Iterations of the Same | Sheldon on Slaughterhouse-Five

Billy Pilgrim can’t stay in one place. Like Winston Niles Rumfoord before him, Pilgrim has become unstuck. But while Rumfoord bounces around in space, appearing in his sitting room on Earth for only a few minutes at regularly scheduled intervals, Pilgrim is smeared across time, living many moments and timelines at once. He is a baby, a middle-aged optometrist in upstate New York, a prisoner in the Tralfamadorian human zoo, and a solider in the Second World War all at the same instant. He is everywhere he has ever been all at once, each timeline moving just as it must no matter which appears to Pilgrim to be his reality. For the people in that timeline with him, he appears to be just a little bit distracted.

The Tralfamadorians explain: “There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects” (112). They are describing their books, which operate (as they do) under the principle of simultaneity. Their books are designed as “brief clumps of symbols separated by stars . . . each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other” (111–112). Slaughterhouse-Five is written in English, not Tralfamadorian. Nonetheless, it is organized by brief clumps of symbols separated by stars “producing an image of life” (112).

Translation out of metaphor:

It’s not that he’s a bad husband to Valencia, it’s that he’s been captured by aliens. It’s not that he’s a distracted friend, it just that he’s been forced to play Adam and Eve with a porn star named Montana Wildhack. It’s not that he’s an absent father, it’s just that sometimes finds himself not quite where he’s imagined to be.

Billy didn’t want to marry ugly Valencia. She was one of the symptoms of his disease. He knew he was going crazy when he heard himself proposing marriage to her, when he begged her to take the diamond ring and be his companion for life. (134)

“You want to talk about our silver pattern?”
“I’ve got it narrowed down pretty much to either Royal Danish or Rambler Rose.”
“Rambler Rose,” said Billy.
“It isn’t something we should rush into,” she said. “I mean—whatever we decide on, that’s what we’re going to have to live with the rest of our lives.”
Billy studied the pictures. “Royal Danish,” he said at last.
“Colonial Moonlight is nice, too.”
“Yes, it is,” said Billy Pilgrim.
And Billy traveled in time to the zoo on Tralfamadore. (142)

He married his fiancée, finished his education, and was set up in business in Ilium by his father-in-law. . . . Billy became rich. He had two children, Barbara and Robert. In time, his daughter married another optometrist, and Billy set him up in business. (30–31)

His might be described as a case of ontological echolalia; he can only say what he has always said. Good thing he seems to know just what to say!

Billy stopped skating, found himself at a lectern in a Chinese restaurant in Ilium, New York. . . . He was scared stiff, thought a ghastly mistake had been made. All these prosperous, solid men out there would discover now that they had elected a ludicrous waif. They would hear his reedy voice, the one he’d had in the war. He swallowed, knew that all he had for a voice box was a little whistle cut from a willow switch. Worse—he had nothing to say. The crowd quieted down. Everybody was pink and beaming.

Billy opened his mouth, and out came deep, resonant tone. His voice was a gorgeous instrument. It told jokes which brought down the house. It grew serious, told jokes again, and ended on a note of humility. The explanation of the miracle was this: Billy had taken a course in public speaking. (62)

It is totally unnecessary to be present in one’s own life to be successful. In fact, it is not his responsibility to account for a system that privileges white men so furiously that he need only halfway appear to reap its most generous rewards.

The cattle are lowing,
The Baby awakes.
But the little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes.

The subtitle, The Children’s Crusade, was borrowed from Billy’s friend’s wife, who argues that the only ethical way to write about war is to recognize that the people who fight it are children, like the ill-fated children of the original Children’s Crusade (19). But the novel is not just about war; it is also and importantly about life in America after the Second World War. More pointedly, it is about life in America for veterans of the war. The title covers this too: it is about all the grown men who are still children, all the little Lord Jesuses who never cried.

Maybe that’s not fair. Suffice it to say that it is not a happy book to read as a woman.

Of all the lives Billy has led, it seems none has been as a woman. It’s tempting to say that none has even been lived with a woman, if that preposition implies some shared world.

There’s voluptuous Montana, whose cartoonishly rendered boobs end the novel, and fat Valencia, whose breasts make no appearance at all. There’s shrill daughter Barbara and angry mother Mary (the book’s most likable character). There are the young women whom Pilgrim espies naked in the shower moments before their deaths. And there is the woman having sex with the pony in the card Weary shows him and the card the salesman in the porn store offers him.

I wish that Vonnegut had experimented, just once, with Quantum Leap–style time travel in which each jump requires a concomitant shift in perspective. Instead, every one of his heroes stays stuck in a single perspective. Rumfoord remains the same smirking blueblood whether in Newport, Rhode Island, or on a satellite of Saturn. Pilgrim is the same gently lost middle-class American whether he is in a prisoner of war camp or giving a speech to the Rotary Club. Pilgrim may not be Vonnegut, as Trout isn’t exactly Vonnegut, as none are Rumfoord. But neither are any of them too distant from any of the others. Which is really a way of saying that I wish Vonnegut tried, just once, to imagine a woman’s interior life.

Maybe I need a break from Vonnegut.