Pilgrim’s Lack of Progress | Elmer on Slaughterhouse-Five

We know that Slaughterhouse-Five took a long time to write because Vonnegut tells us so: “I would hate to tell you what this lousy little book cost me in money and anxiety and time” (2). The first approach was documentary: “I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen” (2). (What Vonnegut thinks of the documentary impulse might be gleaned from his bogus history about André Le Fèvre and the “first dirty photograph in history” [51]). The next approach Vonnegut takes is more literary, a matter of “climaxes and thrills and characterization and wonderful dialogue and suspense and confrontations” (6). But that doesn’t work either—at least that does not seem an adequate description of the book we have in our hands, which Vonnegut also tells us up front is a “failure” (28). The problems at the heart of Slaughterhouse-Five are not documentary or literary, we might conclude, but moral and temporal. First of all, “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre” (24). This is because massacres silence: “Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, except for the birds, who say ‘Poo-tee-weet’” (24). This silence has a temporal aspect as well: Slaughter on the scale of the Dresden firebombing represents an inassimilable rupture in time—who is there to assimilate when “everybody is supposed to be dead”?—about which ultimately there is nothing to say.

With Slaughterhouse-Five it becomes clear, if it hadn’t been already, that Vonnegut’s books are less stand-alone novels than installments in one vast experimental project. The apocalyptic wars and super-weapons and war criminals and war casualties of the works from Player Piano through God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater are all elements in the story he is still trying (and failing) to tell in Slaughterhouse-Five. The gang’s all here, Howard W. Campbell Jr. and Eliot Rosewater and Kilgore Trout and members of the Rumfoord clan. We revisit Tralfamadore and of course we return again and again to the matrix of the whole project, Ilium, the smoking Trojan ruin that was the Homeric exemplar of the utterly destroyed city (but also a perfectly nice town in upstate New York). There are other such emblems, of course: Sodom and Gomorrah, for example (Vonnegut calls himself a “pillar of salt” [28]), Hiroshima—and Dresden.

Despite the appearance of so many Vonnegut characters from his previous books, “there are almost no characters in this story” (208). “One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters,” since “they are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces” (208). This last seems an accurate description of Billy Pilgrim, listless and passive, “a filthy flamingo” (42), “so long and weak, so ridiculous” (251). In his “azure toga and silver shoes” (251), Billy looks like Zippy the Pinhead as a member of Sun Ra’s Arkestra.

Vonnegut’s project might be described as the search for a form adequate to the presentation of human beings as the “listless playthings of enormous forces.” He is hardly the only writer of his time asking hard questions about the adequacy of literature. Still, the state of the conversation does not impress Vonnegut. In a rabbit punch of a set piece about it being a “nice time to bury the novel,” he gets in his digs:

Another one said that people couldn’t read well enough anymore to turn print into exciting situations in their skulls, so that authors had to do what Norman Mailer did, which was to perform in public what he had written. The master of ceremonies asked people to say what they thought the function of the novel might be in modern society, and one critic said, “To provide touches of color in rooms with all-white walls.” Another one said, “To describe blow-jobs artistically.” Another one said, “To teach wives of junior executives what to buy next and how to act in a French restaurant.” (264)

None of these look like viable options for Vonnegut. But are we still entitled to ask of this “failure” with “almost no characters” in it, what are we reading?

Let’s start with names. In the fifties and sixties Vonnegut worked alongside some of the champion namers of American literature. They were punning and deadpan and allegorical and sardonic in naming their characters. John Barth’s The End of the Road (1958) begins: “In a sense, I am Jacob Horner.” It’s a riff on Moby-Dick—“Call me Ishmael”—but Melville’s narrator gets to control his own Biblical allegory, while Barth’s is only a Mother Goose character—in a sense. Flannery O’Connor sometimes bonks you on the head—Joy changing her name to Hulga in “Good Country People”—but just as often distills a character into a name that seems just plausible enough not to invite too much scrutiny: Mrs. Turpin, in “Revelation,” may not be a “wart hog from hell” as she is called, but she is as bitter and common as a turnip. In Catch-22 (1961), Joseph Heller captures the lunacy of war by naming a character Major Major Major Major. There are a number of Helleresque absurdities in Slaughterhouse-Five. Here’s one: “Everybody was legally alive now. Before they got their names and numbers in that book, they were missing in action and probably dead” (115). But what is bureaucratically absurd may also be a rueful acknowledgment of the role of “books” in Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorean universe, in which people are always already missing in action and are always already dead; perhaps getting their names in the “book” has a special value, a matter of making characters “come alive,” as we say. The main character of Stanley Elkin’s A Bad Man (1965) is named Feldman. His tormentors are Freedman, Victman, and Dedman—a deadpan rogues gallery, postmodern updates of the medieval morality play Everyman, first performed in 1510. Like his peers, Vonnegut has a kind of serious fun with names. Winston Niles Rumfoord distills a New England essence of the Lexington and Concord in a name, just as Pynchon does with Winthrop Tremaine in The Crying of Lot 49 (1965). Pynchon’s genius is arguably best displayed in his joke names—Oedipa and Mucho Maas, or Genghis Cohen—but sometimes he reaches for the openly allegorical, as with Benny Profane, the central character in V. (1963).

I want to suggest that Vonnegut is far from immune to his era’s play with allegory. Billy Pilgrim, like Benny Profane, is a postmodern avatar of John Bunyan’s Christian, from The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), an allegorical account of one man’s temptations and salvation, and a work often called the first novel in English. Like Slaughterhouse-Five, The Pilgrim’s Progress is highly episodic, though the people and places tend to be very clearly labeled: the Slough of Despond, for example, or Christian’s pal Faithful. As with Vonnegut’s novel, there are “almost no characters”—those are replaced by allegorical labels, cut-outs that become the “playthings of enormous forces.” In Slaughterhouse, those forces are war and time travel; in Bunyan, there’s really only one force: God’s plan. Allegories such as The Pilgrim’s Progress have a complex task: to present at once a narrative, a “progress,” while ultimately affirming the non-narrative, invisible truth that underpins it all. God’s plan is not narrative, it just pretends to be. In a famous early example of what came to be known as “reader response theory,” Stanley Fish argued that Bunyan means the reader to get caught up in the “progress” of Christian, so as to eventually realize his or her error: “The illusory nature of the pilgrim’s progress is a large part of Bunyan’s point, and the reader’s awareness of the problematics of the narrative is essential to his intention, which is nothing less the disqualification of his work as a vehicle of the insight it pretends convey.”1

Something quite like this is at work in Slaughterhouse-Five. In the earliest moments of the novel’s core narrative, Billy Pilgrim is stuck in a ditch with one Roland Weary. Although only eighteen years old, Roland Weary is expert in medieval engines of destruction and other “neat tortures” (46). He knows the function of a “blood gutter,” like some avatar of his paladin namesake, hero of the La Chanson de Roland. But this Roland is weary, not to mention “stupid and fat and man” and smelling “like bacon” (44): the time of heroism is kaput. And we find this out because the linear sequence of this core narrative—capture, removal, labor, salvation—is exactly where the perforation of story first occurs. It is when “stopped in the forest” that “Billy first came unstuck in time” (54). Perhaps the reader is tempted to hope that Billy’s salvation from the Dresden firebombing means something, that his ostensible later normalcy—wife, job, two kids, etc.—is a kind of progress. But like Christian, Billy Pilgrim lives half time in an invisible world in which, as the Tralfamadoreans instruct him, all instants of time are simultaneous: at some level all truths are non-linear, non-progressive. The very exorbitance of Billy’s allegorical experiences—up to and including his improbable adventures on Tralfamadore with Montana Wildhack—is meant to force the reader to accept the “disqualification of [the novel] as a vehicle of the insight it pretends to convey.” Such “disqualification” is normal for allegory; the inadequacy of form is part of its saving message. The problem with Vonnegut’s allegory is that there is no saving message. We are merely left with the painfully absorbed lesson that Billy Pilgrim’s agonies constitute no progress of any kind.


1. Stanley Eugene Fish, “Progress in The Pilgrim’s Progress,” English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 1, no. 3 (Autumn 1971): 261–93, quote from 261.