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

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

IntrodChapter 1
Sarah Chen-Chi Hu


You Won't Pee, You Fool--

From the confessions of the author/narrator in Chapter One, I divide the difficulties and frustration in the composing of the war book into two interrelated categories: one is rooted in the nature of its subject matter, and the other results from the inappropriateness and inefficiency of traditional narrative forms. Schriber also has the same observation, ''The anti-war novel tradition's formal offering to the narrator and tradition's mold for the Dresden experience, is the source of the narrator's frustration . . . " (179).

First, I will discuss the author's frustration in composing the war book results from the nature of its subject. When the author/narrator tells his movie-maker friend about his plan to write a book on Dresden firebombing, which means to show the brutality and insanity of the war--an anti-war novel, he receives an unenthusiastic response: ''Why don't you write an anti-glacier book instead?" (3). Through this incident, the narrator actually learns that ''they [wars] were as easy to stop as glaciers" (3). This conversation points out one of the important characteristics of SF. The efforts spend on writing the book about the atrocity of the Dresden bombing for the prevention of war is as futile and repetitive as the song that goes:

My name is Yon Yonson,

I work in Wisconsin,

I work in a lumbermill there.

The people I meet when I walk down the street,

They say, ''What's your name?"

And I say,

''My name is Yon Yonson,

I work in Wisconsin . . . " (3)

The song can go on to repeat itself to infinity just as the author/narrator can write an anti-war novel and still there is war. Consequently, in an interview, Vonnegut has tried to remind his readers that not every problem in the world can find a solution: . . . it strikes me as gruesome and comical that . . . we have an expectation that a man can always solve his problems. There is that implication that if you just have a little more energy, a little more fight, the problem can always be solved. This is so untrue that it makes me want to cry¡Xor laugh. (166) Therefore, as the author/narrator honestly parallels his inability to the young man from Stamboul, who suffers from ''penile dysfunction" probably of ''excessive sexual activity," he challenges the sacred image of a traditional author based on the realization that an author's power is limited in presenting Dresden massacre (Matheson 231). It would be inappropriate if the author/narrator still thinks that he possesses god-like power in the construction of the novel. As the author/narrator spends twenty-three years and his Guggenheim money, but still fails to write a book about Dresden, he is reminded of the funny limerick, in which a young man loses his health and wealth: There was a young man from Stamboul,

Who soliloquized thus to his tool:

''You took all my wealth

And you ruined my health

And now you won't pee, you fool." (2-3)

Here, sexual impotence is compared to the inability to write, just as the ''tool" (penis) is to pen. The narrator, of course, suffers his ''impotence" in the act of writing because he wrongly believes that ''his tool" can easily conquer the problems in the composing of his war novel when he first tried to write about Dresden when he came back from the war twenty-three years ago. As ''an old fart with his memories and his Pall Malls," (7) he has realized the mistakes he made and the reason why he can't ''pee," one of the physical functions a young man should have, which suggests the author's failure to function as a writer.

Ups and Downs, Ups and Downs

The first mistake lies in the narrator's false belief that ''since the subject was so big" (2) he must create a fictional story with an ''irony so great"(5). As the narrator confesses,

. . . as a trafficker in climaxes and thrills and characterization and wonderful dialogue and suspense and confrontations, I had outlined the Dresden story many times. . . . One end of the wallpaper was the beginning of the story, and the other end was the end, and then there was all that middle part, . . . . The destruction of Dresden was represented by a vertical band of orange crosshatching. . . . The end, where all the lines stopped. . . . (5) However, this traditional fiction writing mode which presents a coherent structure and follows chronological sequence leading to some climaxes and followed by resolution at the end is no longer suitable for the construction of the author's experiences of the Dresden firebombing. This particular subject refuses to give any reason and logic. It is a completely chaotic incident in the author/narrator's life as well as the history of human beings. Just as in Cat's Cradle, the Bokonon answer for the question ''What can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?" in ''The Fourteen Book" consists only in ''one word and a period¡XNothing" (164). The Dresden firebombing is absurd and incomprehensible. Therefore, it would be unfaithful and inappropriate to use a fictional writing mode which creates a well-made plot, in which characters develop progressively and logically, since in a real life situation ''people refuse to be characters." Thus, without surprise, the plot on the back of the wallpaper with ''a beginning, a middle and an end" (5) is destined to be ''thrown away" (15).

Vonnegut also uses the funny behavior of Billy to ridicule the realistic representation. When Billy serves as an infantry scout in the army, his loss of one of his shoes makes him ''bob up-and-down, up-and-down "(33). This funny act of Billy parodies traditional story telling where there will always be climax and suspense, which is just as obsolete and ridiculous as one with a shoe missing in composing a book on the Dresden firebombing.

Also, there are two discussions of the novel in the experience of Billy's time traveling which might appear to be trivial but are actually important episodes for understanding Vonnegut's ideas of traditional fiction. When Billy Pilgrim is captured by the Trafamadorians, he asks for a novel to read. The only earthling book they have is Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susan, ''with all its ups and downs, up and downs" (88). The book is definitely not a masterpiece or a standard sample in English if one wants to recommend a book to the outer space creatures to demonstrate what are some of the best novels in the earthling world. Therefore, Vonnegut also comments on the masterpiece, The Brothers Karamozov, by Feodor Dostoevsky. Eliot Rosewater, a major fictional character in God Bless You Mr. Rosewater and a science fiction fan of Kilgore Trout, tells ''an interesting thing to Billy one time about a book that wasn't science fiction." He thinks ''everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers of Karamazov, but ''that wasn't enough any more . . . " (101). What is not enough here are the traditional forms. Through these two seemingly unrelated episodes, Vonnegut shows the inadequacy of the traditional fictional writing form.

A Found Object

The second mistake is to innocently regard the task of fictional writing as easy as ''to report" (2) realistically of what he has seen in the war. Personal experiences of the war do not guarantee the production of ''a masterpiece" of the witness account (2). When Vonnegut was asked in an interview if the writing of SF was on a purely realistic level, he replied:

. . . the book was largely a found object. It was what was in my head, and I was able to get it out, but one of the characteristics about this object was that there was a complete blank where the bombing of Dresden took place, because I don't remember. And I looked up several of my war buddies and they didn't remember, either. They didn't want to talk about it. There was a complete forgetting of what it was like. There were all kinds of information surrounding the event, but as far as my memory bank was concerned, the center had been pulled right out of the story. There was nothing up there to be recovered¡Xor in the heads of my friends, either. (qtd. in Allen 94) Personal memories are helpless in writing Dresden, as the author/narrator claims, ''not many words about Dresden came from my mind then¡Xnot enough of them to make a book, anyway" (2). If the author can not merely use his personal experiences as writing materials, he can supposedly use official or historical documents since the book is based on a real historical event. However, it is even a greater disappointment for him because the facts of Dresden firebombing did not have the publicity it should have deserved and the information of the raid was still kept as top secret by the Air Force. ''Secret? My God¡Xfrom whom?" says the narrator about the unnecessary protection of such an event which should have been exposed to the public.

Consequently, neither the author's personal memories nor the official history can help with the composing of the war book. The event itself is impossible to be represented simply through the recollection of the data or the writer's memories. Even though the firebombing can be represented, it would become a reproducing of cruelty and violence, which the narrator refuses to do. The narrator's mentioning of his experience as a police reporter (8) also suggests his realization of not writing a war book on the basis of realism, which would have to represent the horror of the massacre again. The story he covers is about a veteran who is squashed by elevator because his ''wedding ring was caught in all the ornaments" (9). The worst part comes when the narrator has to ''dictate over the telephone" and also call the elevator man's wife for her response. Then he finally transforms the accident into a report. Therefore, although SF centers on the controversial historical event of the Dresden firebombing in the Second World War, we do not find ''a single description of the bombing . . . among its fifty thousand words" (Klinkowitz, Slaughterhouse-Five 44).

The Three Musketeers

The episode of the encounter between the narrator and Mary, the wife of his war buddy O'Hare, shows that the traditional war novels or movies are usually inappropriate glorification of personal heroism and justification of brutal killings. The exposition of the writing process by the author is actually a renunciation of the traditional war production of John Wayne.

In addition to the ''movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men," Vonnegut also shows his critical attitude on the inappropriate association between war and glamour in his parody of ''The Three Musketeers" and the English soldiers. Though Roland Weary ''dilated upon the piety and heroism of the ''The Three Musketeers," he is actually an infantry scout who is filled with ''tragic wrath" (50) rather than courage. He likes to show people his collection of ''guns and swords and torture instruments and leg irons" (35). He shares his experiences with Billy Pilgrim on how to make a worst torture of people, and spends most of his time making imaginative enemies to keep himself alive. Roland Weary gives his version of the war story like this:

. . . Weary and his antitank buddies fought like hell until everybody was killed but Weary . . . And the Weary tied in with two scouts, and they become close friend immediately, and they decide to fight their way back to their own lines. They were going to travel fast. They were damned if they'd surrender. They shook hands all around. They called themselves ''The Three Musketeers." (42) Obviously, Weary's accounts of war are merely constructions of personal heroism and fantasies. In contrast, Vonnegut's presentation of the American army in the war is actually a group of poorly equipped soldiers marching in ''the fools' parade" (58). Thus, through the parody of the legend of ''The Three Musketeers," Vonnegut shows the necessity to abandon the authorial power embedded in the war narrative.

Moreover, Vonnegut points out his critical attitude toward the Englishmen's wrong conception of war. In contrast to Billy Pilgrim's ''filthy flamingo" look, the Englishmen have bellies like washboards and muscles like cannon balls. They give a lecture to the American war prisoners on the importance of personal hygiene, which they regard as a means to keep themselves going on living. The Englishmen have more food than they actually need while the Russian soldiers starve. '' They made war look stylish and reasonable and fun" (94). Here, clearly with the negative image of Roland Weary and the ridiculous and impossible stories of his personal heroism in ''The Three Musketeers," Vonnegut points out a common pattern between the modern and traditional projection of war: ''it was a crazy, sexy, murderous relationship" (35). Although the image of the movie stars and the English soldiers are glamorous and courageous, they are actually as sick and morbid as the character Roland Weary.

Besides the inappropriate glorification of war of Weary and the movie, the author/narrator finds that people inappropriately exaggerate and distort the violence and atrocity of war into heroism and romance:

Romance, on the other hand, dilates upon their piety and heroism, and portrays, in her most glowing and impassioned hues, their virtue and magnanimity, the imperishable honor they acquired for themselves, and the great services they rendered to Christianity. (15-16) Not even the stories from the Bible can satisfy what the author's needs for the constructing of the book. As the author/narrator looks through the Gideon Bible for the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah for ''tales of great destruction," he understands that brutality and violence are easily justified because the Lord thinks ''the world was better off without them" (21). The narrator realizes that he does not want to use violence to solve problems, since he has warned his children that ''they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee" (19). As Robert Merrill and Peter Scholl point out, ''The real horror is that events such as Dresden continue to occur" (67) because people wrongly believe that violence can solve problems.