This week’s episode of my podcast is titled “The Coolest Thing You Will Ever Do In Your Life.” In it, I read a piece of fiction from a work in progress and interview longtime educator Monica D’Antonio about teaching and the state of higher education in America. More or less.
A student of mine recently asked whether Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist (for lack of a better word) of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, has, within the context of the narrative (such as it is) really experienced a close encounter with aliens or simply lost his mind.
The question is certainly valid. When I first read the novel over twenty years ago, I took the story at face value. When Vonnegut informed me that Billy Pilgrim had become unstuck in time, I went along for the ride. Yet the more I thought about it, the less willing I was to suspend my disbelief. After all, how did the Tralfamadorians get around if their bodies were shaped like toilet plungers?
Eventually, however, I came to the realization that it doesn’t matter whether the aliens really visited Billy or he imagined them. What matters is that he believes he’s been visited by aliens, and that this belief – along with all of the knowledge they allegedly impart to him – provides the framework for Billy’s understanding of the world.
Throughout his oeuvre, Vonnegut echoes the Shakespearean sentiment that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” In Mother Night, for example, he writes, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” In Bluebeard, he adds, “Belief is nearly the whole of the universe whether based on truth or not.” In Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut expresses this notion in financial terms: “Frames are where the money is.”
On a literal level, of course, Vonnegut’s reference to frames explains what Billy does for a living; he’s an optician, and most of his money comes from selling protective eye ware to employees of the General Forge and Foundry Company of Ilium, New York. Figuratively, however, Vonnegut is letting us know that context (i.e. how we frame information) is everything (or, more colloquially, “where the money is”).
The idea that stories shape our sense of reality saturates Slaughterhouse Five. Early on, Mary O’Hare is furious with the author because she suspects that the book he’s writing will glamorize war. Later in the novel, Roland Weary makes sense of his experiences behind enemy lines during World War Two by imagining himself as a member of his own version of the Three Musketeers. Later still, a dying colonel convinces himself that he’s a hero by adopting the nom de guerre “Wild Bob” and picturing a cookout he’ll never get to enjoy.
The list goes on and on, but the most imaginative and explicit example of the power of stories to frame reality in Slaughterhouse Five is a novel by the fictional science fiction writer Kilgore Trout titled The Gospel from Outer Space. In this novel, a visitor from outer space figures out that the reason Christians can be so cruel is “slipshod storytelling in the New Testament.”
The trouble with the New Testament, the alien realizes, is that its underlying message belies its intent. Whereas the message of the New Testament is to be kind and merciful, the Gospels actually taught this: “Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected.”
To rectify this problem, the alien writes a new Gospel in which Jesus is “a nobody” whose crucifixion is so repugnant that God adopts “the bum” and issues a warning to all of humanity: “From this moment on, He will punish horribly anyone who torments a bum who has no connections!”
Needless to say, the underlying premise of The Gospel from Outer Space echoes the dominant theme of Slaughterhouse Five: stories shape reality, a notion borne out by life in the “real” world whenever anyone claims a monopoly on virtue by citing the foundational document of their choice, religious or otherwise. (If you have time, take a look at the Patton Oswalt video at the bottom of this post for a funny take on this phenomenon. Fair warning: It’s a little racy.)
In the context of the novel, then, Billy Pilgrim’s belief that he’s been visited by aliens is no different from anybody’s faith in God or, for that matter, faith that the framers of the Constitution had everything so perfectly worked out that there’s no room for interpreting the document in anything but the most literal fashion.
Moreover, the vast range of stories, big and small, that Vonnegut describes throughout Slaughterhouse Five serves as a warning to those of us whose skeptical tendencies might tempt us to feel superior to religious fundamentalists, strict constructionists, and other people who, like Billy, build their lives around such stories. Sure, they’re crazy. But so are we – because no matter how sophisticated we imagine ourselves to be, we all invent or subscribe to narratives that allow us to make sense of the world.
In one way or another, we’re all Billy Pilgrim.
Here’s a short video I put together for my American Lit. II students.