Chapter Two Power/lessness of the Author in Slaughterhouse-Five
|To be Unstuck
What Vonnegut wants to compose is not a fictional work with ups and downs which might dramatizes the event itself, but to point out the inappropriate heroism of war by projecting Weary as an anti-hero. Furthermore, he needs a new kind of fictional writing mode which can bring the unpopular historical event to the public attention without simply repeating or over glamorizing it. Vonngut has found the way and he incorporated the strategies by disguising himself a powerless author. To refuse the chronological mode of narrative and the dramatic plot of the traditional narrative, Vonnegut adopts the time traveling and extraterrestrial planet motifs which are common in science fiction genre. I will spend the rest of this chapter explaining Vonnegut's empowerment of the author by space travel motif. One thing that we should pay special attention to is that Vonnegut does not attempt to make SF merely a piece of science fiction, though Billy's time traveling adventures indeed qualify the book as one. What we should notice is the concept of time; the science fictional writing mode allows Vonnegut to be unrestrained by the concept of linear time. The author/narrator makes reference to the work of Celine, who is ''a brave French soldier in the First World War," (21) and quotes Celine's vision on the relationships between death and time:
Alackday, and fuck my luck. (98)
Unlike Billy Pilgrim, we are all stuck in time; therefore, we feel great sorrow for death and cannot get away from this tragic moment in life because we can only comprehend in the three dimensions. ''Later on in life, the Tralfamadorians would advise Billy to concentrate on the happy moments of his life, and to ignore the unhappy ones¡Xto stare only at pretty things as eternity failed to go by." For Billy, ''If this sort of selectivity had been possible . . ., he might have chosen as his happiest moment his sun-drenched snooze in the back of the wagon" (195) .1 However, Billy is only a fictional character and can never be regarded as a representative figure.
By allowing Billy Pilgrim to travel in the past, present and the future, Vonnegut is able to provide a narrative frame to present the event of the Dresden firebombing without making a cause-and-effect reasoning of it. The juxtaposition of the fragmented events and episodes in the past, present and future are presented ''not so much by themselves but rather in relation to one another" (Kilinkowitz, Reforming 86). The stink of the corpse mine, the ''roses and mustard gas," in Dresden resembles that of the narrator's breath after drinking too much for writing the book. The description of ''the blue and ivory feet" appears several times throughout the novel as an image both of the dead bodies and the narrator's frozen feet. Thus both descriptions connect together the subject of writing, the war, and the act of writing, the author.
Moreover, the time traveling constructs the main writing pattern, and the imaginative world derived from it provides an alternative to the present world on earth. The principle of ''unstuck in time" serves as a guide to the structure of the novel and the way the author wants it to be constructed:
Vonnegut refuses the traditional authorial power to present a representative character, a well-made plot and a narrative of linear time, and thus his author becomes powerless. However, Vonnegut also gains the authorial power to avoid the inappropriate projection of war as personal heroism and justified brutality. Vonnegut does not want to pin down his novel merely as science fiction, and he also wants to remind us that "time traveling" for human beings is never an ultimate solution or an absolute answer. Also, Billy's time travel ability prevents him from being a realistic figure, and the exposure of the fictionality of the narrative reflects the fictitiousness of Billy. Vonnegut refuses to see the motif of "time travel" and the messages offered by Tralfamadorians as the final and ultimate solution. Through the breaking of the fictional frame, Vonnegut makes an implication that it is impossible for people to travel in time as Billy.
Vonnegut not only gives his refusal to the traditional science fictional narrative through his presentation of Billy, but also, Vonnegut uses Kilgore Trout to show the possible limitations of a science fiction author. At the wedding anniversary of Billy, Trout makes a conclusive statement on Billy's "nervous breakdown" as a symptom of his being able to see through the "time window" (174). Trout is wrong as Vonnegut presents Billy's painful memories of the war: "Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead" (178). Vonnegut wants to emphasize the limitation of an author in dealing with an event as absurd as the Dresden firestorm. Kilgore Trout, a writer who simply deals with "time warps and extrasensory perception and other unexpected things" (175) will never be enough in presenting a historical event as the Dresden firebombing. Accordingly, Vonnegut's projection of the negative writer images also functions as a highly self-conscious critical statement and examination of the act of writing. It is impossible in the traditional narrative where the author figures are usually invisible.
Through the presentation and revelation of the composing process of the book, the difficulties of producing a book on such a subject actually foregrounds itself as another important theme which parallels to the war subject. Here, what the author wants to present in SF is not only the atrocity and brutality of the war but also the frustration and the almost impossibility of writing a book about it. Unlike traditional novel writing in which the real life author usually stays apart from the narrator, in SF, Vonnegut combines the two and honestly unravels the frustration he encounters as he embodies the writer narrator with his own voice. Although this particular device is not invented by Vonnegut, it shows his strong awareness of the very act of fictional writing.
SF actually contains several discussions on the subject of fiction writing or fiction in addition to Chapter One. When Billy travels to New York, he participates in a radio talk show where some literary critics discuss the question of "whether the novel was dead or not" (205). Since Roland Barthes published his essay " The Death of the Author," in 1968, the act of fiction writing has been put into question and the status of the author has been threaten. Actually, the composition of SF supports Barthes'' ideas in the essay that "writing can no longer designate an operation of recording, notation, representation . . . " (145). However, Vonnegut does not focus on the theoretical or experimental form of fictional writing only, but rather his concerns lay on the issues generated from real life experiences. His starting point is not to show the problem of the impossibility of the linguistic representation that "inscription (and not of expression), traces a field without origin¡Xor which, at least, has no other origin than language itself, language which ceaselessly calls into question all origins" (Barthes 146). But rather, Vonnegut wants to juxtapose the dilemma of the act of writing with real life catastrophe, which means to bring forth his humane concerns. As Giannone points out, "He [Vonnegut] is not quite predicting a future for the novel but he is negating its death notice. He is not quite prescribing a function for the novel, but he is deriding the cheap purposes it has been made to serve. . . . Vonnegut comments on the reality of Dresden by treating the problems of fiction" (Slaughterhouse 83).
Vonnegut brings forth his humane concerns by taking an author's responsibility to deal with the subjects of death and war in the context of human existence and with a sense of historical background. As I have mentioned, Vonnegut does not intend to provide a pure scientific fantasy to shun the suffering and pains in life. Nor does Vonnegut aim to employ metafictional elements in his novel as a means of escape into a language game. SF is a novel which "reject(s) realism and extreme fabulation" (Waugh 129). As Waugh points out, "If the novelist does not assume some such responsibility, . . . the function of the novel will, indeed, become one of providing ¡¥touches of color in rooms with all-white walls' or of describing ¡¥blow-jobs artistically'" (129).
As SF ends with the seemingly meaningless and irrelevant bird talk "Poo-tee-weet," readers might have the same suspicion as Uphaus:
Moreover, through the presentation of the historical event of the Dresden firebombing, Vonnegut has constructed a piece of fictional work which corresponds to Linda Hutcheon's ideas of "historiographic metafiction." First, Vonnegut uses the author surrogate to confront the boundary between fiction and reality. The author/ narrator not only exposes his writing process to readers but also interrupts his own writing by entering into the text he is constructing. Both actions make the author a powerless one, as I have discussed in the previous chapter, but we also understand that these are the techniques Vonnegut acquires to undermine the inappropriate realistic representation on the particular subject of war. Hutcheon explains her ideas of "historiographic metafiction:"
For example, Professor Bertram Copeland Rumfoord of Harvard, official Historian of the United States Air Force, (120) who accidentally shares a hospital room with Billy, wants to publish "a readable condensation of the twenty-volume Official History of the Army Air Force in World War Two" (191). The professor thinks that "an inconvenient person" and "a repulsive non-person" like Billy " would be much better off dead" (192). It is obvious that the book by the professor wrongly justifies the brutality of war as necessary for improvement even though it claims to be the official history. Also, Billy reads a book on the "true account of the death before an American firing squad of Private Eddie D. Slovik," who is "the only American soldier to be shot for cowardice since the Civil War" (45). Therefore, from these two examples, the objectivity of the "historical narrative" is undermined and the "facts" are reduced to be merely dogmatic projection of the individual.
Consequently, the traditional war story narrative and other story telling traditions are undermined by Vonnegut's seemingly loss of the authorial power. Most importantly, Vonnegut brings forth his authorial power by constructing the kind of text which "asserts that there are only truth in the plural, and never One truth" (Hutcheon 109). That is to say, for Vonnegut, "to-rewrite or to re-present the past in fiction and in history is, in both cases, to open it up to the present, to prevent it from being conclusive and teleological" (Hutcheon 110).
In a word, the loss of the authorial power in SF cannot be regarded
at its face value. If we truly examine the relationships between Vonnegut's
thematic concerns and the narrative strategies, then we will have to conclude
that the belittled images of the author figure Kigore Trout and the author/narrator
himself faithfully points out the limitation and frustration of the author
in confronting with war and death. Also, the breaking of the coherent and
chronological structure, as well as the parodies of traditional narratives
such fairytale, legend and the movie in modern time, are necessary in constructing
a narrative mode for the unpredictable and incomprehensible. The strategy
also exposes the fictionality of the narrative, which allows the authorial
power to do a critical self-examination on the act of writing. Moreover,
with this honest self-questioning, authorial power is actually gained,
not lost when the Vonnegut incarnates his understanding and acceptance
of absurdity with the persistent and seemingly reductive and abrupt phrase,
"So it goes." Hence, the author is "expressive" in a new way, because the
phrase not only responds to the thematic concerns but also stylistically
echoes the frequent occurrences of disasters in life. What makes the author
more powerful is not his ability to fabulate a science-fiction plot. Rather,
as SF comments on the historical event of Dresden firebombing, it
undermines the concept of regarding "the official history" as the final
and the absolute interpretation to the historical event. As for the authorial
power to offer meaning in SF, though Vonnegut does not offer a definite
solution or answer as traditional authors do, he does provide different
perspectives to readers on war and death through his fictional construction.
By revealing the writing process, Vonnegut exposes the fictionality of
his own narrative construction and offers his views without falling into
the conclusiveness and arbitrariness of official history. Vonnegut's awareness
of the inappropriateness and insufficiency of the traditional narratives
is one of the important messages he has revealed in SF. Also, the
author's constant struggling to articulate the "unspeakable" offers possible
alternatives for readers to face the unavoidable absurdities in life.
1. I think the exaggeration of this trivial moment in Billy's life as the "happiest" moment has two functions: the incident echoes the absurdity of life because "the happiest'' happens at the saddest period in Billy's life; it also has the spirit of black humor since Billy has to manage to survive the disaster with a seemingly light attitude.