Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Slaughterhouse Five: Or, If the Accident Will

. . . even if wars didn't keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

Vonnegut writes an anti-war book in Slaughterhouse Five, but not with the expectation that it will stop future wars. Indeed, it hasn't and won't. We can't stop a glacier in its path, though we may unintentionally eliminate all glaciers with global warming. We can't stop death, though the Singularity of exponential technological growth that Ray Kurzweil predicts may grant us a reprieve. These, though, do not relieve the human condition; we may still hold the wish at some point, as did Sybil of Cumae, I want to die. Sybil of eternal life, but not of eternal youth. What a writer can do in the face of this is to tell his story. What we can do is to enjoy life today as though there is no tomorrow, for one day that will be the case.

Slaughterhouse Five is the story of a war-time massacre, told in a series of vignettes. It is the story of Billy Pilgrim, who goes insane while eluding the Germans because there is nowhere else for him to go. Facing death before him, behind him, and even as he stands resting against a tree in the Argonne Forest, Billy escapes through a time window to visit his pre-birth, his pre-death, and many times in between. Oh, and Billy also spends a good deal of time on an alien planet, Tralfamadore, a thousand light years away. He says.

Vonnegut recalls an early draft of his book where he draws a time line of all his characters on the back of a strip of wallpaper. Lifelines, virtual and real. We don't have that time line, but I have constructed another, drawn from clues Vonnegut leaves in the book. A few specific dates are mentioned, but there are many direct and indirect references to time. Time is central to Vonnegut's story, this reconstructed time line is not. But it does show the careful craft that Vonnegut weaves into his story, so that it seems right, even when it is all over the place.

I have noted sections by their sequence number in parentheses for reference. The beginning of each section is announced in the book by ellipsis or chapter heading. The sequences at the beginning of each chapter are listed at the end of this post.

What do we know and when did we know it?

Billy Pilgrim, born 1922 (s-024), died February 13, 1976 (s-183). Was 21 y/o (s-035) when regiment headquarters was overrun by Germans, likely on December 20, 1944, back-projected from his morphine night (q.v.) in POW camp hospital. His birth date must be between December 21 and December 31, 1922.

Morphine Night
Billy breaks down in POW camp and is sedated with morphine (s-127). Later, Billy travels back in time to this night in 1944 (s-161), but wakes up the following day in January (s-177). Billy's morphine night must be the night of January 31, 1944. Billy arrived at the POW barracks at midnight (s-119), so subsequent events that night could technically be dated to morning of the following day, January 1, 1945, but were not.

Billy arrives in Dresden at 5:00 pm (s-193) on January 1, 1945, based on the time line of morphine night and events on January 1st: discharge from hospital (s-184), election (s-191), lunch and march to railroad yard (s-192).

Once in Dresden, Billy remembers ahead (via time travel) about 30 days to when the city will be bombed and burned (s-196); this suggests a time frame of mid-January for his arrival, but this conflicts with the event time line and the remark by a German guard that the Americans would stay only a day or two in camp before being sent to Dresden (s-165).

Billy in hospital following a mild nervous collapse (s-024), spring, 1948, midway through his final college year (s-129). Six months after release, he marries Valencia Merble (s-155), having completed his college course and graduating. Honeymoons on Cape Ann, Massachusetts, during Indian Summer (early November, possibly late October). Son Richard is conceived on their wedding night (s-155). Wedding was in 1948 and not later (date of his release is unknown) because of timing constraints around their 18th anniversary (q.v.).

Billy celebrates 18th wedding anniversary in early November, 1966. Except for detail about his dog's time line, anniversary could have been a year later, even though unlikely. But Spot was alive at the time of the anniversary (s-230), and had died by August, 1967 (s-072), so the anniversary had to have taken place in 1966.

Billy kidnapped by Tralfamadorians in 1967 (s-027), the night of his daughter's wedding (s-088). The wedding was scheduled for shortly after the Lions Club meeting in August (s-063), most likely on Saturday, August 19, 1967, a night of the full moon (s-088). Valencia is noted to have had her ovaries and uterus surgically removed.

Time line on Tralfamadore with Billy still 44 y/o (s-146), six Earthling months after kidnapping, might indicate a June 22 date for the wedding and kidnapping, but might only mean that the Tralfamadorians were 'playing with the clocks again' (s-271).

Billy survives plane crash on Sugarbush Mountain early in 1968 (s-026), probably mid to late February. His roommate in hospital, Gen. Rumfoord, puts the date at 23 years after the raid on Dresden (s-249), which started on the night of February 13, 1945 (s-233). Elsewhere, the narrator puts the date of the crash at 25 years after Dresden (s-199), but this likely represents a rough time frame (quarter-century) rather than fixing a precise date.

We cannot take February 13 as the precise date of the crash, but it was around then or shortly after, based on the time line of Rumfoord's wife, Lily. She was 23 y/o at the time (s-240) and born after the bombings her husband was writing about (s-241), including, presumably, the Dresden bombing. Lily was born after February 13, 1945, and had already turned 23 by the time Billy was in hospital. So the crash was after February 13, 1968, but not too long after, to still qualify as early in the year.

On the Radio
Billy leaves hospital in 1968, probably early spring, to recover at home (s-261). He was 'quiet for a while' (s-027), but makes his way to New York City, intending to tell his story of Tralfamadore on television. He arrives on a chilly evening (s-262) and succeeds in getting part of his story out on radio (s-271). This is mid- to late-November based on the timing of his letter (q.v.) to the local newspaper. His daughter Barbara hears about the broadcast and retrieves Billy (s-028).

A month after returning home from New York City, Billy writes his first letter to the Ilium News Leader (s-028). The day it was published, Barbara arrives in late afternoon to scold him about the letter. Billy is 46 y/o (s-031) and it is still 1968 (s-169), so the time is between 21 December and 31 December. Barbara is 21 y/o (s-031), so this puts her birth date in 1947 or in the last few days 1946. Was she adopted? Valencia had had a total hysterectomy, which we are told on the day of Barbara's wedding. Or was she Valencia's child, Billy's stepchild, part of the reason Valencia would say, 'I never thought anybody would marry me' (s-157)?

The time line as pegged by what we know

1897 - (possibly 1898); Bertram Copeland Rumfoord born; was 70 in 1968 when hospitalized with Billy Pilgrim (s-240).
1899, Dec 31 - (possibly 1900, Jan 1); Edgar Derby born; was 44 (s-105) on Day 9 (q.v.) of the rail transit to POW camp; was 45 on Billy Pilgrim's morphine night (s-136); this was after midnight, so Derby could have been born on January 1st.
1902 - Kilgore Trout born; was 62 y/o in 1964 (s-215).
1904 - Hobo is born, was 40 y/o while in transit in rail car (s-081 & s-098).

1922, Dec 21-31 - Billy Pilgrim born (s-024); was still 21 y.o. on 20 December, 1944 (s-035).
1923 - Infant Billy, no longer a newborn, bathed and powdered by his mother (s-106).
1926 - (possibly 1925); Roland Weary born; was 18 y/o in December, 1944 (s-039).
1932 - Kilgore Trout writes The Gutless Wonder, foretelling use of napalm (s-217).
1935 - Billy 12 y/o, thrown into deep end of YMCA swimming pool to sink or swim (s-129); he blissfully sinks.
1935 - (summer, presumably); Billy visits Grand Canyon (s-113) shortly after YMCA episode (s-129).
1935 - (10 days after Grand Canyon); Billy visits Carlsbad Caverns (s-115).
1939 - Billy visits doctor for an infected thumb; was 16 y/o (s-245); meets old, old man in waiting room.
1944 - (late Nov or early Dec); Billy attends father's funeral in Ilium (s-164); he was shot while deer hunting (s-034).

1944 - (Dec); Billy deployed to Luxembourg front (s-035); still wearing civilian shoes from funeral.
1944, Dec 20 - Billy survives German offensive (s-035), left behind German lines, hooks up with scouts and Weary.
1944, Dec 22 - Billy on 3rd day behind German lines (s-036), shot at, becomes unstuck in time (s-047), then captured by German irregulars (s-057).
1944, Dec 22 - (late afternoon); Billy joins 10's of thousands of captured Americans being marched to Germany (s-076).
1944, Dec 22 - (sundown); Billy arrives at rail yard to be sorted and boxed up (s-078).
1944, Dec 23 & 24 - Billy's train stands for 2 days in rail yard (s-085).
1944, Dec 24 - (3rd night of transport); Billy's train start to move eastward (s-087); he travels in time to 1967, is kidnapped by Tralafamadorians.
1944, Dec 30 - (Day 9 of transport); hobo dies, Weary dies (s-098).
1944, Dec 31 - (noon); English POWs notified of American POWs imminent arrival (s-122).
1944, Dec 31 - (10th night of transport, a Sunday); Billy arrives POW camp on the Czechoslovakian border (s-099), after sunset (s-101); at the English barracks at midnight (s-119); Billy's morphine night (s-127).

1945, Jan 1 - (3 am); Paul Lazarro enters prison hospital (s-165).
1945, Jan 1 - (dawn); Billy wakes (s-177).
1945, Jan 1 - (morning); Billy wakes again, Lazarro threatens Billy (s-182).
1945, Jan 1 - (1 hr after threat); Billy discharged from hospital (s-184), attends hygiene class (s-188), election (s-191).
1945, Jan 1 - (3 pm); Billy leaves for Dresden with the other POWs; transit takes just 2 hours (s-193).
1945, Jan 1 - (5 pm); Billy arrives Dresden (s-193);
1945, Jan 1 - (sundown); the 'three fools,' Billy, Derby & prison guard Gluck look for S-5 kitchen (s-207).
1945, Jan 4 - (c. three days later, shortly after sunrise); Billy sees a Pole hanged (s-200).

1945, Feb 12 - (2 days before Dresden destroyed); Howard W. Campbell, Jr. visits S-5 (s-210).
1945, Feb 12 - (night); air raid warning, Campbell takes shelter at S-5;,alse alarm (s-214).
1945, Feb 13 - (night); Dresden bombed (s-233).
1945, Feb 14 - (noon); Billy emerges from S-5 (s-231), finds Dresden destroyed, like the surface of the moon.
1945, Feb 14 - (nightfall); Billy reaches inn outside Dresden (s-237).
1945, Feb 16 - (2 days later); Billy taken back to Dresden to mine for bodies (s-278).
1945, May 10 - (2 days after VE day); Billy returns to Dresden in wagon/coffin, nostrils flaring, happy (s-254, s-255); later arrested by Russians (s-259).
1945, May 12 - (2 days later); Billy repatriated to Americans (s-259).

1945, mid February - Lily Rumfoord born.
1947 - daughter Barbara born; was 21 y/o in 1968 (s-031).
1948 - (springtime); Billy in veteran's hospital at Lake Placid (s-129), meets Eliot Rosewater who introduces him to Kilgore Trout novels.
1948 - (early November); Billy marries Valencia Merble (s-025); honeymoons on Cape Ann (s-157); son Robert is conceived.
1949 - Robert born at beginning of summer based on conception date (s-157).
1957 - Billy gives speech at Chinese restaurant in Ilium as new president of Lions Club (s-054).
1958 - Billy at Little League banquet for son Robert's team (s-050).
1958 - Billy examines eyes of Mongolian idiot (s-244).
1958 - George Jean Nathan, critic and editor, dies (s-262).
1961, December 31 - (A Sunday); Billy drunk at New Years Eve party, 17 years after morphine night, also a Sunday (s-051).

1964 - Billy meets Kilgore Trout for first time (s-215), was 62 y/o 'back then'; the narrator seems to be speaking from 1966 (s-220) or from 1968 (s-214), looking back to 1964.
1965 - Billy visits mother in old age home (s-048), How did I get so old, she says. She lives for several more years, through 1968 at least (s-032); Billy is described as 41 y/o (s-048), but this doesn't match his birth date of 1922; most likely he would have been 42 y/o.
1966 - (early November); 18th anniversary party (s-220).
1967 - Billy falls asleep examining woman (s-059); he is losing his memory.
1967 - (August); Billy at Lions Club luncheon, son in Vietnam, Barbara soon to be married (s-072).
1967, August 19 - Barbara married that afternoon; Billy kidnapped that night (s-088).

1968 - (mid- to late-February); Billy's plane crashes atop Sugarbush Mountain; father-in-law killed; Valencia dies as a result of car crash.
1968 - (during Billy's recovery); Barbara visits Billy in hospital, Billy unconscious; Robert visits Billy in hospital, Billy conscious for the first time since the accident; Billy plans ad campaign for Tralfamadore; Barbara takes Billy home.
1968 - Billy goes to office, examines 12 y.o. boy, Billy taken home.
1968 - (mid-November); Billy drives to New York City (S-261), tells about Tralfamadore on radio talk show (s-271), Barbara retrieves him (s-028).
1968 - (mid-December); Billy writes letter to Ilium News Leader (s-028).
1968 - (December 21 to 31); Barbara finds Billy in unheated rumpus room, berates him for letter (s-031); calls repair man for oil burner (s-170).
1976, Feb 13 - (a Friday); Billy Pilgrim assassinated in Chicago by Paul Lazzaro (s-183).

Tralfamadore time line
kidnapped, Billy 44 y.o., 1967 on earth (s-088).
kidnapped + 6 months, Billy still 44 y/o (s-146) and on display in zoo, first question asked, Are you happy? (s-149).
Montana Wildhack arrives, 20 y/o (s-170); 1968 on earth and Barbara had just called the oil burner man.
MW arrival + 1 week, she invites Billy to share; Billy returns to earth to oil-burner man (s-174).
Montana, 6 months pregnant (s-233).
Montana, breast feeding their child (s-271).

Author time line
1944, Dec 22 - (after sundown); author and O'Hare at the rail yard with Col. 'Wild Bob' (s-080).
1945, Jan 1 - (between midnight and 3 am); author is spilling his guts into the latrine at POW camp (s-1643).
1945, Jan 1 - (5 pm); author views Dresden, remarks, Oz (s-193).
1945, Feb 16 - author and O'Hare with Billy in returning to Dresden, to mop up (s-278).
1945 - (2 weeks after VE day, late May); author and O'Hare repatriated (s-256).

1964 - (more probably 1965, last year of World's Fair); author visits O'Hare (s-009).
1967 - author and O'Hare visit WWII sites (s-001 and s-275).
1968 - author talks about writing this book, 23 years after coming home from the war (s-002).

Section number beginning each chaper:
Ch 1 - (s-001); Ch 2 - (s-023); Ch 3 - (s-056); Ch 4 - (s-088); Ch 5 - (s-110); Ch 6 - (s-177); Ch 7 - (s-199); Ch 8 - (s-210); Ch 9 - (s-239); Ch 10 - (s-272);

Tzolkin Date: 5 OC
Long Count:

Slaughterhouse Five was published 40 years ago. Without realizing that, I bought a replacement for my missing copy last spring, got around to reading it a few weeks ago. I gave it a quick read, having read it many times in the distant past, and found it didn't measure up to my memory of it. Then I said, something's wrong here, what am I missing? I then gave it a close read, per Nabokov, and it pulled me in deeper and deeper.

The time travel of Billy Pilgrim is the central motif of S5 and I was struck by my not knowing the details of how this came to be. I found that Billy started his time travel when faced with his own death, no longer able to escape the 'mopping up' operation of the Germans. Vonnegut describes Billy in this moment as a 'poet in the Parthenon.' What? What does that mean? Does it mean anything, in fact? A quick search found another 'poet in the Parthenon' in the guise of John Keats. The Elgin Marbles had just gone on display and Keats was able to view the images from the Parthenon, forming the basis for his poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn.

One particular passage from Ode bears heavily on thoughts of Slaughterhouse Five: / What little town by river or sea shore, / . . . Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn? / And, little town, thy streets for ever more / Will silent be; and not a soul to tell / Why thou art desolate, can e'er return. / Dresden by the River Elbe was emptied of its folk on February 13, 1945. As it was in 1760. Itself an urn, but only for a while. What Billy Pilgrim said regarding himself also applied to Dresden, It is time for me to be dead for a little while--and then live again.

- LT