Chapter Two Power/lessness of the Author in Slaughterhouse-Five
|A Duty Dance
To further explain Vonnegut's cosmic view on life as absurd, I will discuss Vonnegut's perception on death with Billy as an example of the absurdity in life. It is without doubt that SF is a war novel about the historical incident of the Dresden firebombing, but as the subtitle suggests it is also ''A Duty Dance with Death," which means ''No art is possible without a dance with death" (21). As Klinkowitz clearly observes, '' . . . death . . . pervades the novel¡Xone hundred deaths, of all forms of life, do appear, an average of ten per chapter, far more separate incidents of death than in even conventional war stories" (Reforming 87). Death is the most painful experience in war; therefore, to find out the true nature of death is important in the discussion of the Dresden firestorm.
Death does appear in various forms throughout the novel, which is exactly the way death approaches and surrounds us. Whether it is the death of a minor fictional character or the death of an important historical figure, it is unpredictable and unavoidable. As the war story of Billy Pilgrim proceeds, we encounter several minor characters' death. Roland Weary, the torture maniac dies of ''gangrene that had started on his mangled feet" (79). Edgar Derby, the high school teacher, is put on a trial and shot dead for stealing a tea pot, which the author wants to put as the climax of the story because the ''irony is so great" (5). Though Billy can fortunately escape the firebombing of Dresden and survives from an airplane crash, Billy is doomed to be killed by Paul Lazzaro, who wants to revenge Billy for Weary's death. Billy's father dies in a hunting accident and his wife, Valencia, dies from a car accident while she is driving to see Billy in the hospital injured by an airplane crash. Billy's mother dies of disease and old age, and she asks Billy an unanswerable question in her last few words ''How did I get so old?"" The narrator's father dies from ''natural causes "(210). From these various causes of death, Vonnegut reminds readers the reality of human existence that ''even if wars didn't keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death" (4).
In addition to the fictional reality, Vonnegut also offers deaths of the historical reality. There were about 135,000 people killed in the Dresden firebombing; Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King are both shot dead; '' . . . every day my Government gives me a count of corpses created by military science in Vietnam" (210). Moreover, there are other forms of death that we usually don't pay any attention to or feel sorry for. ''The champagne was dead" because ''it didn't make a pop" (73). ''Body lice and bacteria and fleas were dying by the billions" (84). ''The water was dead" as ''bubbles were clinging to the walls of the glass, too weak to climb out" (101).
No matter what kind of death the author is describing, whether it is the natural, the disastrous, or the grotesque, he gives the brief statement ''So it goes" as conclusion. It seems that the author does not care any more about the death of the hundreds of victims killed in the war than a lifeless object, such as a bottle of champagne. The painful experiences of death and the tragedy of the war seem to be simplified and trivialized by the overly reductive sentence. However, if we truly understand the nature of death and human existence, then ''So it goes" is never reductive or redundant. It functions as the wisdom to realize human mortality and the necessity to accept it. No matter the kind of death mentioned is tragic or trivial, natural or accidental, heroic or pathetic, they all co-exist with other kinds of human experience and have the same ending. Thus, there is nothing particular and extraordinary about death since we have been living with it and will finally have to face it. The purpose of the juxtaposition of the various forms of death and to give the same comment on them is to remind readers the commonness of death. As Schriber suggests, '' War is simply the absurdity of daily life raised to its highest power, and Slaughterhouse-Five is peppered with daily and wartime absurdities until its innards become a series of anti-norms, or ordering principles at variance with the expected, the reasonable" (183).
William Rodney Allen also points out this perception of death projected in the novel to affirm the positive and unsentimental function of the seemingly nihilistic and pessimistic ''So it goes:"
Consequently, the repetitive ''So it goes" is no longer a phrase which can be regarded as a projection of the author's fatalistic view. Instead, structurally, its abrupt interruption of the narrative coherence shows the similarity of all the occurrences of death and disaster in life. Thematically, it corresponds to the attitude of ''black humor" instead of ''facile fatalism" in the face of absurdity and unpredictability. Many critics identify Vonnegut's writing style as ''black humor," which Vonnegut himself explains in this way:
There is often confusion between Vonnegut's view with that of the character, Billy Pilgrim, or the Tralfamadorian view. When Billy is first kidnapped to the outer space, he asks a very ''earthling" question on why they choose him. ''There is no why" answers the green creatures, because the moment is simply like ''bugs trapped in the amber . . ." (76-77). When Billy asks Tralfamadorians ''how can a planet live at peace," he gets a response from those creatures as if he has asked the most stupid question they have ever heard. Since for those creatures, ''the moment is structured that way" and the whole universe will eventually be destroyed in an experiment with new fuels (117). Actually, Vonnegut distinguishes the nihilistic and determinist views of the Tralfamadorians from that of the author by the act of narrative intrusion, which exposes the fictionality of the world of the green creatures, and thus presents the world as only an alternative, not as a final or representation. Therefore, the narrative intrusion becomes a powerful strategy as it prevents Vonnegut from being a nihilist or determinist.
Still, the narrator in the opening and closing chapters faces a dilemma: ''There is nothing intelligent to say about the massacre," (19) because the incident of Dresden firebombing is a grotesque, unexpected and incomprehensible human experience. But Vonnegut as a writer has to look back. As Robert Scholes in his essay ''Comedy of Extremity" points out, ''black humor" is a way to ''both acknowledging its absurdity and showing how that very absurdity can be encompassed by the human desire for form" (Fabulation 148). Also, James Lundquist shares the same points of view in his essay, ''Slaughterhouse-Five." He thinks that the author's task in writing a war novel about an historical event is to ''bridge the increasing gap between the horrors of life in the twentieth century and our imaginative ability to comprehend their full actuality" (69). Consequently, how to find the exact form to convey the incomprehensible historical incident becomes the main task of the author in the constructing of the war novel.
Since Vonnegut presents his view of life as absurd, the author has to abandon the god-like power over the text and admit human limitation in comprehending life's absurdity. As the novel is concerned with the act of fictional writing, how Vonnegut presents the limits and the incapabilities of the author in the face of absurdity and death becomes one of the focuses in the examination of the authorial power. In the next part that follows, I will discuss Kilgore Trout as the writer figure who serves as a reflection on the author image. In SF, Trout's belittled image as an unprofessional writer echoes the author/narrator's confession of his inability and failure in composing the book. Taking the superior and all-knowing position of a god would be inappropriate in dealing with subjects of death and disasters because human power is limited and even futile in such case. However, the help of Kilgore Trout's science fiction offers Billy a positive example of the value of the struggling to compose a novel on the Dresden firestorm. The act of writing is necessary in helping Billy and Eliot Rosewater to ''re-invent themselves and their universe," because ''[t]hey had both found life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in war " (101). As Giannone points out, ''Survival is what Slaughterhouse-Five is all about, and so to take up the question of the novel's survival links form to action: the problem of living through the fire-bombing of Dresden is rivaled by the problem of writing about it¡K" (Slaughterhouse 83).
Also, through the creation of Kilgore Trout and his novel ''Gospel from Outer Space," Vonnegut uses the voice of the ridiculous and unsuccessful writer character to make an ironical statement that ''slipshod storytelling in the New Testament" makes Christians ''[find] it so easy to be cruel" (108). Kilgore Trout, though belittled and trivialized, serves as the spokesperson of Vonnegut to point out the flaw of the stories and revises the stories by turning Jesus into a nobody, but still, when he dies ''the heavens opened up" not because Jesus is ''the Son of the Most Powerful Being in the Universe" (109). At the same time, the creation of Kilgore Trout projects a negative image on writers, a device that actually helps Vonnegut to speak the unspeakable. Therefore, both Billy Pilgrim and Kilgore Trout are characters that empower the author through the apparent powerlessness.
In addition to Kilgore Trout as a reflection of the author image, the author surrogate who appears in the first and the final chapters of the book and in the form of authorial intrusion, is also crucial in Vonnegut's authorial power through denying. I would like to examine the necessity of the exposition of the writing process and the author's confession of his frustration in the composing of the book. Namely, how the narrator realizes the importance to face the absurdity of life and the commonness of death in the act of creating a war novel. Finally, I want to argue that the exposure of the writing process actually shows the narrator's struggle to fight against traditional fictional narrative in order to bring forth the right form. The part that follows will be the second section of this chapter.