Metafiction and the anti-war message of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five

The use of metafiction in anti-war fiction is fairly common (Slaughterhouse-Five, The Things They Carried).  Does the inclusion of the author as a character in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (and the knowledge that the “author” fought in World War II) lend credibility to the anti-war message, or does it weaken the message by taking away from the story and characters by using an overbearing delivery?

I’m going to argue both points—and I do think both views are valid and very arguable.  But, first, a basic summary.

Kurt Vonnegut the character opens the book by visiting an old military buddy, where he talks about a book he’s always wanted to write about the fire bombing of Dresden, Germany, during World War II.  The book he’s writing is about Billy Pilgrim, a chaplain’s assistant who is a POW in a slaughterhouse during the destruction of Dresden, and later becomes “unstuck in time” after he is captured by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.

The aliens can see in four dimensions (time being the fourth) and can focus on any one time in their life.  They do not believe people can choose their destiny, and Billy comes to agree with them after spending time in a Tralfamadore zoo as an exhibit.  The book has a nonlinear narrative structure and flits between different time periods in Billy’s life, with Vonnegut as character occasionally interjecting.

The inclusion of the author as a character in Slaughterhouse-Five lends credibility to the narrative and the book’s anti-war message.

Slaughterhouse-Five is metafiction at its most pure.  The author appears as a character, who is writing a book.  The author tells us about his military service in World War II and how he witnessed the firebombing of Dresden.

Since we know the author (as a character in the book) was there, we feel more inclined to believe Billy’s account of the tragedy within the book-within-a-book.  He was there, and only one a few who survived to tell about it, so he immediately becomes a more reliable narrator.

Which makes us wonder if Billy is crazy when he starts talking about aliens from Tralfamadore, or if the aliens really exist.  Wondering about those pesky Tralfamadorans leads us to a slew of other questions: Is our destiny, as Billy comes to believe, really fixed?  Are we doomed to keep fighting wars or do we have the power to stop them?  How can we stop them?

Although Billy turns to fatalism and pessimism on the topic of free-will and our ultimate destiny, we are able to recognize that he feels this way because he’s witnessed and lived through horrors that we can’t understand, having not been through them ourselves.  I felt sorry for Vonnegut the character, trying to write his book and always putting it off.  Even if he could get the words down, who would want to listen to such an awful story?

But we, the readers, because of Vonnegut the character and Billy’s viewpoints, know that we must listen to this story, so that we can do our part to prevent other stories like Billy’s from happening ever again, thus making the author appearing as a character an integral part of the book’s anti-war message.

The inclusion of the author as a character in Slaughterhouse-Five is overbearing and takes away from both the message and the story.

Slaughterhouse-Five is not a hopeful book, and it doesn’t really have a happy ending.  The general feeling it leaves me with is “oh well, that’s how it is,” which the book’s characters echo with the oft-repeated phrase “So it goes.”

Being a book that decries the horrors of war, this isn’t surprising.  What surprises me is Vonnegut the character’s similar depression.  He doesn’t seem to want to change the world or give a call to action to end war.  The book that Vonnegut the author writes shows a character, Bill Pilgrim, that hates war but makes little effort to campaign against it, even though he claims to know exactly when and how he’ll die.

The fatalism of both Billy and Vonnegut the character does, in my opinion, work against the anti-war message.  It is depressing rather than inspiring, and can only make the reader feel guilty for being a part of a humanity that still fights wars.

If you remove Vonnegut the character from the equation, we’re left with Billy Pilgrim, who is probably crazy.  Knowing that he’s suffering from the effects of witnessing the horrors of war, we can take his pessimism and fatalism and turn it around:  This is what happens to people who fight wars, let’s work to avoid this.

With the author-as-character in the book, that’s harder to do.  The author-as-character is, by his presence, giving us his opinion through Billy’s story.  Since that author-as-character is Vonnegut, it feels (whether or not it is is another discussion) that he’s telling us there is nothing we can do about war.  Since Vonnegut the character is giving us his opinion, it’s harder to view the book in any other light.

A version of this post originally appeared on October 4, 2010 in my now defunct blog about metafiction, The Narrative in the Blog.

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#FridayReads: Bitch Planet

BitchPlanet_vol1-1Title: Bitch Planet Vol. 1: Extraordinary Machine
Author: Kelly Sue Deconnick (script), Valentine De Landro (covers/art), Robert Wilson IV (art on issue 3), Cris Peter (colors), and Clayton Cowles (letters)
Publisher: Image Comics
Publication Date: 2015
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 136
ISBN: 978-1632153661
List Price: $9.99

As a card-carrying, ardent feminist, Bitch Planet is the best thing since sliced bread (and I do love me some bread). The entire comic is a giant fuck you to the patriarchy. In fact, every time someone reads Bitch Planet, a misogynist gets permanent erectile dysfunction.

Are you non-compliant? Do you fit in your box? Are you too fat, too thin, too loud, too shy, too religious, too secular, too prudish, too sexual, too queer, too black, too brown, too whatever-it-is-they’ll-judge-you-for-today?

You just may belong on… BITCH PLANET.

That’s the back copy, and it’s a great summary of what’s inside. Women of all colors, shapes, and sizes who stand up for themselves and fight the system, even though it’s grinding them into the ground.

Or, in this case, sending them to an entirely different planet, where they are imprisoned for their non-compliance. Things like “seduction and disappointment” and “patrilineal dishonor” and “unpermitted birth” and being a “bad mother.”

You’ll notice, though, that these are all things women have gotten into trouble for in reality, whether they’ve been jailed, assaulted, or outright murdered for their “crimes,” which amount to having a uterus and not feeling bad about it.

There’s so much social commentary in this comic, I’m not even sure where to start, so, let’s start with the future dystopian world we’re dealing with here.

In Bitch Planet, the political system has institutionalized patriarchy to the extent that those in power are called “Fathers,” and they exert total control over the world (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). Any friend or family member can report a woman for non-compliance, and there aren’t any trials.

Citizens are required to watch the Feed, which is essentially the Fathers’ propaganda channel. Instead of looking at ratings or the number of people watching, they measure “engagement,” which is how many people are actually interested in what they’re watching.

And that’s where the story picks up. Engagement is down, and the Fathers want to bring it back up. One man has a possible solution—getting a female team of prisoners from Bitch Planet to play in the Megaton, a brutal sport that’s similar to football.

The catch, of course, is that no one expects the women to win. Indeed, the way the Fathers hope to get engagement up is from the actual deaths of the athletes.

And our main character, Kamau Kogo, knows it. Kamau is a kick-ass black lady with a giant Afro who knows her way around martial arts and doesn’t know the meaning of compliance. She befriends other women on Bitch Planet who feel the same way she does, and together they decide to take on the challenge not because they want to win, but because it will give them a chance to take down some of the Fathers directly.

Volume one ends before the actual sporting event begins, but there’s still plenty of intrigue and action. And that brings us back to the social commentary.

Bitch Planet is essentially an allegory for what women deal with today. We are judged on everything, especially our physical appearances, and always found lacking. If we are bold and assertive at work we get called bitches. If we aren’t assertive we get called hyper-sensitive and overly emotional. If we don’t look like porn stars with perfectly shaved snatches and giant perky tits, we get teased for being fat, flat-chested, and worse.

In Deconnick and De Landro’s world, these “failings” are actual crimes, and women go to jail for them. It’s no different than reality, really. No, we aren’t all in a physical prison, but there’s that pesky glass ceiling and all of those societal expectations keeping us in line (well, some of us).

But this book isn’t just RAWR WOMEN. The characters are fully-developed, three-dimensional people, and their relationships with each other are complex. It’s not just women vs. men, either. One of the primary antagonists is a woman, and while we don’t learn too much about her in this first volume, there’s definitely a story there, and I can’t wait to read it.

The men running Bitch Planet get a running commentary throughout, in the form of little panels off to the side. Their asides mirror the way men (and other women) feel the need to comment on women’s appearances, either positively or negatively. These men aren’t evil—they definitely show some compunctions over their jobs, but they are doing what they feel is “right.”

The back matter at the end of each issue is also full of commentary, and this time the target is the comics industry itself. The back matter features “ads” for junk products similar to the muscle-building programs and spy kits you see in comics from the 1960s and 70s.

Surprise insight! Scientific obfuscation really works. Imagine—you put on the “X Ray” Specs and hold his hand in front of you. You SEEM to be able to look right through him and see the truth! That guy in the black Taurus who followed you home? Is that really insecurity you “see” beneath his clothes? Or is it a gun? Is he probably going to murder you?

LOADS OF LAUGHS AND FUN AT PARTIES.

The fake ad is so depressingly true, it blows by funny and lands squarely in the land of irony. All to often, women are followed, and parties are one of the prime places women are sexually assaulted (and then blamed for it).

And, of course, there’s the whole “comic books are for boys” thing that is, unfortunately, still an issue today.

Thankfully, Deconnick and De Landro are here to say, “Fuck that shit.”

So, if you have lady parts, or you like people who have lady parts, read Bitch Planet.

Down with the patriarchy!

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Honk honk: April 2016 edition

The other day I was updating my CV (something I do periodically so when I need it, it’s just there already), and realizing that a lot of cool stuff has been going on in my writing life, and I haven’t even mentioned it here.

This is one of my main problems: I don’t like tooting my own horn, even when it’s appropriate. When I graduated with my MFA in 2013, I probably only told half my friends. More than one asked me later how school was going.

It’s true that bragging is pretty crappy, but simply acknowledging your accomplishments isn’t. Still, it’s something I struggle with a lot. So, some of this is old-ish news, and some of it is new, but here’s a short list of writing-related cool stuff I’m doing/did recently:

So that’s what I’ve been doing. Have you done anything awesome lately? Share in the comments!

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