Tragedy, Mutated: Comic Time and Comic Timing in Kurt Vonnegut’s SF Comedies

Fran McDonald

Kurt Vonnegut’s Master’s thesis in anthropology, rejected by the University of Chicago for being, according to Vonnegut, “too simple, and too fun,” was about the mathematical shape of narratives. “The fundamental idea,” Vonnegut later wrote, “is that stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots of spearheads.” In a series of public lectures, Vonnegut diagramed a series of narrative arcs on a blackboard for his audience. “Man in hole” is succeeded by the sweeping arcs of “Boy Meets Girl,” the stepped ascent and plummeting drop of “Cinderella,” and the abortive slide of the Kafkaesque. In some versions of the talk, Vonnegut wipes the board clean between drawings, in others, like this one clipped from youtube, he casts line upon line, piling characters and their fates atop one another. Thrown together on one canvas, the clean arc of a protagonist’s storyline becomes entangled in a thicket of others. The scale of the BE axis, where “B” is Beginning and E is End, or Electricity, or Entropy, depending—dilates to represent not the time of an individual’s life (whether that be Man, Boy, Cinderella, or Gregor Samsa) but the time of all stories, which rub up against one another to spark picaresque scenes—In a rush to furnish her charge with a carriage for a ball, a fairy godmother skips over an occupied hole. This dilation of scale—where the y axis recalibrates itself to represent a species-fortune, and the x axis a species-time—signals that we have entered the domain of comedy.

The pithy equation “comedy is tragedy plus time” is one starting block from which to think about the differences between comic and tragic time. Comedy is tragedy plus time suggests that time is the active agent in the transformation of tragedy into comedy. Or, tragedy can only endure so much time before it mutates into something radically other, comedy. As the titles of some of the great Shakespearean tragedies—from Hamlet to Macbeth to Othello— suggest, tragedy favors a form of time that mimics, in David Kastan’s words, “the experiential time of a human life—a time that, like life itself to which it is inextricably tied, is directional, irreversible, and finite.” Comedy is tragedy plus time suggests that comedy adds time to tragic time—its project is to imagine forms and structures of time that are in excess of the “directional,” the “irreversible,” and the “finite.” Vonnegut’s blackboard exercise, in which story lines and story times proliferate to form a comic crosshatching of interlocking strings and converging shapes, an irrevocably tangled karass, if you will, is one example of such work.

There is an ethics to the comic practice of recalibrating time to vast or otherwise inhuman scales. In 2000, the Nobel-Prize winning geochemist Paul Crutzen announced that we are living in the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch defined by the directional, irreversible, and finite effects of human beings on the Earth’s ecosystems. As an ecological reality, the Anthropocene signals the end: the total exhaustion of Earth’s resources and the inevitable extinction of all species. In the humanities, though, the Anthropocene registers as a crisis in scale that itself poses a creative challenge—we must cast off once and for all a blinkered humanism that wields “the human” as a universal yardstick that gives measurement to all things—time, space, value, and meaning. In its place, we must install nonhuman perspectives, such as deep time or cosmic space, that might better help us see the scale of the damage wrought by our species on Earth. The literary genre of tragedy—organized as it is around the lifespan of a heroic individual—is fundamentally incompatible with such imaginative work. Instead, as Mark McGurl and Joseph Meeker before him have argued, it is up to comic literature to design excessive forms of time that might break us free from the directional, irreversible, and finite trajectory of tragic humanism.

This is the project of Kurt Vonnegut’s science fiction comedies, which experiment with inhuman temporalities in an effort to mutate tragedy into comedy, or, more finely, to convert tragic humanism into comic humanism. Today, I’ll look to two novels—Galapagos and Slaughterhouse-Five—to show how comic time manifests itself not only as subject matter within the novels’ diegetic worlds, but as typographic forms—the asterisk and white space, specifically. If the dawn of the Anthropocene requires that we fundamentally rewire our brains to perceive the world anew, and if the posthuman comedy is a blueprint for such rewiring, then we need books that are not only about inhuman timeframes, but that require the reader to sit within varying forms of comic time.

Galapagos is told from the deep time perspective of Leon Trout, a deceased Vietnam veteran who has opted out of the afterlife in order to satisfy his curiosity about the longevity of the human species. Trout’s wraith-like existence allow him to begin his story with this comically surreal dilation of time: “One million years ago, back in 1986 A.D., Guayaquil was the chief seaport of the little South American democracy of Ecuador, whose capital was Quito, high in the Andes Mountains.” The novel’s action mostly takes place in 1986, when, through a series of accidents, a small group of strangers avoid an ovary-decimating bacterium by decamping to the fictional Galapagos island of Santa Rosalia that will become, in Trout’s words, “the cradle of all humankind.” Much to the delight of Trout, who has long blamed humankind’s “enlarged brains” for wreaking all manners of large-scale devastation, humanity survives the ensuing million years by devolving into a fish-like species, whose undeveloped frontal cortex and lack of opposable thumbs render them incapable of mass-producing chlorofluorocarbons or nuclear weapons. Filtered through Trout’s deep time perspective, the survival of the species reads as a comedy of errors—there are no heroes or villains here, only a series of minor coincidences and accidental run-ins that together form a particular crosshatching that, as it turns out, for better or worse, keeps the human species alive. Late in the novel, Trout explicitly acknowledges evolution’s comic dimensions: “The combination of the Captain’s incompetence and the decision of Hernando Cruz to go to the aid of his own flesh and blood,” he writes, “although the stuff of low comedy at the time, has turned out to be of incalculable value to present-day humankind.”

Before he played a crucial role in Galapagos, Charles Darwin made a cameo in Slaughterhouse-Five as the “Earthling who is most engaging to the Tralfamadorian mind.” Published in 1969, the novel tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, a young soldier who returns from the war to marry a nice girl called Valencia, become an optometrist, and get kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians, an alien species who have, they say, “many wonderful things to teach Earthlings, especially about time.” The Tralfamadorians perceive all times as simultaneous—“all moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist.” It’s a perspective that Billy, the traumatized witness of a litany of wartime atrocities—finds deeply comforting. Simultaneous time deflates tragic humanism by presenting death not as the grandiose finale of an individual life, but as one moment among many others. Late in his life, Billy espouses the comic philosophy of Tralfamadorian time to a waiting crowd. “If you protest,” Billy says, “if you think that death is a terrible thing, then you have not understood a word I’ve said. Farewell, hello, farewell, hello.” Billy’s soft undulation between farewell and hello, end and beginning, is mirrored in the novel’s structure, which disregards the forward march of calendar time to oscillate back and forth between past, present, and future.

The million-year gaze of Leon Trout and the supple sway of Tralfamadorian time are experiments in comic time—the first a stretching out, the second a folding in. In each case, Vonnegut is interesting in testing how such a recalibration of time’s coordinates might reshape humanist beliefs and practices. For example, how might the death of progress, or the death of the tragic death scene, make us more compassionate, more humane? Let us return to the beginning, to Vonnegut’s interest in drawing stories, in drawing time. In the second part of my talk today, I want to locate two typographical forms that comic takes in Vonnegut’s novels that are examples, I think, of Vonnegut literally drawing time on the page.

The first form that comic time takes is the asterisk, which in Galapagos is appended to the name of any character that is close to the end of his or her life. Trout explains its usage like this: “The two with stars by their names would be dead before the sun went down. This convention of starring certain names will continue throughout my story, incidentally, alerting readers to the fact that some characters will shortly face the ultimate Darwinian test of strength and wiliness.” Vonnegut’s use of the asterisk to denote an impending death is a neat inversion of its original usage in feudal printing practices as a reference marker to indicate a date of birth. More commonly, the asterisk is used by editors away from the asterisked material toward a textual correction or addition. In Vonnegut, however, the asterisk turns its face away from the unfolding narrative to look backwards at, and signal the finitude of, the character to which it is attached. Here, the asterisk is a spoiler, a formal fold that slays tragic time, which depends on the dramatic disclosure of an “end” to shore up the importance of its protagonist-hero. Crutzen’s announcement that we are living in the Anthropocene is, incidentally, the greatest spoiler of them all: one day, all existence will die.

As we’ve seen time and time again over the last few days, the asterisk gets appended by Vonnegut to another name—his own. Vonnegut routinely included the asterisk in his autographs, an in-joke of sorts, given that in Breakfast of Champions the same crudely drawn asterisk is our narrator’s figuring of an asshole. Perhaps the asterisk-spoiler-asshole is not a dead-end fold, but an orificial opening—a surreal pleat of death dates and birth names that ties a knot in narrative time and forces us, the reader, to occupy, if only for a little while, a strangely unbounded topography that refuses to locate itself on that BE axis.

Static Section Break

Also typographical in nature, a second form that comic timetakes in Vonnegut’s novels is a type of white space that I’ll call the static section break. The narratives of both Slaughterhouse Five and Galapagos are subdivided into unusually small parcels of text. In fiction, the section break is used to indicate a change: usually, a spatial relocation, a temporal cut, or a shift in perspective. While Vonnegut does sometimes use the section break according to narrative convention, there is also an overwhelming number of examples in which the section break signals no shift whatsoever. Consider this, one of many examples taken from Slaughterhouse-Five: “Close the fucking door,” somebody said to Billy. “Were you born in a barn?” <section break> “Billy closed it, took a hand from his muff, touched a stove.” A section break is akin to a cut in film. The screen goes blank and we the reader know to pause, to take a beat, and to prepare ourselves for reentry into potentially unfamiliar surroundings. In this case, however, we reenter the novel to discover that no time has passed, nothing has changed. The effect is that of a glitch, in which our assumption that the narrative will move forward in some way (even if this move “forward” manifests itself as a move “backward” in linear time) is exposed and made strange. If the section break usually indicates an abridgement of content in the name of narrative progression—here it halts time and splays it open. The white space of the static section break, then, opens up an uncannily elastic duration that is neither past, nor present, nor future. As with the asterisk’s fold, the static section break would not register on Vonnegut’s BE axis, or if it did it would be as little tabs of white space that would recalibrate Billy Pilgrim’s story line as a series of dashes.

These two forms of comic time are, I wager, more alien and alienating than deep time or simultaneous time. Deep time, after all, is still linear. It still organizes itself around a telos—a pretty big telos, actually: the end of all existence. Simultaneous time, too, travels along the belt of linear time, even if it does so in serpentine ways. Indeed, it is worth pointing out that throughout both novels Vonnegut takes great pains to orient the reader in diegetic time and space. The title of Slaughterhouse-Five is after all, an address, and throughout that novel, Vonnegut is careful to indicate precisely when and where Billy ends up after each bout of time travel. The orificial fold of the asterisk-spoiler and the uncanny duration of the static section break are something else: forms of non-diegetic comic time that are, truly, non-directional, non-localizable, and non-progressive. It is perhaps in these formal components that we see Vonnegut’s most radical experiments into inhuman time. Caught in the undertow of that asterisk or that white space, we become, truly, unstuck from timeand it is here, I think, that we are perhaps the closest to touching the sides of our karass. The karass, after all, is a tool in practicing a comic humanism, which is to say, a humanism unbound from the grasping Enlightenment paradigms of mastery, knowledge, and autonomy. Vonnegut’s forms of comic time require that the reader resists the impulse to certify her position, her purpose, her time, and instead tarry awhile amidst her unknowing, so that she might be on the lookout for the arrival of something other, something new.