Monday, October 26, 2009

The Danger of Dreaming

The first thing that struck me about Slaughterhouse Five, one of Vonnegut’s most well-known works and the first of his that I have read, is the jarringly straightforward tone used to narrate the rollercoaster ride of crudely strung-together events of Billy Pilgrim “unstuck in time.”  Moments of patent bitter irony--like Roland Weary hearing Billy’s pain-induced convulsions as laughter while kicking him in the ribs with combat boots--and moments of tragic, poignant human emotion are told with consistent “See Spot Run”-like simplicity. (Appropriately enough, a dog named Spot—the Pilgrim family’s pet—pops into the narrative sporadically.)  The simplistic tone effectively anchors the extreme randomness of the discontinuous plot.  It makes this broken and interrupted narrative more accessible.

But such unapologetic frankness has a dangerous flipside.  For me, the tone had an almost lulling effect. I caught myself, at times, subconsciously equating candor of style with sincerity of content, drinking in Billy’s forays with the Tralfmadorians with an almost childlike wonder.  The narrative being rooted in an actual historical event—the Dresden bombing of WWII, which Vonnegut himself witnessed—amplified the subconscious lulling effect.  The novel was an experience uncomfortably similar to dreaming.  The uniformity of the tone, coupled with the splicing of fact with fiction, allowed me to swallow things like mass murder and time travel as easily as banal moments of small-scale human selfishness, like the protagonist’s loveless but fiscally profitable marriage.

            My sense of disillusionment while reading was called into question at one moment in the narrative: Valencia asks Billy, on their honeymoon, to talk about the war, he deflects her, saying “It would sound like a dream…Other people’s dreams aren’t very interesting, usually” (121).  In my experience hearing my friends recounting their dreams, it all depends on the quality of the narration.  I enjoy hearing about my friends’ dreams, because I delight in hearing about extreme ridiculousness; when auditing their accounts, I am generally entertained but ultimately a passive, removed listener. In the dreamlike narrative voice of Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut grips the reader’s attention by importing him into  the dream, giving him due cause to question everything that unfolds in the novel while simultaneously—ironically—making it incredibly challenging to pry himself awake enough to do so. 

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