imaginative or dull? Billy Pulgrim's fractured life is timeless in the sense that it lacks grounding in the real chronology of human existence. Did Vonnegut realize that fiction is inhuman without time, without a frame of reference? If you gave the Tralfmadorians an Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie book, or perhaps an Alfred Hitchcock film, they'd misunderstand it; in fact, they'd miss out on the entire genre. Likewise, how is the reader to understand this book when Pilgrim's life does not coincide with ours in an understandable way?
The Tralfmadorians' way of seeing time seems borrowed from Abbott's Flatland
, where dimensions come into play in curious fashion. However, Slaughterhouse-Five
's strange way of viewing the fourth dimension does not succeed due to the time issue. Can I read this book backward? Can I skip it entirely and claim that the difference is trivial on a vast scale? The apathy ("So it goes") with which Pilgrim views the world does not help. It seems to me that the depiction of a blasé existence is useful only insofar as it helps the reader understand existential angst and find a remedy. But when time is shattered, what lessons can Pilgrim teach us?
Perhaps we will have better luck with the war theme. Vonnegut uses a resigned tone , much as Alain Resnais does in the classic documentary Night and Fog
. Both are examinations of the needless suffering of many at the hands of an irrational few. I find Resnais' images more powerful than Vonnegut's, although that is mere opinion. What is perhaps questionable about these approaches is the issue of the utility of war. War is counterproductive in that it undoes society's efforts to promote altruism, but it is equally a function of survival of the fittest (although perhaps accelerated to an unhealthy velocity). Is the unequivocal condemnation of war then a judgment valuing morality more highly than evolution? And is Slaughterhouse-Five
truly as anti-war as it seems? Its reaction to war is always "so it goes", an apathetic abdication of involvement, whereas Resnais' abnegation is due to the unspeakable nature of war. Resnais is resigned because he lacks words, while even if those words existed, Pilgrim would not change his. A small difference, perhaps, but one that explains my predilection for Resnais.
Also playing a factor is the nature of the medium: Night and Fog
is a documentary, while Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim is a fictional character. I have long struggled with the idea of inserting simulacra into actual historical events. It seems dishonest somehow, this small-scale historical revisionism. If we put unreal characters into a real environment and have them make unreal decisions, how real is the end environment? It is akin to performing arithmetic operations on a number with a certain margin of error—the more calculations are made, the greater the error margin. Of course, Brecht would say that all art is representational to a certain extent. A novel set in Paris is perhaps more accurately set in the fictional version of Paris inhabited by the novel's fictional characters. But this particular authorial act is, to me, a strikingly bad facsimile.
So the point is moot if Pilgrim does not really live in the same universe as us. Ah, you might say, but can't we learn from him by studying his unique perspective? Not when it is as psychologically easy as this, or so I would wager. Any amateur narcissict can tune out the world; indeed, altruism is more difficult a lifestyle than misanthropy or apathy. And so while Billy Pilgrim is an interesting literary creation, he inspires in me devolution, a regression toward the childhood mean. I can no longer afford the luxury of childhood, much as I am eager to bask in its glow. I perceive the clock striking 12 and realize that I am moving neither backward nor sideways nor everywhere at once, but forward. And so onward I sail, pushed ceaselessly by the current.