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Truth, Lies, and Literature

One reads "Slaughterhouse-Five" with that question crouched on the brink of one's awareness. I'm not sure if there's an answer, but the question certainly heightens the book's effects. He served with the infantry in Europe, and was taken prisoner by the Germans.

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death

He was in Dresden when it was firebombed. After the war, he went back to Ilium and became a wealthy optometrist married to a huge wife named Valencia. They had two children, a daughter named Barbara who married an optometrist, and a son named Robert who became a Green Beret in Vietnam. In , Billy was the sole survivor of a plane crash on top of Sugarbush Mountain in Vermont.

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While he was recovering in the hospital, Valencia was killed in a carbon- monoxide accident. On Feb. As you can see, there is much absurd violence in this story. But it is always scaled down to the size of Billy Pilgrim's world, which makes it more unbearable and more obligatory for the reader to understand the author's explanation for it. As I said, Mr. Vonnegut knows all the tricks.

Now there are two things I haven't yet told you about Billy Pilgrim, and I'm hesitant to do so, because when I tell you what they are you'll want to put Kurt Vonnegut back in the science-fiction category he's been trying to climb out of, and you'll be wrong. First, Billy is "unstuck in time" and "has no control over where he is going next. This problem of Billy's enables Mr. Vonnegut to tell his story fluidly, jumping forward and backward in time, free from the strictures of chronology. And this problem of Billy's is related to the second thing, which is that Billy says that on his daughter's wedding night he was kidnapped by a flying saucer from the planet Tralfamadore, flown there through a time warp, and exhibited with a movie star named Montana Wildhack.

The Tralfamadorians are two feet high, green, and shaped like plumber's friends, with suctions caps on the ground and little green hands with eyes on their palms at the top of their shafts. They are wise, and they teach Billy Pilgrim many things. They teach him that humans cannot see time, which is really like "a stretch of the rocky Mountains, " with all moments in the past, the present and the future, always existing.

She always has to know the time. Sometimes I don't know, and I say, "Search me. I was a student in the Department of Anthropology. At that time, they were teaching that there was absolutely no difference between anybody. They may be teaching that still. Another thing they taught was that nobody was ridiculous or bad or disgusting.

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While I was studying to be an anthropologist, I was also working as a police reporter for the famous Chicago City News Bureau for twenty-eight dollars a week. One time they switched me from the night shift to the day shift, so I worked sixteen hours straight.

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We were supported by all the newspapers in town, and the AP and the UP and all that. And we would cover the courts and the police stations and the Fire Department and the Coast Guard out on Lake Michigan and all that. We were connected to the institutions that supported us by means of pneumatic tubes which ran under the streets of Chicago. Reporters would telephone in stories to writers wearing headphones, and the writers would stencil the stories on mimeograph sheets.

The stories were mimeographed and stuffed into the brass and velvet cartridges which the pneumatic tubes ate.

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The very toughest reporters and writers were women who had taken over the jobs of men who'd gone to war. And the first story I covered I had to dictate over the telephone to one of those beastly girls. It was about a young veteran who had taken a job running an old-fashioned elevator in an office building. The elevator door on the first floor was ornamental iron lace.

Iron ivy snaked in and out of the holes. There was an iron twig with two iron lovebirds perched upon it. This veteran decided to take his car into the basement, and he closed the door and started down, but his wedding ring was caught in all the ornaments. So he was hoisted into the air and the floor of the car went down, dropped out from under him, and the top of the car squashed him. So I phoned this in, and the woman who was going to cut the stencil asked me, "What did his wife say? Say you have some sad news. Give her the news, and see what she says. She said about what you would expect her to say.

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There was a baby. When I got back to the office, the woman writer asked me, just for her own information, what the squashed guy had looked like when he was squashed.

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I told her. She was eating a Three Musketeers Candy Bar. It wasn't a famous air raid back then in America. Not many Americans knew how much worse it had been than Hiroshima, for instance. I didn't know that, either.

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There hadn't been much publicity. I happened to tell a University of Chicago professor at a cocktail party about the raid as I had seen it, about the book I would write. He was a member of a thing called The Committee on Social Thought. And he told me about the concentration camps, and about how the Germans had made soap and candles out of the fat of dead Jews and so on.

All I could say was, "I know, I know. I know. And I became a public relations man for General Electric in Schenectady, New York, and a volunteer fireman in the village of Alplaus, where I bought my first home. My boss there was one of the toughest guys I ever hope to meet. He had been a lieutenant colonel in public relations in Baltimore. While I was in Schenectady he joined the Dutch Reformed Church, which is a very tough church, indeed. He used to ask me sneeringly sometimes why I hadn't been an officer, as though I'd done something wrong. My wife and I had lost our baby fat.

Those were our scrawny years. We had a lot of scrawny veterans and their scrawny wives for friends. The nicest veterans in Schenectady, I thought, the kindest and funniest ones, the ones who hated war the most, were the ones who'd really fought. I wrote the Air Force back then, asking for details about the raid on Dresden, who ordered it, how many planes did it, why they did it, what desirable results there had been and so on.

I was answered by a man who, like myself, was in public relations.

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He said that he was sorry, but that the information was top secret still. I read the letter out loud to my wife, and I said, "Secret? I don't know what we are now. Telephoners, I guess. A couple of weeks after I telephoned my old war buddy, Bernard V. O'Hare, I really did go to see him. Eheu, fugaces labuntur anni. My name is Yon Yonson.

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