another kind of power will be discussed in Chapter Three.

In SF, the author also abandons the power of verbal expression to a certain degree, though he does not use as many illustrations as he does in BC (there are only three graphics, and all of them with words). It is noticeable that whenever death appears in the narrative, the narrator seems to have lost interest in presenting it or providing any meaningful comment on it, leaving the reader only with an abrupt and repetitive sentence, "So it goes," as a concluding remark. No matter it is the tens of thousands of death of the victims in the fire bombing of Dresden, or the death of the historical figures Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, or the death of an unheard elevator man, or the fictional character Billy Pilgrim and his wife, Valencia, or even a bottle of lifeless champagne, the Vonnegut author persona will always stop the narration with "So it goes." The expression is neither descriptive nor informative. It seems to be easy for the author to do so and when the pattern is set up, the responses we have to all the deaths in the novel seem to become the mechanic and meaningless "So it goes." But is it really true that Vonnegut's unrepresentative language means his inability over verbal expression or does it question the function of the language itself? In the traditional narrative, language is a means of the meaningful communication and visionary expression of the author. Thus, the author is in absolute control of the messages and meanings of the text and will offer readers solutions to the problems and issues discussed in the novel.


But, for SF, we are left wondering: what are the messages that the author wants to give on a massacre through SF? What is the meaning of the war, or what do human beings learn from the traumatic experience? How can we keep the peace of the world? What are human beings for?

If we are ever given any message, we seem to be offered contradictory information. In SF, the solution seems to be engraved in a silver chain around Montana Wildhack's neck,"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference" (209). However, it is undermined since Vonnegut points out that "among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present and the future" (60). Vonnegut seems to offer a rather nihilistic view, which does not help at all: we can do nothing to improve our world and nothing can be done or undone for what has happened. The final answer the book offers seems to be only the chirping of the bird "Poo-tee-weet?," which is more discouraging than comforting, since "everybody is supposed to be dead. . . . Everything is supposed to be quiet . . . except for the bird" (19).

In BC, Vonnegut as the author persona tells the reader that the issue he wants to explore in the book is the problem of "free will." Vonnegut clearly states that "so it is a big temptation to me, when I create a character for a novel, to say that he is what he is because of faulty wiring, or because of microscopic amounts of chemicals he ate or failed to eat on that particular day" (4). However, the story ends openly with the huge handwriting of "etc," which has appeared previously in chapter 20, and without any conclusion and solution to the problems in the novel.2 Or, if the author does offer any meaning, it seems to be as fatalistic as it is in SF since Dwayne Hoover has to go insane as a "destructive testing" by the influence of Kilgore Trout's fiction, and Kilgore Trout can never be freed by his creator Vonnegut. As SF is notorious for its "So it goes" and its end with bird talk, so BC is filled with "and so on." Thus, the stories of BC could go as far as it wants to be as long as it keeps clustering the stories of Dwayne, Kilgore and the Vonnegut author persona. This seems to imply that even if readers "finish" reading the novel, there is no "end" for the meaning. But here, I do not intend to limit the discussion of the author's ability to offer meaning or solution merely on whether there is an "end." As I have discussed previously, the negative author image, the loss of the omniscient authorial power, the breaking of fictional coherence, and the lack of control over verbal expression, all these characteristics in both novels of Vonnegut challenge the author as the ultimate and absolute origin of meanings and solutions.

However, can we claim that the loss of the traditional authorial power in the realistic and modernist sense is equal to the loss of all the authorial power, or the death of the author? In the following two chapters, I will do a close textual examination on SF and BC separately to see if the author is really powerless in his ways of presenting his subject matter and conveying his messages.


1 The term "realism" in the discussion of this thesis is mainly based on the postmodernist's view. To have a better understanding of the authorial power of realism, George Levine's The Realistic Imagination: English Fiction from Frankenstein to Lady Chatterley (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981) can be a helpful reference. Also, realism in this thesis refers to British realism. Michael Davitt Bell in The Problem of American Realism (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993) points out the problematic definition of American realism.

2As Vonnegut breaks the frame of BC by undermining the fictional with the factual, we can also regard the portrait of his own image in tears and the brief introduction of his life as the ending of the book. No matter which ending is taken into consideration, each presents the powerlessness of the author in terms of author image and textual control.