Reading Slaughterhouse-Five reminded me that often what we label originality in terms of screenplays can be cliche in terms of literature. Nonlinear structure? Jumping back and forth through time? Some original ideas to re-imagine an alternate world? It is all in there in Kurt Vonnegut’s absurdist classic. And that too in a book written 40 years back.
Slaughterhouse-Five is the story of Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a ingenious demonstration of fluidity of narrative, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his traumatic experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden.
But what really made this novel charming to me is it’s dry humor- and the ability to evoke it without going into too much trouble.
See how Vonnegut describes an intoxicated Billy trying to find the steering wheel.
‘Billy found himself out in his automobile, trying to find the steering wheel. The main thing now was to find the steering wheel. At first, Billy windmilled his arms, hoping to find it by luck. When that didn’t work, he became methodical, working in such a way that the wheel could not possibly escape him. He placed himself hard against the left-hand door, searched every square inch of the area before him. When he failed to find the wheel, he moved over six inches, and searched again. Amazingly, he was eventually hard against the right-hand door, without having found the wheel. He concluded that somebody had stolen it. This angered him as he passed out.
He was in the back seat of his car., which was why he couldn’t find the steering wheel.’
At times the humor and imagination pins down something intangible which would often come out wrong if we really try to give words to it.
‘How-how did I get here?’
‘It would take another Earthling to explain it to you. Earthlings are the great explainers, explaining why this event is structured as it is, telling how other events may be achieved or avoided. I am a Tralfamadorian, seeing all time as you might see a stretch of Rocky Mountains. All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.’
‘You sound to me as though you don’t believe in free will,’ said Billy Pilgrim.
‘If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,’ said the Tralfamadorian, ‘I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by “free will.” I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited plants in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.’
And sometimes it is just the imagination. Like here where Vonnegut describes books of aliens-
‘Billy couldn’t read Tralfamadorian, of course, but he could at least see how the books were laid out-in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars. Billy commented that the clumps might be telegrams.
‘Exactly,’ said the voice.
‘They are telegrams?’
‘There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore. But you’re right: each clump of-symbols is a brief, urgent message describing a situation, a scene., We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.’