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 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 was hoping to use your comments in my discussion this week, but no one wanted to argue!  But that’s okay, I’m fine with just telling you what to think. ;p  I’m going to be stubborn and once again attempt to open up a discussion, so 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 my now-defunct blog about metafiction, The Narrative in the Blog on October 4, 2010.

#FridayReads: After the Crown by KB Wagers

Picture of After the Crown by KB Wagers

This year, I’ve decided to pick a specific reading theme: women authors of science fiction. That doesn’t mean I’ll only read female SF authors or only SF, but that’s going to be my primary focus.

After the Crown by K. B. Wagers is the second book in the Indranan War trilogy, the first of which is Before the Throne. The third book should be out this winter, but I’m not excited about having to wait almost a year for it to come out!

The Indranan War trilogy so far is a fantastic sci-fi adventure with a strong female lead, diverse characters throughout, and an interesting setting. The Indranan Empire is made up of the descendants of Indian space travelers from centuries ago, and they have more or less kept the Hindu belief system and what amounts to a less strict caste system. The twist is that a disorder called space madness affected men more than women, leading the original patriarchy to become a matriarchy.

The main character is Hail, the last member of the royal family left alive after an attempt to take over the throne. Hail ran away from home after her father’s death and became Cressen Stone, a hardened gunrunner. But two Trackers find her and bring her home to her dying mother.

Reluctantly, Hail steps back into the role of princess, and of course that’s when all hell breaks loose. Things escalate in After the Crown, and I’d highly recommend this series to anyone who loves space opera starring women, including Star Wars and Anne Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy.

Honk honk: 2016 wrap up edition

On the whole, 2016 was a shit year with a few bright spots. Here are some of those bright spots, specifically related to writing (though I’ll write another post about all the wonderfully bright people I had the pleasure of spending time with in 2016).

  • Permafrost, a fine literary journal that published my short story “The Time I Listened to Nothing But Warren Zevon for One Year Straight,” also nominated that story for a 2017 Pushcart Prize. This is my first Pushcart nomination, and to say I am honored is an understatement. This nomination has been a huge encouragement to me and my writing, especially at a time when everything was starting to feel pointless. Thank you, Permafrost!
  • I have been writing blog posts for The Rumpus for about a year and a half now, and recently began a new blog column called This Week in Books, where I highlight a recently published book from a small or independent press. I love writing about books (what? you already knew that?!), and love indie presses, so this is a perfect fit for me. I am so grateful to The Rumpus Managing Editor Marisa Siegel for giving me this opportunity.
  • October 2016 marked the one year anniversary of becoming the lead editor for Eleventh Stack, the blog for Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, where I work. (Again it’s that writing about books thing…) I’m so very proud of the work all the Eleventh Stack bloggers have done over the past year, from beta-testing the library’s new website to writing phenomenal content about everything from Beyoncè to beach reads. Leading this blog is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job, and has been a phenomenal learning experience for me as an editor and writer. Hats off to LA for trusting me with this project, and always being quick with advice and wisdom.

What good things came out of your 2016?