Dresden Calling (The Gang’s All Here) | Harriss on Slaughterhouse-Five

I recently clicked on a listicle dedicated to mapping out precisely where some dozen classic television shows were set in New York City. It was clickbait, to be honest (so it goes), but enjoyable clickbait that helped to place the fictional settings of I Love Lucy, Family Affair, The Jeffersons, All in the Family, and others, in their relative geographical proximity. Zooming in on these locales, certain patterns begin to emerge. George and Weezy’s deluxe apartment in the sky is mighty close to Felix and Oscar’s pad on The Odd Couple, which itself appears to be just a block or two from the Drummond residence on Different Strokes. While Mad Men doesn’t make this map, Don and Megan Draper’s place at 73rd and Park can be found nearby, and (confession here to my afición for old TV) I never watch the credits of something like That Girl without wondering who might be in the background, or in one of the buildings featured in those gorgeous shots of midtown. Maybe Ralph Kramden, more than a decade older but still looking to hit it rich, continues to drive his bus on Madison Avenue past the Time-Life Building. As one Facebook commenter wrote: “I’ve always wondered what would happen if shows from different networks, set in the same city, had characters that ran into each other on their TV show jobs.” Indeed. It’s a relief to know that others share such speculation.

In my first reading of Slaughterhouse-Five in several years (and my first with the benefit of the previous five novels), I was struck by the way the novel enacts such a scenario, resurrecting a number of prominent characters, settings, and situations from the very novels we’ve read over the past six months and allowing them the range to intersect and interact with one another in meaningful ways. “The gang’s all here,” as the British officers observe. Texts, which so often constitute their own internal worlds, rarely open into one another in quite this way. When they do, such overlap usually derives from a strong sense of place (as with television NYC, or Faulkner’s Yaknapatawpha County), or an iconic franchise (consider Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn or the end of the film Rogue One’s relationship to Star Wars: A New Hope). Distinct from these examples, however, Vonnegut plays things much looser. Through Billy Pilgrim, the time-hopping protagonist who spans these multiple plots and spatial and temporal planes, the reader remains decentered, prevented from any grounding stability in time and space over the course of the novel. This transience of meaning follows as well for specific meanings of words and historical events. In what follows I want to reflect on how Vonnegut plays on relationships of meaning and time as he burrows toward a central moral truth in his treatment of the bombing of Dresden.


Slaughterhouse-Five takes up the relationship between time and narrative as a matter of alien abduction:

Billy Pilgrim says that the Universe does not look like a lot of bright little dots to the creatures from Tralfamadore. The creatures can see where each star has been and where it’s going, so that the heavens are filled with rarified, luminous spaghetti. And Tralfamadorians don’t see human beings as two-legged creatures, either. They see them as great millepedes—“with babies’ legs at one end and old peoples’ legs at the other,” says Billy Pilgrim.

In space, attempting to read Tralfamadorian novels, Billy notes in a similar way that the symbols resembling human letters are organized differently than people would expect—clumped together rather than linear:

[They should be] read . . . all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at once.

We can recognize Vonnegut’s own attempt to write in this way, detailing the many lives of Billy Pilgrim not in linear fashion but in a way that renders the whole, if not simultaneously (which would be impossible in the realm of comprehensibility) then certainly more strenuously so than the beginning, middle, and end of Aristotelian emplotment would afford. In doing so he also embraces a kind of indeterminate sense of identity. By supplanting ordinary change over time, he subverts the formal demands of narrative. It’s no accident, then, that to achieve this, Billy must travel through time because the human ability to understand time has been intimately linked to such conventions of narrative.

At the same time—and this proves remarkable to me—Vonnegut sheds new light on his earlier novels by setting up his own metaphorical Manhattan (in the listicle sense) in the midst of Slaughterhouse-Five’s narrative—literary streets where characters, all of whom represent bursts of meaning and significance, interact with one another in precisely this Tralfamadorian simultaneity offered above. Not unlike T.S. Eliot’s notion that present and past continually reshape and revise one another, the development of this extensive battery of background information in the earlier novels establishes powerful bursts of information that Billy’s traversal of time allows to take place in something approaching simultaneity.

These traversals work in other ways too: Consider the way Vonnegut uses a single symbol or word to flesh out a diversity of ideas and meanings: “spoon” as survival technique in the POW boxcars, revised by its post-coital meaning on Billy and Valencia’s wedding night, to the contraband instrument in Dresden utilized by the prisoners to eat nutrient-rich syrup (eat it and weep). Or “Three Musketeers” as both Roland Weary’s misperception of his alliance with the scouts early on and Valencia’s candy bar. Blue and ivory become popular colors of death and elegance, books occupy a number of valences—the list could continue. This thick signification, though, given the way Billy experiences time, performs a couple of tasks for Vonnegut. First, approaching this simultaneity, it does risk a sense of meaninglessness; it defies the ordinary ways the people have organized the sense they make of experience. I’ve written at some length in these reflections ranging back to Player Piano concerning how novels seek to reflect knowing, and they do so in part by organizing experience according to a battery of recognizable terms. By imposing order on these experiences, people might find solace in the security that certain harrowing elements of human life might be managed, mastered, or understood. Slaughterhouse-Five pushes against such organization in most ways—but not all.


I can’t sign off from this series of reflections as the resident religionist without mentioning the Serenity Prayer that hangs on the wall of Billy’s office (and, also, in the spirit of transformed signifiers, that hangs between Montana Wildhack’s breasts). Though it dates back to the 1930s, we have learned only recently that the prayer was almost certainly composed by the theologian and political commentator Reinhold Niebuhr. Vonnegut would not have known this was written by Niebuhr, but in the spirit of full simultaneity of meaning that evades normal structures of knowing (which is to say, in the spirit of playing Billy Pilgrim), I’d like to say that I led you to this point, full-Slaughterhouse, by discussing Niebuhr in my reflection on Mother Night. In his 1952 book The Irony of American History, Niebuhr notes that through the atomic bomb, America has made it likely that in order to save the world in the Cold War it would have to destroy the world (so it goes).

. . . Much like Billy Pilgrim occupies many roles. In keeping with the way spoons and Three Musketeers range in meaning, Vonnegut is up to something with Billy’s non-discussion of Dresden, Hiroshima, and other bombing campaigns. There’s pragmatism at the heart of the Serenity Prayer that points to a cynical aphorism like “so it goes,” to the recognition that life is long and messy and none of us pure. But in his refusal to surrender Dresden to Rumsfoord’s shrug of equivalency, Vonnegut, through Billy, refuses to give up on wisdom. More precisely, he refuses to give up on the wisdom to know the difference between determinism and agency. This is the heartbreak at the core of Vonnegut’s moral genius: We are human because we ought to know better; we are more human because we don’t; we are most human because we can’t.