The Authorial Power/lessness in Kurt Vonnegut

Chapter Two
Power/lessness of the Author
in Slaughterhouse-Five

IntrodChapter 1
Sarah Chen-Chi Hu
  1. From Powerlessness to Power
  2. A Bottle of Coke-Cola
  3. A Duty Dance with Death
  4. A Black Humorist
  5. Kilgore Trout v.s. the Author
  6. You Won't Pee, You Fool--
  7. Ups and Downs, Ups and Downs
  8. A Found Object
  9. The Three Musketeers
  10. To be Unstuck in Time
  11. The Death of the Author?
  12. Historiographic Metafiction

From Powerlessness to Power

As is discussed in Chapter One, the author in SF seems powerless as he lacks the traditional authorial power. However, in this chapter, through the examinations of Vonnegut's thematic concerns and writing strategies, I want to argue that the author actually embodies power in his apparent powerlessness. Among the various subjects presented in the novel, I will focus on three of Vonnegut's major concerns: destruction and irrationality of the Second World War, which culminates in the Dresden firebombing, incomprehensibility of death in life and how these two subjects can be represented in writing.

In this chapter, therefore, through the examination of Vonngut's thematic concerns and their relationships to the apparent loss of the authorial control identified in Chapter One, I want to argue that Vonnegut actually chooses to abandon the traditional authorial power in order to find an appropriate novelistic form for his subjects of the absurdities of war and death in life. Structurally, I divide my discussions into three main parts. To begin with, I will focus on Vonnegut's black humor presentation in the absurdities in Billy's life. Next, I will discuss the functions of the writer figure Kilgore Trout and the authorial intrusion in the novel, through which the author loses his god-like position and power in the act of fictional writing about the absurdities in life. In addition, I will examine Vonnegut's strategic arrangement of form which helps him undermine traditional fictional narratives, such as war movies, legends and fairytales, though the metafictional elements at the same time take away the author's power in constructing a coherent structure and chronological plot. Finally, I aim to discuss how the space travel motif of scientific narrative constructs the structure of SF and its relationship with the themes of war and death. Definitely, Vonnegut is not the only one to discuss the subjects of death and war in fiction; however, only through discarding the traditional authorial power can Vonnegut bring forth a powerful new perspective to the absurdity of history and prescribe ''corrective lenses" to the distorted views projected by the traditional way of story telling, while preventing these views from being absolute and final.

A Bottle of Coke-Cola

Billy is a character who helps Vonnegut to present life as absurd. Unlike traditional realistic representation of a character, readers are never offered a logical cause and effect explanation of Billy's clownish and funny behaviors. For one thing, the name ''Billy Pilgrim" does not imply the character's spiritual journey in a traditional representative way, but is rather parodic. As Waugh suggests,

The use of names in traditional fiction is usually part of an aim to disguise the fact that there is no difference between the name and the thing named: to disguise this purely verbal existence. . . . Names are used to display the arbitrary control of the writer, and the arbitrary relationships to language. . . . (93-94) However, according to Waugh, the name Billy Pilgrim points out ''the problem of reference." ''The naming process" is ''deployed explicitly to split open the conventional ties between the real and fictive worlds rather than to reinforce them by mapping out a moral frame work (93-94). There is thus an incongruity between the presentation of the character and the symbolic meaning of his name ''Pilgrim."

In addition, the author does not attempt to offer the inner world of Billy as authors of ''stream of consciousness" in modernist tradition might do to reveal all the elements in a character's mind as clues for the analysis of his personal problems. It is almost impossible to analyze Billy through the conversations in the novel since he seldom communicates with others. When he does speak up, he uses as few words as possible. What we are offered are only glimpses and fragments of his life presented not in chronological order but through his random travelling between the past and future. The characterization of Billy is rather a combination of incongruous signs and ridiculous moments than a realistic character with psychological depth and spiritual progress, which is, for me, the author's use of black humor strategies to comment on the absurdity of life. The author refuses to reveal more about Billy, just as he admits his inability to comprehend life.

Billy is ''a funny-looking child who became a funny-looking youth¡Xtall and weak, and shaped like a bottle of Coca-Cola" (23). When he serves in the army, he does not look like a soldier at all; instead, he looks like '' a filthy flamingo" (33). Ironically, he is presented as a typical American when a photographer who wants ''a picture of an actual capture" catches the scene of Billy and Roland Weary's bare feet to show ''how miserably equipped the American Army often was"(58). After Billy eyewitnesses the numerous deaths in the war and finally survives the Dresden holocaust, ''he burst into tears" (197) simply because he sees the horse being use as transportation. Ironically, Billy '' hadn't cried about anything else in the war" (197). Thus, the ridiculousness of Billy's inability to cry for anything but the horse is not just the problem of an individual's apathy; it reflects the lack of meaning of war itself.

In addition to Billy' s awkward physical appearance and ridiculous behavior reflecting the absurdity of the war he participates in, his other experiences in life are as terrifying and incomprehensible as his war experiences. As a child, Billy has the terrible experience of being put in the swimming pool by his father, which for him is like ''an execution," though his father only means to train him how to swim (44). When Billy's parents bring him all the way to the Grand Canyon by ''seven blowouts on the way," Billy has the feeling that '' he was going to fall in" and he is so scared that he wets his pants as his mother touches him (89). Ironically, the crucifix from Billy's mother does not bring any salvation to him, but the ''clinical fidelity" of the Christ's wounds have made Billy ''contemplated torture and hideous wounds at the beginning and the end of nearly every day of his childhood" (38).

Instead of being a pilgrim with a sense of meaning and mission, Billy drifts from one moment to another in his life, and stays passive to the events around him. Even as a successful middle-aged optometrist, Billy dozes off when he examines his patients for the prescription of corrective lenses. Though Billy has a family, it seems that no one really understands him. Not even Billy can control or understand himself: ''Every so often, for no apparent reason, Billy Pilgrim would find himself weeping. Nobody had ever caught Billy doing it. . . . It was an extremely quiet thing Billy did, and not very moist" (61). Billy is not only unenthusiastic about his job, but more tragically he is unenthusiastic about living. Vonnegut points out Billy's relationship with his mother, which is not based on love, but rather on hatred, when Billy's mother visits him in the hospital. ''She [Billy's mother] upset Billy simply by being his mother. She made him feel embarrassed and ungrateful and weak because she had gone to so much trouble to give him life, and to keep that life going, and Billy didn't really like life at all" (102).

Here, Billy's life summarizes Vonnegut's view on human existence as absurd: life is without reason or logic, but full of the unpredictable and the grotesque. In this sense, Vonnegut gives up the power of a realist author to understand and present his characters, just as his characters are incapable of making sense of life. As the author/narrator points out: ''There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces" (140).