Tom Roston's Book on Vonnegut and "Slaughterhouse-Five" Arrives When Readers Need It
tags: war,literature,PTSD,cultural history,Kurt Vonnegut,Slaughterhouse-Five
A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.
Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
In 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War and the protests against it, author Kurt Vonnegut published his most celebrated novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. His tale of the neurotic, time- traveling, war-traumatized veteran Billy Pilgrim struck a chord with readers around the world. And the novel became a touchstone for future writers on war such as Tim O’Brien, Karl Marlantes, and Kevin Powers.
Based in part on Vonnegut’s own experience as a prisoner of war who survived the February 1945 Allied firebombing of Dresden, Germany, his landmark novel captures the cruelty and waste of the war while punctuated by his trademark sardonic humor and riffs of marvelous hallucinatory fantasies.
Author and journalist Tom Roston considers Vonnegut’s life, his war experience, and the creation of Vonnegut’s iconic war novel in his captivating recent book The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut and the Many Lives of Slaughterhouse-Five (Abrams Press). In addition to assessing Vonnegut’s literature, Mr. Roston investigates the psychological effect of war experiences on Vonnegut and explores whether the writer suffered from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Mr. Roston finds Slaughterhouse-Five a “rare, true war story,” as described by Vietnam veteran and revered novelist Tim O’Brien. The Writer’s Crusade details Vonnegut’s exposure to the horrors of war, to the absolute “obscenity and evil” of war. As a young GI, Vonnegut witnessed fellow soldiers suffer and die in combat. German soldiers captured him during the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944. Allied planes strafed the train he was riding to a POW camp and dozens of his fellow prisoners were killed. Vonnegut was transferred from a prison camp to the historic and ostensibly safe city of Dresden. He was held in a meat cellar/air raid shelter, the Slaughterhouse-Five, during the historic Allied firebombing of Dresden that left 25,000 dead. After the firestorm, his captors ordered Vonnegut find the dead, heap the corpses on a horse-drawn cart, and cremate them. The incinerated remains were mostly civilians--many women and many children.
Based on his extensive research and interviews with Vonnegut’s family and friends as well as prominent writers, Mr. Roston’s book considers how the war and memory affected Vonnegut’s creative process and his powerful storytelling. In his research, Mr. Roston gained access to resources such as personal papers and several early drafts of Slaughterhouse-Five.
Vonnegut’s words on war are still timely, as Mr. Roston notes. Now, another brutal European war of extermination rages in Ukraine. The stories of atrocities from there are heartbreaking and chilling as civilians are purposely targeted and slaughtered by Russian troops. According to recent reports, civilians have been raped, tortured, mutilated and murdered by enemy forces in Russia’s bid to destroy and dominate an independent, sovereign nation. Again, as in our “Good War,” the innocent are casualties, the collateral damage of industrialized warfare.
The Writer’s Crusade stands as a timeless and provocative study of war and art as well as a tribute to the genius of Vonnegut. With Slaughterhouse-Five, the legendary author fashioned a masterpiece from his memories and his creative spirit. Mr. Roston’s book plumbs the depths of Kurt Vonnegut’s humanistic and moral fiction as it addresses the effects of trauma on Vonnegut and other survivors and reflects on how war mirrors the human condition in Vonnegut’s potent antiwar novel.
Mr. Roston, a veteran journalist, began his career at The Nation and Vanity Fair magazines, before working at Premiere magazine as a senior editor. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, Fast Company, The Guardian, and other publications. His other books include I Lost it at the Video Store: A Filmmakers’ Oral History of a Vanished Era and The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World. Mr. Roston lives in Brooklyn.
Mr. Roston generously responded to a series of email questions on his work and his new book on Vonnegut, The Writer’s Crusade.
Robin Lindley: Thank you Mr. Roston for discussing your work and your illuminating book on Kurt Vonnegut and his iconic novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Your book seems a departure from your previous writing, although you have dealt with a wide variety of subjects in your articles and books. What inspired you to research and write this book?
Tom Roston: It came about when I was discussing ideas for my next book with my editor, Jamison Stoltz, at Abrams Press. Jamison had been working on a series of “books on books,” the previous ones being about 1984 and The Color Purple. We agreed that Slaughterhouse-Five would be a great novel to chew on.
Robin Lindley: You focus on the trauma of war in your book. My dad was a veteran of horrific combat in New Guinea in World War II. After the war, he displayed many signs of what we now call post traumatic stress disorder. Did you have friends or relatives that experienced stress issues from combat or other traumatic events? Have you experienced signs of PTSD?
Tom Roston: Not that I know of. My father, who also served in World War II, was killed in a car accident when I was ten years old. Did that traumatize me? Some would say, “Of course.” And perhaps that’s true. But, like Vonnegut, I have never lived my life thinking that this was the case. Of course, I was irrevocably changed by it. Hurt by it. But traumatized? It’s such a loaded word. And that’s one of the reasons I wanted to write about trauma when writing about Slaughterhouse-Five; to examine the meaning of trauma.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for those illuminating comments. I’m sorry about the early loss of your father. Vonnegut experienced devastating events during World War II in his short months of combat service in the Army and his capture and imprisonment by the Germans. He eventually survived the firebombing of Dresden, where he was held prisoner in a slaughterhouse. Many readers, especially younger people, may not know the historical context of Slaughterhouse-Five. What are a few things you would like readers to understand about Vonnegut’s war service? What did he see?
Tom Roston: He saw how ridiculous and awful war is. And how it could and should never be glorified. My book came out before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. So, until recently, the notions of the horror of war were fading in Americans’ minds, despite the recent disastrous pullout from Afghanistan. Now, we are being exposed to the brutality of war in a way that feels unprecedented. As sad as it is, the mass killings of people in Rwanda or Syria just haven’t had the same impact as what’s happening in Ukraine. So, this is my way of saying that Vonnegut saw in World War II what we are now seeing in Ukraine. And it should turn our stomachs the way it did his.
Robin Lindley: I appreciate your extensive research. You interviewed an array of experts on war trauma as well as authors who have written about war and even some Vonnegut family members and friends. You also found valuable archives. What was your process?
Tom Roston: I am not academic but I was writing a book about a book so I wanted to make that a strength: I wanted to go at Vonnegut and Slaughterhouse-Five as a living, breathing cultural entity. I wanted to do some literary criticism but I also wanted to throw the kitchen sink at Kurt: I talked to academics but also his children and friends and fans and also used first-person. Vonnegut was a deeply populist, democratic guy. I felt like I could channel his ethos by approaching him with a similar spirit.
Robin Lindley: Did you ever meet Kurt Vonnegut or communicate with him?
Tom Roston: When I was just starting out in journalism, I was an intern at The Nation magazine. Vonnegut, by chance, called the magazine’s offices and asked for a favor. I was lucky enough to be available and gladly jumped at the opportunity. I translated some words into Khmer for him. He sent me a $50 check. It was a thrilling way to start my career.
Robin Lindley: At your suggestion, I re-read Slaughterhouse-Five last week. I hadn’t read it since around 1970. I was in college then at the University of Washington in Seattle as anti-war protests were an almost daily experience, often as tear gas wafted through campus. I wasn’t drafted, but was in danger of selection under the lottery system. An age of anxiety for many. How do you think the turmoil of the sixties—especially the war in Vietnam—influenced Vonnegut in writing Slaughterhouse-Five?
Tom Roston: He said it himself. I’m paraphrasing but he said that Vietnam showed how awful the war generals looked, how terrible the common soldiers were treated. It created an opening for him to write about how awful war was, even though he was writing about World War II, the supposedly “good war.” There are no good wars. Vietnam softened the culture to better recognize that fact.
Robin Lindley: Billy Pilgrim is the main character of Slaughterhouse-Five. Like Vonnegut, he survives capture by Germans and the firebombing of Dresden. Some people think Pilgrim represents Vonnegut. What did Vonnegut say about creating Pilgrim and whether he was Pilgrim or if Pilgrim was based on a real soldier?
Tom Roston: For more than thirty years, Vonnegut didn’t talk publicly about the real-life person, Joe Crone, whom he based Billy Pilgrim on. He waited until Crone’s parents had passed away.
Crone was in Vonnegut’s POW camp in Germany. Crone was a sad-sack soldier who wasted away and eventually died of malnourishment. But, in Vonnegut’s eyes, Crone had given up on life. Vonnegut saw in Crone all of the inhumanity of war, the waste, and destruction. And he fictionalized him to create Billy Pilgrim.
There are clearly elements of Vonnegut himself in Pilgrim but Vonnegut was a fighter, not a waif. He was punished by his Nazi captors for talking back to them. Pilgrim is totally passive.
Robin Lindley: Vonnegut was obviously haunted by the war and you sought, I think, to determine whether or not he had PTSD. In public, he often indicated that his war experience wasn’t a big deal, but you also found several early drafts of his landmark novel and other evidence of his near obsession with his memories of war. What do you think of his public comments versus his actions?
Tom Roston: I think Vonnegut was very much a product of his generation. Which isn’t to slight him in any way, but most men who went to war tried to put it behind them. They repressed it. Or they became alcoholics. Some used their war experiences to fuel them. In a way, Vonnegut achieved all of the above. He was a high-functioning, depressive alcoholic who wrote some of the greatest novels of the twentieth century! PTSD is a diagnosis that arose long after his war experiences. I think it’s fair to say he was traumatized by the war if you have an open definition of the word. But to outright say he had PTSD is something I don’t feel comfortable saying. Some of his kids do, however.
Robin Lindley: You indicate that Slaughterhouse-Five anticipated the diagnosis of PTSD that psychiatrists adopted in 1980. Is there anything you’d like to add on how the book relates to the diagnosis?
Tom Roston: I just want to reiterate what I established in my book; that part or the mastery and brilliance of Slaughterhouse-Five is how perfectly it anticipated the diagnosis. And it’s not a mystery or magic. Vonnegut understood war and what it does to people. And the rest of the world, including the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders], had to catch up with him. And that’s partly why people loved the book when it came out. It fictionalized the trauma of war before we understood it as well as Vonnegut did.
Robin Lindley: In Slaughterhouse-Five, Pilgrim periodically comes “unstuck in time.” He can travel randomly from his birth to his death. And he also travels to the planet Tralfamadore. What do his time travels represent? Do the episodes equate to hallucinations or the dissociation seen with PTSD?
Tom Roston: They are both hallucinations and disassociations caused by Pilgrim’s damaged mental state. They don’t actually happen. But, for Billy, and for many readers for that matter, they are real. That’s the wonder and beauty of the novel. I don’t think people are “wrong” for thinking they’re actually happening to Billy. But I hope that by the second or third reading of the novel they come to think that they are. It’s an indication of how fluid and delightful the novel is.
Robin Lindley: After each death in Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut punctuates the death scene or account with the phrase “So it goes.” What did you learn about this phrase? Did Vonnegut explain his use of these three words?
Tom Roston: I’ll pull this right out of my book: “So it goes” is repeated over a hundred times in the novel, after every death. Vonnegut later said he was inspired to use “so it goes” as a refrain by Céline’s book Journey to the End of the Night. “It was a clumsy way of saying what Céline managed to imply,” Vonnegut writes in Palm Sunday. “In everything he wrote, in effect: ‘Death and suffering can’t matter nearly as much as I think they do. Since they are so common, my taking them so seriously must mean that I am insane’.” In Vonnegut’s hands, this grim thinking turns into a paradoxically indifferent lament. It is resignation, rage, sorrow, and laughter.
Robin Lindley: One of the most moving scenes for me in Slaughterhouse-Five is the war newsreel recounted in reverse as Billy Pilgrim views the film on television. Bomb blasts on the ground shrink and disappear as bombers suck bombs back into their bomb bays, aviators become babies, and so forth, until the minerals that were used for steel and other metals to make bombers and bombs are returned to the mines where they are hidden so they won’t hurt anyone again. You write about this moving scene. What do you make of it?
Tom Roston: It is brilliant in its accessibility and poignance. As Cher sand it best, “If we could turn back time!”
Robin Lindley: You call Slaughterhouse-Five a work of metafiction. What does that mean and how is that category different from say a work of science fiction or fantasy or war novel or a literary novel?
Tom Roston: The fictional character Billy Pilgrim’s experiences loosely parallel Vonnegut’s, which makes it metafiction, meaning it upends the conventional fictional narrative by blurring the line between the author and the story being told. Vonnegut does this throughout the novel. He opens the book in the first chapter, speaking to the reader. He ends the book again talking to the reader and speaking of his father and Billy Pilgrim as if they are on the same plain of reality. He drops himself into Billy’s story four times. He is breaking the wall between fiction and nonfiction in a way that is mischievous, delightful and illuminating. It’s one of the main reasons I love the novel so much.
Robin Lindley: While not lighthearted, Vonnegut’s voice in his novel is sardonic and there are many comic moments that relieve the sense of horror and loss and sorrow of many events in the book. How do you see Vonnegut’s use of humor in this anti-war masterpiece?
Tom Roston: I’ll turn to my book again: He was asked in an interview for Playboy in 1973 why he chose to write his Dresden novel as a work of science fiction. “The science fiction passages in Slaughterhouse-Five are just like the clowns in Shakespeare,” he said. “When Shakespeare figured the audience had had enough of the heavy stuff, he’d let up a little, bring on a clown or a foolish innkeeper or something like that, before he’d become serious again. And trips to other planets, science-fiction of an obviously kidding sort, is equivalent to bringing on the clowns every so often to lighten things up.”
Robin Lindley: Your book is timely and is sure to strike a chord with readers who are concerned about collective anxiety from COVID and now war in Ukraine. Can most of us now be experiencing a sort of PTSD in the wake of the life changing measures and massive losses during the last two years of the pandemic?
Tom Roston: People can choose to call their experiences what they like. PTSD is such a buzz word so it makes me shudder sometimes, especially because it’s such a spectrum diagnosis. Do you have PTSD when your barista keeps getting your coffee order wrong? Some people say so. But we live in a world now that some are really terribly traumatized by COVID or the terrible war in Ukraine. So I hope it makes people more appreciative of those who are really truly damaged by the horrors that can happen. I don’t want to end on a buzzkill but that’s the miracle of Slaughterhouse-Five. He tells a horrific story of war but it comes off as funny and strange. And thoughtful. Man, did Vonnegut have a talent to make us laugh and think. We need that now in these crazy times.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for your generous and illuminating comments and insights Mr. Roston. I hope your book and Slaughterhouse-Five find many new readers at this fraught time. Congratulations on a superb study of an iconic author, his anti-war masterpiece, and the puzzling medical condition we now call post traumatic stress disorder.
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based attorney, writer, and features editor for the History News Network (historynewsnetwork.org). His work also has appeared in Writer's Chronicle, Bill Moyers.com, Re-Markings, Salon.com, Crosscut, Documentary, ABA Journal, Huffington Post, and more. Most of his legal work has been in public service. He served as a staff attorney with the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations and investigated the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His writing often focuses on the history of human rights, conflict, medicine, art, and culture. Robin's email: email@example.com.
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