You are free to skip this particular blog post, because I’m sure you didn’t sign up to read critical/literary essays when you decided to follow this blog. However, if that’s right up your alley, go ahead!
If you’ve been following along, you’ll know that my Vonnegut class required three Vonnegut scholarship essays, each of week takes a look at The Vonnegut Aesthetic as well as how particular scholarship we found fits in with that aesthetic.
For the first one, I just wrote about Slaughterhouse-Five, and attempted to figure out how the professor wanted the scholarship to be written. He called it an “aesthetic precis,” and I just hate writing precises in general so it didn’t look good for me. I ended up just rambling about things we had discussed in class, figuring if I could at least give him back what he had given us, I might have a chance of passing.
I ended up getting an 85 or so on this essay, which I wasn’t too happy about. (Remember, if I made an A in this class, I got a 4.0 for my entire graduate career.) I haven’t edited anything,
The Vonnegut Aesthetic
The entirety of Slaughterhouse-Five is used to comment on the novel. All throughout the novel, there are several instances where Vonnegut comments on how people react towards novels in general. The books are either used as a front for something else (in the case of the smutty bookstore); or they are used as an example of metafiction through which Vonnegut comments on the structure of Slaughterhouse-Five in general.
In terms of a traditional novel, the plot usually follows a chronological order of beginning-middle-end action, with a semblance of a climax, a resolution, and some falling action in there somewhere. This is not the case with Slaughterhouse-Five. Slaughterhouse-Five starts at the end, with the author giving a general overview of Billy Pilgrim’s life before whisking the reader back and forth in time, seemingly at random, throughout the rest of the novel. The book itself is “unstuck in time,” just as Billy himself is (Vonnegut 29). While some novels do deal with flashbacks, nothing in Slaughterhouse-Five is a flashback; everything is happening in real time. The reader is forced to become unstuck like Billy, flipping backwards and forwards through the pages of Billy’s life while his uncertain future unwinds before him. There are just enough instances of the author reaching through the pages to remind the reader that it is a story to keep them from becoming too engrossed in Billy’s life.
For example, in the last chapter, Billy Pilgrim visits a bookstore. However, the bookstore’s front window display is just that: a display. The display contains books by Kilgore Trout, the science fiction writer Billy first heard about in the veteran’s hospital and who would eventually become one of Billy’s friends in his hometown. Billy is interested solely in these books, and not by the smut being sold throughout the rest of the shop. The clerks in the shop are not at all impressed by Billy’s finds, and indeed, “[the clerk] had to tell the other clerks about the pervert who wanted to buy the window dressing. The other clerks already knew about Billy. They had been watching him, too” (Vonnegut 261).
Later, in chapter five, Billy Pilgrim is on the spaceship on the way to Tralfamadore. The only entertainment available to him is Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. This novel, while an instant commercial success, is in reality a terribly-written novel. Vonnegut juxtaposes Valley of the Dolls and the way it is constructed (“The people in it certainly had their ups and down, ups and downs. But Billy didn’t want to read about this game ups and downs over and over again”) with the way Slaughterhouse-Five itself is constructed (“Billy couldn’t read Tralfamadorian, of course, but he could at least see how the books were laid out — in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars”) (Vonnegut 111).
A major example of authorial intrusion is the title page of Slaughterhouse-Five. Normally, a title page contains three things: the title, the author’s name, and the publishing house. In the case of Slaughterhouse-Five, it contains not on the title and two subtitles, but a lengthy mini-biography of the author beneath the author’s name, which also talks about how the book itself is constructed, which is mentioned again in chapter five when the Tralfamadorian novel is introduced. The autobiographical rant beneath Vonnegut’s name changes from something close to reality (if not actually reality) to fiction, which reminds the reader that they are at the mercy of this author, who so nonchalantly describes a fictional planet and aliens as the way the novel is constructed.
Throughout a traditional novel, the author does not normally draw attention to other works in comparison to their own, nor do they treat books as just simple objects that are meant to be placeholders for something more. These moments of authorial intrusion remind the reader that they are reading a novel and are just along for the ride.
Have you read Slaughterhouse-Five? Can you make heads or tails of the preceding essay (because I can tell you right now, reading back over that lets me know that I still have no idea what I was writing)? Let me know in the comments!
And as always, keep reading.
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