This week I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
The plot is outlined in the first few pages of the book so I don’t think spoilers are an issue. However there will be some minor spoilers for Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time.
When I first read Slaughterhouse-Five a few years ago I hadn’t read any other Vonnegut and didn’t know what to expect. As a result I initially read it as science fiction, accepting the existence of the alien Tralfamadorians and the time travel until quite late on. This time I read it from the start as the experience of a man coping with trauma.
Billy Pilgrim has survived the firebombing of Dresden. His memories and delusions interrupt his present, and the Tralfamadorian perception of time, pre-determined and simultaneous, allows him to live with what he has witnessed. Billy is numb from his experiences and, accepting he is powerless, responds passively to every occurrence in his life. He makes one decision in the entire novel – he stays voluntarily and briefly in a mental hospital shortly after the war.
This one decision brought to mind the protagonist of Woman on the Edge of Time, Connie Ramos. Connie, like Billy, is ‘unstuck in time’. Unlike Billy, she is held in a mental hospital against her will.
Connie may not experience a singularly catastrophic event such as the firebombing of Dresden, but her life is a series of daily traumas. Her present time is the same as Billy’s – 1960s America – but her life is wholly different. Billy lives comfortably, wealthy from an inherited business, successful in his career, and is the patriarch of his nuclear family. Connie is poor, constantly faces racist and gendered violence, and is forcibly isolated from her daughter.
Connie’s escape is to the future, to Mattapoisett, a post-racial and post-gender anarchist community. But this future is not predetermined. Progress does not lead inexorably towards a better world but is dependent on the actions and decisions of individuals like her. For Billy, all time exists simultaneously – every event that has happened in the past is happening now and will happen again.
How they perceive their world has a marked effect on their actions. Connie, in spite of her powerlessness, is the more hopeful character. She has little voice but is determined to shout, and Mattapoisett provides her with hope and a reason to be bold. She has limited ability to make decisions and yet she uses each opportunity, seeing the value and necessity of small acts of resistance, of the possibility of their accumulation.
Billy is actually relatively powerful, but he doesn’t believe in his ability to change anything. His voice is silenced, numbed by the enormity of his experiences. The starkest example of this is when, as a prisoner of war, an American Nazi attempts to recruit him and his comrades. Another soldier speaks out in refusal and so Billy remains in the camp. His submissiveness in going along with the decision of the group happens to protect his innocence, but you can only assume that this is not the case for other soldiers, for other Billy Pilgrims. Billy is easy to empathise with, but he is devoid of hope.
While Connie recognises passivity as complicity, Billy does not (perhaps cannot). Connie acts, despite knowing she is likely to be ignored. Billy makes no active choices, and yet being ignored is something of an aberration for him – something that happens only when he speaks of Dresden.
For those who are not white wealthy men, being ignored is not confined to talk of controversial acts of war. And when I thought of Connie Ramos I found that Billy lost some of his innocence. His passivity may be an understandable coping mechanism, but it is one that helps prop up the same systems of oppression that are responsible for Connie’s daily traumas. It is also one that allows future children (including Billy’s own son) to be sent to war without justification.
I assume most people reading this have read Slaughterhouse-Five. If you haven’t read Woman on the Edge of Time, do. Structurally they’re very different, and though the latter is not quite so quick a read it’s definitely worth the time. While Vonnegut shows us that helplessness breeds passivity, Piercy shows us that acts of resistance bring hope.
Incidentally, in the introduction of a later edition (an edited extract of which is available here), Piercy writes that most women’s utopias are anarchist. If you’re interested in such an argument as to why this should be, I’ve written previously on why the dismantling of gender roles requires that the state must be dismantled too.