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

Introduction: 1

Chapter 1Chapter 2
Sarah Chen-Chi Hu
  1. Why bother?
  2. Black Humor and Metafiction
  3. ''Death of the Author?''
  4. Of Theme and Form
  5. Why I chose them
  6. Wanna Read More?
Why bother?

Why is Slaughterhouse-Five described as a ''short and jumbled and jangled'' (19) ''lousy little book''  (2)? It seems that the author is so incapable of controlling all the elements in the fiction that his final product appears to be disordered and awkward. However, if the statement is taken literally, there would be no reason to publish the novel nor to read it. Also, why does the author present a portrait of himself at the end of Breakfast of Champions in tears? Apparently, the tears suggest the failure and frustration of the author to a certain degree. But if the image is completely negative, it would be pointless and meaningless for the author to present it. There are numerous examples like the above two which question the power and expose the powerlessness of the author in Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and Breakfast of Champions (1973). For me, these challenges of the abilities and the images of the author in Kurt Vonnegut's novels for me, challenge the reader to work harder to make sense of them.

Consequently, my thesis aims to do a close examination of Kurt Vonnegut's treatment of authorial power, as well as its relationship with his thematic concerns in the two novels, Slaughterhouse-Five (hereafter cited as SF) and Breakfast of Champions (hereafter cited as BC). Namely, I want to discuss Vonnegut's use of the author image, the apparent lack of control over language as well as plot and structure to present his subject matter in the two novels. I will argue that Vonnegut's writing strategies belong to those of black humor and metafiction, in which the author functions differently from those authors in the tradition of realist and modernist narratives. Generally, I will regard Vonnegut's black humor as an attitude he takes in presenting the absurdity of human existence, while I examine his metafictional elements, i.e. his experimental forms and his use of author surrogates, as fictional techniques which embody both the absurdities and his attitudes toward them. In other words, the ''context''  of black humor in Vonnegut's works closely interacts with its metafictional form.1 Finally, I want to argue that, in Vonnegut's metafiction, form is content and the apparent powerlessness of the author turns out to empower the author in the presentation of certain subject matter and to bring forth new perspectives on the issues presented.

Black Humor and Metafiction

Before narrowing down to Vonnegut's authorial power and powerlessness, I will first put his two novels in the historical contexts of postwar America. Then I will relate the works to the two literary genres of black humor and metafiction, and finally to the field of critical literary discourse. The reason I put the two novels in these contexts is that all of these pose challenges to the knowledge of authority.

Historically, in the sixties2, the unprecedented disorder and absurdity of social and political situations after World War Two in the U.S. made the modernist suspicious of. any kind of systematic and objective authorities. The inhumanity and atrocities of the World War Two forced some Americans such as Vonnegut to re-examine the authority of scientific narrative and the value of technology in their paradoxical influences on human life. Also, a series of events after World War Two reinforced the sense of contradictoriness and irrationality in life. The U.S. political relationship with the former Soviet Union in the Cold War caused ''a perception of crisis within the United States''  (Geyh xii). The U.S. government's involvement in the Vietnam War aroused anti war movements and distrust of the government. The events such as the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. further increased Americans' sense of doubt and uncertainties. Worse still, the Watergate scandal gave more doubt to the official versions of history and any ''institutional authority''  (Geyh xii). The absurd conditions people faced were, among others, that modern technology brought both disaster and prosperity to human beings, and that the result of reason was its exact opposite: irrationality. What people experienced in daily life, moreover, were incomprehensible and unpredictable events, which were impossible to be categorized and rationalized. There was thus a prevailing uncertainty toward the belief that the world could be understood and analyzed with systematized knowledge.

In response to this absurdity in life, a writing mode defined as black humor became dominant. Critics have given various definitions of the term black humor. For instance, Scholes thinks that ''the black humorists are concerned not with what to do about life but with how to take it¡Kseeing the universe as absurd and seeing it as ridiculous¡Xa joke'' (Scholes 147), and for Hilfer, black humor is ''an aggressive, cynical, even nihilist humor¡Kalerting them to the emergence of a new mood as well as a new mode''  (98). Vonnegut himself sees black humorists as ''gallows humorists,''  who ''try to be funny in the face of situation which they see as just horrible''  (qtd. in Allen 56). In a word, the black humor writing style responds to the predicament of human existence, and shows the limit of human beings to understand and solve every problem in life. Therefore, how to face up to the absurdities rather than to deal with them in life dominates the spirit of black humor writing style.

Vonnegut's works deal with in many ways the sense of absurdity in life. For instance, in SF, Vonnegut characterizes Billy as a ridiculous and mindless figure to imply. Through Billy's spastic traveling experiences, a disordered and chaotic view of life is projected as a reflection on the real life situation, and also a means to escape the totally incomprehensible trauma of war. As for BC, it also carries a spirit of black humor as Vonnegut inserts the massive and irrelevant illustrations of ordinary objects. Along with his use of the nonsensical narrative voice of Philboyd Studge, the book appears to be a comic and ridiculous one.

Another literary genre Vonnegut belongs to is metafiction, the postwar American metafictional discourse, responds not only to the immediate historical events, but also to the literary tradition of realism and modernism. It is hard to give a single definition or comprehensive theory to metafiction. As Waugh suggests, one of the important characteristics of metafiction is that ''[t]he novel notoriously defies definition,''  and ''instability in this respect is part of its  'definition'''  (5). Also, Waugh offers a broadest definition of metafiction: '' [it] is a tendency or function inherent in all novels.''  Though it is true that ''the metafictional practice has become particular prominent of the last twenty years (1960-80), . . . the term  'metafiction' might be new, the practice is as old (if not older) than novel itself''  (5). To give a basic definition, metaficion is '' [a] fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality''  (Waugh 2). To emphasize this characteristics of self-consciousness in metafiction, Currie regards metafiction as a ''borderline discourse, ¡Ka kind of writing which places itself on the border between fiction and criticism, and which takes that border as that subject''  (2). Lodge, likewise, is aware of the fictional border when he suggests that '' [metafiction] novelists are and always have been split between, on the one hand, the desire to claim an imaginative and representative truth for their stories, and on the other the wish to guarantee and defend that truth-claim by reference to empirical facts''  (19). What Lodge sees as conflicting desire for two kinds of truths, representative and empirical, can also be seen as the author's lack of a consistent claim to truth.

Most importantly, the practice of the metafictional writing techniques has changed the traditional understanding of the author and challenged the author's control over text. For one thing, the references in metafiction to other texts possibly defy the originality of the author as he or she is only presenting a collage of texts, sometimes revision of others' text and sometimes artist copying. Also, the revelation of the writing process gives doubt to the author's ability to present a well-designed and involving plot. As the author steps into the very fictional world he or she is creating, the author is constantly negating what has been created and even the author him/herself is being fictionalized. Furthermore, ''[the] multiple ending, the false ending, the mock ending or parody ending''  (Lodge 226) in metafiction challenges the author's function to provide meaning and solution.

No matter what aspect of metafictional elements the author employs, he or she can appear to be ''powerless''  compared to a traditional one. As for Vonnegut, the revelation of the writing process and the intrusion of the authorial voice in both SF and BC damage the traditional authorial power in terms of structure and plot. The large amounts of the intertexts of Kilgore Trout's scientific stories not only break the consistency of the narratives in both novels but also question the originality and subjectivity of the work.3


1 Hilfer does point out the difference between black humor and metafiction. ¡"''Black humor remained predominantly realistic in technique, though a calculatedly flattened form of realism¡Kmetafiction in contrast, specialized in one direction of modernism, taking it as far as it could go, more completely disputing the basis of any 'reality'¡KMetafiction reduces all to discourse while doubting the validity of that discourse" (128). However, I do not intend to distinguish these two literary terms in my thesis, since Vonnegut's work, to borrow Hilfer's words again, is a kind of metafiction which ''overlaps with as well as incorporates black humor"  (127).

2 For more thorough and detailed historical background of the American history in the sixties, see David Farber's The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s ( New York: Hill and Wang, 1994).

3 The metafictional and the other powerlessness of the author will be discussed in much more detail in Chapter One.