Teacher’s Corner: Slaughterhouse-Five

**Originally published on thedreamcage.com**

http://www.thedreamcage.com/2017/05/book-get-lit-on-lit-slaughterhouse-five.html

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Back again with another edition of Getting Lit on Lit, otherwise known as the Teacher’s Corner. This week, I thought we could dissect parts of an amazing novel, one of my favorites, for all those who may have loved the work but never really understood the end of the novel. This week we look at Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five.

This novel is full of Vonnegut’s trademark wit and contains incredible lines of dialogue. I will share some throughout but what I really want to focus on today is the author’s use of the distorted and disorganized timeline. If you have ever read this novel, you know that events take place completely out of order and we are sort of thrust into each scene never truly knowing where we are at. Luckily Vonnegut does provide us with a topic sentence to explain what year the jump takes us to and what our hero, Billy Pilgrim, is doing at this particular time.

First, let’s start by prefacing this whole article with a giant SPOILER ALERT! I will be talking about different parts of this novel and I don’t want to ruin what is an incredible literary work for someone who wants to engage it at their own pace and on their own terms.

For a little bit of background, Kurt Vonnegut was a soldier in World War II, was captured and became a POW, and was being held prisoner in Dresden, Germany when the entire city was destroyed by Allied Fighters in what many consider to be one of the greatest military atrocities outside of the Atomic Bombs. Dresden was a non-military city full of classic architecture and an almost completely civilian population and between February 13th and 15th of 1945, there were four raids which firebombed and leveled 1600 acres of the city center. There were two more raids on later dates that destroyed what was listed as the strategic target, a major railway station, and in the end casualties have been listed as anywhere from 22,000 to over 100,000. They were not able to extricate many of the bodies from buildings and so those were simply burned to ash. I won’t comment on whether or not the firebombing was justified as this isn’t the appropriate theater for such a conversation but suffice it to say the event shaped Vonnegut as a person and a writer. Slaughterhouse-Five is, at its core, a very anti-war book.

Throughout the novel there are incredible lines that detail Vonnegut’s emotions regarding the war.

“I have this disease late at night sometimes, involving alcohol and the telephone.”

Or

“The nicest veterans…the kindest and funniest ones, the ones who hated war the most, were the ones who’d really fought.”

Or

“I think you guys are going to have to come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren’t going to want to go on living.”

Vonnegut understood that the war, while necessary, was incredibly brutal and destroyed the humanity in people, especially in those young men who were forced to fight while still basically children. This is one reason for the subtitle of the book: Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death. In fact, the first chapter of the book is all about Vonnegut struggling to write the novel in question. There is a portion where the wife of an old friend yells at him, telling him not to glorify the war and declaring, “You were just babies.” The book itself doesn’t really begin until Chapter 2.

Over the course of the book, we see different moments in Billy Pilgrim’s life. He is taken prisoner, spurned by everyone who was supposed to be on his side in the war. We are treated to the senseless death of a man who, having survived so many terrible events during the war, was executed for stealing a teapot. We get to see Pilgrim meet and marry his wife, have a child, become obsessed with Aliens who have abducted him, see his wife die while he is in the hospital after surviving a plane crash, and more. His life is full of events which do not seem to phase him.

The Tralfamadorians, the aliens who abduct Billy, teach him that life is not linear. It is a series of moments: “There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects…All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist.” They help to explain some of the feelings we see and don’t see throughout Billy’s life. In fact, there is an amazing exchange between himself and the aliens which really hits home their view of life and helps us to determine some things about the novel:

-“Why me?”
-“That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?”
-“Yes.”
-“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”

This goes a long way to explaining why, throughout all of these events, Billy stays relatively the same and doesn’t really seem to lose himself to any emotion. That will all come back to play a vital role later on. But, as we jump from place to place in Billy’s timeline, the burning question that remains is why construct a narrative in this fashion. What could possibly be achieved through this?

Well, simply stated, the timeline is there to represent Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or at least that is how I have always interpreted this function. People suffering from PTSD will often have flashbacks, lose track of where they are, and then come right back. The use of flashing forward and backward in time is simply a manifestation of where the damaged soldier’s mind is as he attempts to survive in a world that left him behind. Once again, we will deal with this and the overall meaning of the work in just a moment.

We can tell that Vonnegut is not whole anymore after his experiences in the war but that he needs to complete the writing of this book to survive and to finally be okay with himself. He references Lot’s Wife, the biblical character, discussing why she turned and how that caused her to become a pillar of salt. He says he thought her turning was the most human thing of all and then shortly after, he says, in regards to this book, “This one is a failure and had to be because it was written by a pillar of salt.” He understands that the book can’t be a great success because of the tragedy of the event, although a great success is really what it became. There is an amazingly introspective moment in the novel when he writes: “People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.” We can tell that he needs to move on and this book is giving him the power to do so.

Now, for the final scene of the novel. In the beginning of the work, Vonnegut tells us that the book ends with “Poo-tee-wet.” This is true. We flash back to the war, right after the bombing of Dresden, when Billy was free. Below is the text:

There were hundreds of corpse mines operating by and by. They didn’t smell bad at first, were wax museums. But then the bodies rotted and liquefied, and the stink was like roses and mustard gas.

So it goes.

 The Maori Billy had worked with died of the dry heaves, after having been ordered to go down in that stink and work. He tore himself to pieces, throwing up and throwing up.

So it goes.

So a new technique was devised. Bodies weren’t brought up any more. They were cremated by soldiers with flamethrowers right where they were. The soldiers. stood outside the shelters, simply sent the fire in.

Somewhere in there the poor old high school teacher, Edgar Derby, was caught with a teapot he had taken from the catacombs. He was arrested for plundering. He was tried and shot.

So it goes.          

And somewhere in there was springtime. The corpse mines were closed down. The soldiers all left to fight the Russians. In the suburbs, the women and children dug rifle pits. Billy and the rest of his group were locked up in the stable in the suburbs. And then, one morning, they got up to discover that the door was unlocked. The Second World War in Europe was over.

Billy and the rest wandered out onto the shady street. The trees were leafing out. There was nothing going on out there, no traffic of any kind. There was only one vehicle, an abandoned wagon drawn by two horses. The wagon was green and coffin-shaped. Birds were talking.

One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, ‘Poo-tee-weet?’

Now over the course of the novel, the phrase “So it goes” appears after every single mention of death, showing the almost apathetic feeling that Vonnegut has towards death. That being said, the emotions in the work are anything but apathy. “So it goes” simply shows that so much death has happened and will continue to happen and there is nothing any of us can do to stop it. The world will go on, even if we feel like we can’t. That raises questions about the bird and its simple question. Vonnegut tells us that there is nothing that can be said about a massacre. It simply is and so asking a nonsensical question like this makes as much sense as the massacre did.

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Why does he end the book in this fashion, flashing back to the description of the bodies and the death that was witnessed? Think about what we know of the novel and its timeline. He suffered great emotional distress from is experiences in the war and it unhinged his mind forever. The reason Vonnegut ends the novel in this flashback is because this-this is when Billy truly dies. He may live on but this is the moment that his sanity and his innocence and really all that made him human and alive died. This event destroyed what was left of his humanity and so, after the massacre and the death and the senselessness, the only thing we can end with is the nonsensical utterings of a bird. To Billy, and possibly even to Vonnegut, that was what made him the man he was. That event destroyed his life and so it seems most appropriate to end on—war is hell and it destroys and corrupts and disrupts life. To end this article and really drive home the point of the work, I think we should let Vonnegut shine some light:

Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.

I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, ‘Is it an anti-war book?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I guess.’

‘You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?’

‘No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?’

‘I say, “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?”‘

What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that too.

And, even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

If you haven’t ever read this before, do yourself a favor and pick it up. It is incredible in its scope and power.

 

Memory: Pressed Between the Pages of My Mind

The human brain is a conundrum. Memory operates under different titles; episodic, spatial, semantic, and factual. All of these things coincide and create connections in our mind, associations which, no matter the want or need to dispel them, forever exist as memory, or at least as long as our human brains can hold onto them.

Episodic memory allows you to track back through your history, a veritable autobiography of events. Spatial memory helps you align the size and placement of things within your past. You can remember the size of a table or the arrangement of furniture through spatial recognition. Semantic memory is the gooey goodness in the center of your grilled cheese-like mind. It helps you to put meaning and substance to otherwise abstract concepts and words. Lastly, factual memory deals with the basic facts of memory. You may remember an event such as a party or a confrontation. This simple memory is the factual portion, but any feelings associated with that would fall somewhere in the realm of the other three. These four concepts blend together to create a tapestry in our minds and like a big fish tale, a lot of the time we get things wrong.

It is a big word. Memory…

The connotation of that word brings to mind, redundant as that may be, sweeping images and swirls of emotion from bygone days. These emotions and images are usually tied together, strung along the infinite highway in our minds, with road signs which point to specific memories along the way.

I remember being eight and sitting in the back of my mother’s maroon Corsica, an area that was overpopulated by a grouchy sister, two years my senior, and my aging grandfather who would chuckle under his breath as we suffered in whispered arguments, trying to avoid the punishment which would surely come again from the front seat.

It was summer vacation, we were in Virginia, and the temperature had skyrocketed to a blistering 97 which doesn’t sound that horrible but in 1992, air conditioning wasn’t quite what it is now.  I had delved into a new novel; one that would eventually consume me for random periods throughout the course of my life.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Still, to this day whenever I read it (or teach it), there is one associated memory which plays over and over in my head;  Michael W. Smith’s “Place in this World.”

Michael.W. Smith.

Can you believe that?

Somehow my mind draws together Dracula, a Victorian-era novel about female sexuality and gender role evolution and…a white-bread, adult-contemporary, Christian singer.

The song came on in the car on a continuous hour and fifteen minute loop so, on the long ride home to Ohio, as I sat in the back fully enthralled with my new book, I heard the song about ten times. In my eight year old mind, I connected the lyrics with the book.

I’m looking for a reason, roaming through the night to find my place in this world.
Not a lot to lean on, I need your light to help me find my place in this world.

As a child, I didn’t quite get the religious imagery in these lyrics. Instead, all I did was look at Dracula in a sympathetic light. All he wanted was a place in the world, and he lost his old life, his family, his love. Now that he had the ability to gain that again, and a foothold in a new culture, he just wanted to find and claim that place. In my young mind, I viewed Dracula as a sympathetic character; one where being a vampire was nothing but a tragic flaw.

When I read the book two years later, I saw that he was really just a monster. I mean, it’s pretty obvious, but at eight, I just couldn’t grasp that. Still, as I read the book time and again, the only thing I hear in my head is Michael W. Smith.

This doesn’t make any sense but it is forever engrained in my mind, like food poisoning and Kewpee.

Down that highway in my memory to another stop: Female trench coats.

Let that sink in for a moment. Female trench coats.

Whenever I see them, my mind obviously goes to X-Men, or more specifically, Gambit. He was the Cajun, sex-driven, rogue of the group. He wore a trench coat which was the epitome of cool when you are ten and Saturday morning brings you only gratuitous cartoon violence and mashed together life lessons against the backdrop of civil rights.

My mother had an olive green/brown trench coat, including those incredible, early 90s shoulder pads, and more pockets than anyone could ever need. Still, on Saturday mornings, I would strap that coat on, don gloves of which I had cut off the thumb, index, and pinky fingers, and grab a broom to fully become that Cajun badass.

He wore a leather trench, had fingerless gloves, and carried a staff. I had my mom’s poop green coat, butchered winter gloves, and a broom handle. I was so close I could taste it.

That’s memory for you though. You connect things together, objects and events which help to show you part of yourself. A lot of the time it is funny, but the association isn’t always pleasant.

Age eleven, I was a bullied kid who was beat up constantly, shoved into lockers in a never-ending, clichéd 80’s movie trend which would make up my life for the next two years, that is until I hit a growth spurt and outgrew the bullies. But at this age, I was miserable.

My parents had divorced months earlier, and although I was happy about the absence of constant fighting, I missed my dad. I wanted him there. I needed him there. Sadly, for that first year, I didn’t see him at all. Not once, not a phone call or a letter or a message. I blindly hung on to the idea that he was just busy while my now bitchy, mid-teens sister swore him off completely. I found out years later that dad was in Honduras, doing Black ops for the military. He never talks about it but I was told by people in his unit that it was rough for him, that he came back completely different.

The memory that sticks with me most is waiting patiently at the window for him to drive up. I think that in the back of my mind I knew that he wouldn’t, but at eleven, your dad is infallible and mine was no different.

To this day, every time I hear the old theme song for Monday night football, I go back to that time and it makes me sad, sometimes even tearing up. I remember waiting at the window in the living room, the TV on in the background as I stared out into the world for the patriarch of my family. He would be scheduled to show up at 4. The theme song to Monday Night football started like clockwork at 7 and when that happened, when I heard that sound, I knew that once again, he wasn’t coming.

That feeling of abandonment floods back before I can stuff it down because my mind keeps that wound fresh. I can’t remember any of the games or what played on the network before, but that sensation of disappointment has never left me.

Memories can bring us to our feet in reverence of the past or take us to our knees in overwhelming anger and disappointment. My memory from 2005-2010 is pretty much a blur. It is a scattered amalgam of night after night on tour. My band played all over the Midwest, three to six times a week and we drove everywhere.

I can’t quite pinpoint the exact nights but the memoires are fresh.

There is the night, in the backstage area of The Underground, a club in Ohio which was in the basement of an old wine distillery. The bar was amazing and the backstage area had couches, a computer, and some area to warm up. You would think that the shows were the most important part of these memories but it was always the time spent with my friends in between.

The computer in this instant had no filter. I cannot stress this enough. No filter, so as I was warming up my voice and tuning my guitars with the other guitarist, Matt, our drummer called us over to the desktop to stare at the screen. He was laughing to himself, almost hysterically, and he had something paused on the screen.

Dudes, you have to watch this. It will blow your mind.

We shuffled over behind him and he hit play and then the video horror in front of us began…soft serve ice cream. That’s what it was…

But it wasn’t…

It was “Two Girls, One Cup” and as that became apparent (I hadn’t seen it or even heard of it before), my lunch made a slight reappearance and burned my throat so harshly with stomach acid that I ad trouble hitting notes that night.

Another night, another city, another show. A toga party at a show, and I am draped in a blood red toga and nothing else. We walk in stage to the cheers of the two or three hundred people in attendance and I walk to the center. I scream “This is Sandusky” loudly into the microphone and then 300-Spartan kick the mic into the crowd. We were booted offstage and weren’t allowed to play until the very end.

Once again, don’t remember the shows, just the stupid things we did because although the shows were great and I loved every minute of playing, the emotional moments between my brothers and I were the most important.

The brain latches onto those emotional memories and drives the images home, forever to be kept in the vault of our subconscious. It may mix and match certain memories and add some flavor for the topping, but in the end it is nothing short of emotional importance that we remember.

WWF.

The World Wrestling Federation always reminds me of my great grandparents. I remember sitting on my grandfather’s lap as a very small child and watching WWF with my grandmother. These people were obsessed with wrestling and how real the melodrama playing out on screen was to them. I only have one real memory of my grandfather (he passed shortly after I turned five) and it is of watching Andre the Giant in the ring during a match with Big John Studd.

They were emphatically passionate about Andre. The big man was their child on screen and they loved him more than anything, possibly more than me, especially at this moment. Someone holds down Andre the giant and Big John shaves off his trademark hair.

The world exploded.

I’m on my grandpa’s lap and he starts screaming, his pipe still held between his teeth and spewing tobacco all over the place as he shook his head and shrieked, “THEY CAN’T DO THAT TO ANDRE THE GIANT!!!!” at the screen. My grandmother next to me, completely unhinged, is pulling at her hair and simply screaming unintelligibly, tears in her eyes.

I was young, too young to know what was going on, but I knew it was bad and Big John was not a nice man. This is the only vivid memory I have of my grandfather. I remember little snippets of him hugging me, giving me candy, things of that nature but the only discernable image I can muster in my mind is him screaming about pro wrestling.

That memory may or may not be accurate but to me, it is. It is what I think about every time I see a picture of my grandpa. It makes me smile, it makes me laugh, it bubbles with emotion, no matter the arbitrary event that it was. It is emotion, pure and simple.

Age 13, my father’s father dies. I am in the room. When I think back now, I remember only the Cincinnati Bengals. My grandpa was the only other Bengals fan in the family and so, as he choked on the cancer that would in a few hours take his life completely, he called me over to the hospital bed my family had set up in the living room of his house. I climbed up into bed with him and he smiled at me and lifted his blanket to reveal Bengals socks. He chuckled quietly and through choked, garbled breaths, said, ”You’re the only one left. Keep it strong.”

My mind gives me that so when I think about his dying scene, I remember something that we held so dearly and it makes me smile. And in return for this, when I think about the Bengals, I always remember him, not dying but healthy and screaming about how bad our team was always playing.

Smiles, tears, nostalgia. Our mind can store them all to bring out on a rainy day. I’ll see a picture of the WWF symbol and remember my great-grandparents; I watch the Bengals lose yet again and remember summers with my grandpa playing catch in the backyard; I hear the old Monday night football song and feel abandoned. These are the greatest moments and memories my mind can muster, depressing or happy and they have led me to become who I am because I am built by those memories.

This idea of identity through memory is not new. Think about an Alzheimer patient who goes through the experience of having those memories ripped away. Who are they now? They aren’t the same person you remember or grew up with and as the disease destroys piece after piece of their mind, they revert to who they used to be.

This reversion doesn’t destroy a person but it inherently destroys their relationships. Sons become husbands, daughters become cousins, mothers become girlfriends. It’s all very heartbreaking. Who are we without those relationships? They shape us into the person we are and through those memories we become an individual.

My grandmother went through this change. She approached it like an ice cream cone, positive at first but as things began to drip away, she became less enthralled and more bitter. Slowly I transformed from the dutiful grandson who would rollerblade (because we did that in 2003) to her house to visit into her son who never had enough time for her. My father, who didn’t look enough like his father, was wiped out completely. It got to a point where I couldn’t even see her anymore because she didn’t know who I was and became frightened that I would hurt her.

Unlike what Nicholas Sparks will tell you, Alzheimer’s is not a romantic event…it is world-shattering.

Memories are the oils we use on the canvas of our minds and although they can work in mysterious ways, they always leave us with some sort of feeling. It doesn’t matter the end game as the journey, cliché as it is, makes all the difference.

One more stop on the memory super highway. It is the moment I first felt as though I was truly important. It is the birth of my daughter, one of the happiest moments of my life, and what do I think of?

Ridley Scott’s Alien.

Just starting…thoughts? I need some feedback.

I saw a man in a flowing white robe, the kind Jesus wore. He floated across the street in front of me, using the crosswalk like any respecting citizen, brown hair and trimmed beard blowing slightly in the breeze. Come to think of it, the guy actually did look like Jesus, gliding along, arms outstretched, nodding apathetically at the people punctuating his aimless journey…

But that couldn’t be him. Jesus hasn’t been here in a long time…

“The streets are extended gutters,” I heard a man say once. That makes sense in this town. The ridiculous worship of inane people and inane things is the driving force of life and the sidewalk Jesus couldn’t do much to stop the rising tide of shit heading down the boulevards. His struggle lets me know just how truly alone I am.

Life is just a series of lines and all we do is constantly queue up for the next wait. When we look around at the people waiting alongside us, we see a parallelism that is as comforting as it is frustrating. That is what makes us human; we want to change but are too afraid to do so. It’s a sickness of my generation that we constantly want innovation and change while consistently falling in line with whatever our parents already believed, further perpetuating that cycle of stability. It is almost unavoidable that we will become our parents, whether or not we say otherwise.

That’s why I started all of this. That is why this journey is poignant to me…I need to prove to my family that I am more than just some silly fuckup. They need to see me for what I truly am and what great work I can perform. They need to know me for who I can truly become.
That is my purpose…that is the meaning of life…
Recognition.

***

She starts to breath heavily, panting, lost in the shadows of lust’s embrace. This is the best time for us; when we are at our most basic, at our most primal. The push and pull of love’s frenzied, stifled throes…that is perfection. Or, nearly perfection. That sudden release is like a breath of air after drowning…the contented smiles are the surviving remnants of a previous existence. The wonderful afterglow of two people so perfectly intertwined that only God could separate. That pleasure…that is God and her legs are the altar at which I worship.

Only one step remains…the hands. They caress, they stroke, they touch…the faintest of touches conveys so much about the person from which it comes.

The study of touches is one to which I have been forever a student. Small inclinations in one way or another alter the mood of those around them. With a slight shift in finger placement, a person can change from an erotic caress to a crushed windpipe…So much power lies in the touch.

You can see the light drain, the conscious mind slowly go to sleep, and there…there is your perfection…coming through one gasp at a time.
Mother would be pleased…

***

There is such an underwritten quality to the work with which I am so obsessed. No one truly appreciates it except for mother and after all, she is who this is for. I remember when I was younger, maybe five or six, and she found me in her room. I was playing on her bed, amidst all of the folded laundry she had finished earlier and one of her bras had found its way onto my back. I wasn’t wearing it per say but the material felt nice. As a six year-old, I hadn’t quite grasped the concept of gender roles. My mother was not at all amused. I remember the look on her face as clear as if it were yesterday.

That face was so ever-present in my childhood…something void of emotion…no love, not even contempt…just disconnected disappointment.

She shuffled over to me and in one motion, she broke my right femur. I deft flick of her wrist punctuated by an ear-splitting crack. I wailed and screamed but she let me know immediately that if little boys wanted to play in momma’s things, there would be consequences.

The doctors all thought that I had fallen while climbing a tree. If they had looked into the situation, they would have realized that the bra was on under my shirt…a humiliating punishment for the unknown line I should have never crossed.

Mother was like that. It was the full picturesque quality of her character to be so loving that she let me know precisely where I stood at all times, and never let me forget the consequences for my actions. For that, I am forever grateful. Even today, she is watching over me. I know for a fact…I can feel those loving eyes.

People in general are like that. Every person has the limit, a breaking point, and when pushed beyond, the end is always the same…that is why I promised myself never to disappoint mother again.