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March 6, 2011 / tietze

So It Goes: The Landscape of Memory in Slaughterhouse-Five (Pt. 2)

Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five has been pegged as fatalistic, an interpretation supported by a direct reading of the Tralfamadorians’ description of the nature of space-time. If time is non-linear, it follows that causality is an absurdity and all events are set. Geller’s reading is more subjective: that Pilgrim is convinced of these ‘facts’ as a way of explaining his jumbled memory. What follows is an exploration of the source text and an attempt to determine which aspects of the novel led Geller to his interpretation. It will further suggest that Vonnegut himself laid subtler clues than advocates of the fatalist interpretation give him credit for, and that he had intended any conclusion to be ambiguous.

“So it goes.” This brief statement is littered throughout the novel, appending every description of death. It has been described as evidence of Vonnegut’s purported fatalistic attitude towards his story (or of the attitude of Vonnegut the narrator-character), but it functions equally as a coping mechanism against tragedy.

For the ‘time out of joint’ aspect of the story to function, Pilgrim has to be aware of this non-linearity – per Einstein, it needs to be observed relative to something or someone. However, under the rules established by the Tralfamadorians, Billy can’t use that foreknowledge in any of the causality-transforming ways that decades of time fiction have trained us to anticipate. “So it goes” is a cautious get-out clause to simplify Pilgrim’s time slips, denying Billy’s precognitive powers any influence over causality. Vonnegut knows his audience and he’s headed them off at the pass.

The epithet is applied to moments of tragedy to remind us that these things have happened, there’s no changing them. If it’s a device rather than a statement of fatalism, it functions adequately when applied to time in joint: the past is the past, don’t get hung up over it. A valid suggestion to anyone wishing to transform the present – for instance, the then-active Vietnam War, possibly Vonnegut’s spur in desiring to tell the war story his narrator discusses – to avoid repetition.
Nevertheless, Vonnegut is keener than Geller or Hill to embrace an objective position on the mechanics of space-time. His Pilgrim is cognisant of his own future from any earlier point in his life. More importantly, Billy actually thinks about changing his future at one point but knows it can’t be done; the idea never occurs to Geller’s Pilgrim, who is content to take the Tralfamadorians at face value.

From where, then, did Geller’s reading emerge? Vonnegut’s framing of the novel as a potential parable encourages ambiguity: even if Billy’s memories reside in some strange variation on the concept of ‘now’, no such transformation burdens Vonnegut (or narrator-Vonnegut) himself. The opening chapter establishes what follows as the product of narrator-Vonnegut’s storytelling, planting in the reader the possibility that the novel is as much about his journey as a storyteller as it is about Billy’s strange pilgrimage through his life.

Vonnegut reminds us at every turn that this should be read if not as a parable then in the style of one. In keeping with his warped sense of a building a ‘reality’, he names his aliens Tralfamadorians and has them travelling in flying saucers. In an IDIC universe (one where, in Gene Roddenberry tradition, there exists “infinite diversity in infinite combinations”), such beings are possible, even plausible. But they’re a hell of a way to make that point, and it’s as easy to take them as a sign that this is all the product of an active imagination.

(Interestingly, Geller and Hill agree. The name stays, but in the absence of any other weirdness, it stands out as a clue that Billy has made them up. It’s a wonder the pair don’t retain daughter Barbara’s line from the novel, “Where did you get a crazy name like ‘Tralfamadore’?”, to hammer the observation home.)

Subtle parallels heighten the sense of unreality. Billy is 44 when he is first taken by a flying saucer to Tralfamadore. He experiences his earliest time slip (that we know of) in 1944. Edgar Derby, the father figure Billy could do with after his old man bought it in a hunting accident, is 44 when he and Billy meet. Billy ranks third in his optometry class of forty-seven – placing 44 students below him. It’s possible this is all coincidental, but it’s too convenient to be entirely real.

Geller’s strongest cue arises, appropriately enough, from Billy’s reading patterns. Pilgrim is an avid SF reader in the novel; indeed, he won’t read anything else. Vonnegut analogue Kilgore Trout, his favourite author, has written Maniacs in the Fourth Dimension, a text with which Billy is familiar. The book is “about people whose mental diseases couldn’t be treated because the causes of the diseases were all in the fourth dimension.” Although Vonnegut goes on the describe the book as being about people afflicted by visions of vampires and werewolves, this addendum in no way tallies with discussion of a fourth dimension – which Geller would likely have interpreted as a reference to the flow of time. Taken in that context, it describes exactly Pilgrim’s ‘mind out of joint’ in Hill’s film and could even be Billy’s own inspiration for his delusional architecture.

Geller’s transformation of Slaughterhouse-Five is inevitable in light of the shape of Hollywood cinema in the early 1970s. This was an environment that attempted to express a type of social realism through artistry, playing with cinematic form while finding a heart to the stories it told that was tangible if not utterly down-to-earth. Science fiction, where it was employed, was a mechanism to make statements about the human condition, as were all traditional narrative genres that were being experimented with and translated in new ways. The gangster film was reinvented through Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather, the war film in Patton, the western via The Wild Bunch. SF yielded the like of Silent Running and A Clockwork Orange, stylised cinema intent on social comment. This is the sphere in which George Roy Hill’s Slaughterhouse-Five exists.

Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is equally outspoken about socio-political concerns of great topicality at the time of its publication, similarly experimenting with generic conventions as part of the ‘new SF’ of the time, but it functions according to styles and strictures unique to the works of Kurt Vonnegut.

In their differing representations of causality and memory, they are what they are, and nothing can change that. So it goes.

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