Reading Vonnegut in Iraq and Becoming Unstuck in Time.
April 13, 2019 12:52 PM   Subscribe

It’s April 11, 2019, as I write this and Vonnegut has been dead for 12 years, though a Tralfamadorian would take issue with that characterization. One of his legacies is a famous passage in “Slaughterhouse-Five.” It’s about planes flying in reverse, where shrapnel flies out of people, back into the bombs and the planes take off backward from their runways, and so on, until everyone is just a baby again. Vonnegut is saying it would be nice if the wisdom learned from a war could be used to reverse engineer the entire thing and keep it from happening at all. That is a nice thought.
Reading ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ in Baghdad: What Vonnegut taught me about what comes after war, by Alex Horton (WaPo)
posted by Stanczyk (15 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
So I feel compelled to point out that instead of thinking about time (especially time during war) as a line one moves along, we could instead think of it as some sort of parabola like you know an arc of some kind. a big curvy thing in the the sky, say.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 1:21 PM on April 13 [21 favorites]

Due to my previous post on this book, I re-read it very recently. It's one hell of a novel. It's got things going on in it that I didn't catch when I was required to read it in middle or high school. The pain that Vonnegut is carrying from his war experiences is blatantly obvious. I didn't catch that when I first read it. Also, it's very witty, and it's much shorter than I remembered. It's a lazy day read, really.

I wish it were more lauded, more present in our society. It's a work on the level of literature that lives forever. I can only hope that maybe with its recent 50th anniversary pushing it back into some tiny level of public awareness, it's the beginning of it slowly gaining more and more public reputation until it's on the same level as Hamlet or Don Quixote or The Iliad.

Okay, maybe that's a bit of hyperbole, but the story it tells of the damage that someone can suffer, and what that does to them, is truly remarkable. The Tralfamadorian view of time, that you can stand back and look at it...

I mean, okay, I have PTSD. I wasn't a soldier, I was sandwiched between a sideways sliding semi rig and my delivery van, standing next to it on a black ice road. I'm in therapy, I think I'm getting better. But it's like, I'm both stuck in time and unstuck in time. I'm living in the now with this constant past thing that is coloring a lot of my life. I feel like before my accident I was actually better able to step back and look at my life as a mountain range of time. Since that night, though, I feel like I'm kind of trapped there, even while I continue here.

That's probably something to talk to my therapist about. But it was an interesting realization after reading this piece.
posted by hippybear at 1:46 PM on April 13 [30 favorites]

I loved this book in high school and it’s definitely time for a reread.
posted by greermahoney at 1:59 PM on April 13 [1 favorite]

Ah, yes, I didn't merely read it. I read it while Ethan Hawke read it to me. Here's the link for the audiobook and text.
posted by hippybear at 2:07 PM on April 13 [5 favorites]

Ooh. Hmm. I just found the audiobook at my library read by the author. Choices, choices.
posted by greermahoney at 2:11 PM on April 13

¿Por que no los dos?
posted by hippybear at 2:14 PM on April 13 [3 favorites]

hippybear -- thanks for that audiobook link!! i haven't read this book in like 25 years or so and i'm really stoked to read it again now. I skipped the introduction the first time I read it (like i usually do with fiction books) but never went back to read it again so I'm reading it now and it's great.

does anyone else think that they should put the introduction at the END of most fiction books?
posted by capnsue at 3:03 PM on April 13 [4 favorites]

Speaking of Vonnegut, I hadn't known until a few years that he wrote plays as well as novels. I ran a across a piece of his, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, and was astounded that it wasn't better known. Its parody of toxic masculinity seems perfect for our time.

I was pleased to see it was revived recently. Apparently, when it was written its satire was considered too broad, too unlikely. Welcome to the era of Trump.

The script is available on line, if anyone is curious.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 3:57 PM on April 13 [2 favorites]

I can have Vonnegut read this to me? What am I waiting for?
posted by Oyéah at 4:35 PM on April 13 [1 favorite]

"Whitehead figures Vietnam waltzed across Vonnegut’s synapses while he wrote “Slaughterhouse-Five,” which was published 50 years ago last month, in 1969. He saw the country doused in napalm and Agent Orange. He saw what hadn’t changed in a quarter-century since Dresden."

From the link.

"Some military personnel during the Vietnam War era joked that “Only you can prevent a forest,” a twist on the U.S. Forest Service’s popular fire-fighting campaign featuring Smokey the Bear."

So, yeah. Funny. My uncle bombed Germans and was a P.O.W. and wrote Vonnegut after he published his book. Never wrote back.
posted by clavdivs at 5:39 PM on April 13

One of my all-time Vonnegut favs is his Address to Graduating Class at Bennington College.
'A friend of mine, who is also a critic, decided to do a paper on things I'd written. He reread all my stuff, which took him about two hours and fifteen minutes, and he was exasperated when he got through. "You know what you do?" he said. "No," I said. "What do I do?" And he said, "You put bitter coatings on very sweet pills."'
posted by greermahoney at 1:34 AM on April 14 [7 favorites]

I was lucky enough to attend a lecture that Vonnegut gave at the University of Pittsburgh, I think it was the early nineties, and what I really remembered about that lecture was that he kept talking smack about Geraldo Rivera. This was back when Rivera was still doing Rivera Live on CNBC, so I really had no opinion on him at the time, and it struck me as odd that Vonnegut would be so obsessed with him. Then he reveals it. His daughter, Edith Vonnegut, was married to Rivera years earlier and eventually divorced him for being a serial cheater and liar. He still talked about the usual stuff like his famous shapes of stories insight, but I remember driving home feeling a little cheated because he seemed to waste so much time obsessing over how horrible Geraldo Rivera is. I drove three hours each way to attend this lecture and he spent so much time bad mouthing this unimportant, crappy journalist. Now that I look back it seems almost prescient. He was right again, and he was trying to warn us.
posted by Stanczyk at 4:49 AM on April 14 [9 favorites]

... we could instead think of it as some sort of parabola like you know an arc of some kind. a big curvy thing in the the sky, say.

That sounds a bit complicated - the kind of thing mostly enjoyed by the college-educated.
posted by um at 12:41 AM on April 15

I have never completely read Slaughterhouse Five. For a number of personal reasons, including, but not limited to my own PTSD, I have put it down part way through every time I attempt to read it. In reading the WaPo article, perhaps it is time.

Great link. Thank you for sharing.
posted by Sequined Ballet Flats at 3:41 AM on April 15

I was lucky enough to attend a lecture that Vonnegut gave at the University of Pittsburgh, I think it was the early nineties, and what I really remembered about that lecture was that he kept talking smack about Geraldo Rivera.

Talk about a grudge match—Vonnegut and Rivera divorced in the early '70s. Years later, Kurt was quoted as saying "If I see Gerry again, I'll spit in his face."

I saw Vonnegut père in 1990 and while I don't distinctly remember him talking smack about Rivera, I do remember that he talked a lot about television, so he probably did. My only distinct memory of that address is of Vonnegut saying that he wished he'd written Cheers.

Worth noting that "Jerry Rivers" appears in Vonnegut's play The Chemistry Professor, where he is the son of Fred Leghorn, "the shrewd hayseed king of the mechanized chicken industry," who concocts the potion that turns the chemistry professor, Dr. Henry Jekyll, into a monstrous chicken beast. "Rivers" is also in Vonnegut's last novel, Timequake, where he rushes to the CBS studios to broadcast Kilgore Trout's motto "You were sick, but now you're well again, and there's work to do."

The pain that Vonnegut is carrying from his war experiences is blatantly obvious.

Yeah, so much of Vonnegut's work is about trauma and trying to live with trauma over and again. Howard Campbell, in Mother Night threatens to hang himself for "crimes against himself." At the end of Breakfast of Champions, Kilgore Trout begs his author to be made young again. And in the aforementioned Timequake (1997), for example, inhabitants of 2001 are thrown back to 1991 to repeat their lives and Trout is again the main character, despite having died in 2001, to name a few.
posted by octobersurprise at 9:18 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]

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