Thursday, May 10, 2012

Writing Slaughterhouse Five by Charles J. Shields

The friendship between Kurt Vonnegut and Bernie O’Hare had begun in army boot camp and ripened into brotherhood during the Battle of the Bulge and their winter match into captivity as POWs. But the event that melded their lives together was the firestorm of Dresden. They talked about that experience in a private language, usually late a night when both had had a few drinks, like a pair of mediums conjuring voices and scenes from long ago.

In 1965, when God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater had received more attention than any of his previous novels and it began to look like Kurt could break into publishing world in a big way, Vonnegut understood that he needed to get back to his war book – at least now he had a title he liked- Slaughterhouse Five- he decided to go see his army buddy in Hellertown, Pennsylvania once again.

The two men smoked, drank, laughed, and went over the details of their capture, the hardships and their release – the same as they had countless times before – but Kurt was beginning to think he still didn’t have much of a book because his perspective was no different from dozens of other novels about the war. Bothering him too was Bernie’s wife Mary, who kept banging the ice cube trays on the kitchen counter, closing doors loudly, and huffing. Bernie indicated nothing was wrong but Kurt was getting uncomfortable.

Then she turned to me, let me see how angry she was, and that the anger was for me. She had been talking to herself, so what she said was a fragment of a much larger conversation. “You were just babies then!” she said.

“What?” I said.

“You were just babies in the war – like the ones upstairs!”

I nodded this was true. We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood.

“But you’re not going to write it that way, are you.”

That wasn’t a question. It was an accusation.

“I – I don’t know,” I said.

“Well, I know,” she said. “You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them.”

He assured her that he wouldn’t write a set piece for some Hollywood star to shout “Let’s go, boys!” as the troops whistled their way into Berlin wearing laundered uniforms; he pledged that if he ever did write the novel, he would include the phrase “The Children’s Crusade” in the title.

Thus it took Mary O’Hare, who wasn’t enamored of the ancient arms-and-the man ethos about war, to push Vonnegut off dead center about his big book. The truth was that as a twenty-one-year-old private, he hadn’t understood what was happening to him from the afternoon the 106th packed their gear at Camp Atterbury to the morning when he and the other POWS walked into Dresden at dawn. There had been no Ajax, no Achilles in Vonnegut’s anti-Illiad. The sacking of Dresden had been accomplished surgically, at night, from high above by men in machines who returned to their homes in a few hours, not years later like Ulysses. There were no classical heroes in twentieth-century total war, only victimizers and victims. It was the breakthrough he needed after two decades of false starts.

Even then, he might have preoccupied himself with projects that were easier, had he not been offered a position in the faculty at the creative writing program at the University of Iowa, ideal conditions for writing Slaughterhouse Five straight through. . .

Here also, in an unlikely Midwestern town Kurt Vonnegut became part of a nucleus of professionals like himself, all of them vibrating sympathetically to the latest changes in the environment of American literature.

During the course of talking about writing with his fellow instructors, he became especially intrigued with the ideas of Robert Coover. Coover was teaching courses in experimental fiction and working on what would become his most highly praised novel, The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop., and early example of metafiction, as it came to be known.

Metafiction is “fiction about fiction”. The true subject is not the characters or other conventions of realism – plot, setting, the suspension of disbelief – but the writer’s self-consciousness. Through irony, deliberate artifice, and digressions, the reader is reminded that the story isn’t real. Unrestrained by convention, many writers found they were free to insert themselves into the narrative in ways that might be ironic, political, comical, metaphysical, or polemical. Said one of Coover’s students, “ I learned to see what I was doing in terms of traditions and possibilities more universal than realism.”

Vonnegut’s background in journalism had taught him the opposite: that you must not become part of the story. But firebombing of Dresden, on the other hand, as he experienced it, was his story. And metafiction gave him permission in a sense to tell it brokenly, hauntingly –the way it came to him in his dreams.

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