Stories are Gadgets
Stories are gadgets, and they can be fixed so they really can run
(Vonnegut, Cheltenham Lecture, 1993)
Kurt Vonnegut is a mechanic who has his own unique way of tinkering with his stories . He has found a way to make them work well, and in doing so he has developed a radical narrative structure.
In his early short stories, and his first novel, Piano Player, the subject matter is just as distinctive, but the structure is straightforward. Some of his first successful short stories were sold to magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Esquire and Ladies Home Journal. In order to sell to such publications, he had to produce relatively conventional work.
Once he had established his reputation , and published a reasonably successful novel, he gained the publishing freedom to experiment with an audience. He began to abandon straightforward narrative structures, placing more responsibility on the reader.
This shift in responsibility is of the kind that Roland Barthes referred to in his essay, “The Death of the Author”. He suggested that it is the reader, not the author, who performs the construction of a text:
[The Author’s] only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them.
The author is never truly original, he merely finds a way to mix other texts together. This is certainly true of Vonnegut. His novels are a mixture of fantasy and retold history, Second World War, Great Depression and Folk-history such as the Sacco-Vanzetti story. His originality comes from the way in which he tells his stories.
The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost, a text’s unity lies not in it origin but in its destination.(p. 148)
It is the reader who makes sense of a novel, constructs the story. The reader brings all of his knowledge together to form and understand the novel. An author sends signals to point them in the right direction, no more. This view of writing is described as post-modernist.
Metafiction is a style of writing that in part acknowledges and in part combats this view. Particia Waugh in Metafiction describes it as,
fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality. (p. 2)
A metafictive text will call attention to the reader that he is reading a text which acknowledges its own unreality. This can be achieved by addressing the reader directly, by using unconventional structures, or even by placing the author directly into the plot. This is perhaps where Metafiction comes into conflict with Post-Modernism, as whilst the latter proclaims the ‘death of the Author’, metafiction resurrects the author within the body of the text. It acknowledges the unreal nature of the text alongside the authorial role.
Where the two do agree however, is on recognising the importance of the reader. Metafictive texts, rather than attempting to dictate to the reader, ask the reader to engage in and question what they are being told.
Vonnegut uses several different ways of writing which fall within the category of metafiction . He does this, in part, to encourage such questioning of the text . Bluebeard, Mother Night and Jailbird are all pseudo-autobiographies. They all have introductions which make the reader aware of this fact. In an authors note in Bluebeard he points out that
This is a novel, and a hoax biography at that… It is a history of nothing but my own idiosyncratic responses to this or that(p5).
This is a plea to the reader to consider the novel in it’s context, not to simply believe, but to examine and question. It also alerts the reader to the fact that, as an author, he is able to alter and shape reality as he chooses. In stating that
Rabo Karabekian never lived, …(nor) any of the other major characters in this book.(p5)
he helps to establish a three-way relationship between author, reader and protagonist, similar to that found in dramatic monologue. The reader is encouraged to separate and distinguish clearly between the views of author and protagonist.
Another technique that is utilised is the non-sequential narrative structure. Instead of progressing from beginning to end, in the order that the events occurred in time, the events are related in an order which allows the nature and fate of the protagonist to be revealed gradually and to most effect. This is the “coming unstuck in time” which happens to Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five. It is the idea of trying to see the whole picture at once, like the Tralfamadorians. Vonnegut describes Tralfamadorian novels as
brief clumps of symbols seperated by stars (p. 70)
When Pilgrim asks how they work, he is told,
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. (Slaughterhouse Five, p. 71)
This could be viewed as Vonnegut’s chief aim in his novels. Obviously he cannot ask his readers to comprehend a whole novel at once, but the non-sequential narrative asks the reader to produce in his mind the whole image.
In Bluebeard Karabekian floats about in time. The reader is asked to picture this process:
let us hop into our rusty old time machine, and go back to 1932 again. (p. 80)
The hops in time move backwards and forwards from several veins of narration, the present, his youth, the war, his part in the development of Abstract Expressionism. The novel is simultaneously an autobiography, and a diary of the writing of the autobiography. When he has completed the process of recalling and evaluating his own life , the perspective he receives from both that process, and the encouragement and interventions from Circe Berman gives him the confidence to reveal the epiphany which is a result of that life, the painting “Now It’s the Women’s Turn “.
Having been guided through his life, the reader is ready to accept the epiphany. He has been a non-hero, and in the main his actions in the present reaffirm him as such. But the death of his wife Edith allows him to see what he must do, to present a vision of man’s horrific nature so huge that it cannot be ignored. The reader’s guided tour of his life allows them to accept the fulfillment of this “heroic” notion by an essentially non-heroic protagonist, to see this horrific picture for themselves, and to see that not even someone as unheroic as Karabekian could ignore it.
Vonnegut allows the strands of narrative to stretch beyond the confines of a single novel. Characters from one novel often crop in another. Karabekian gives a speech about his paintings in Breakfast of Champions. It has already been mentioned how Campbell, along with several others, makes an appearance in Slaughterhouse Five. But the character who, above all, appears in many of his books is Kilgore Trout.
Trout is a very prolific writer of science-fiction, and he appears in many shapes and forms. In Jailbird, he is the alter-ego of Robert Fender, a fellow convict of Starbuck. In Slaughterhouse Five, he is an old man in charge of a group of paperboys. Each appearance is difference, and not necessarily in keeping with the others. As many of his appearances are in the ‘autobiographical’ novels, he serves as a reminder of the unreliability of the writer. Several characters experience Trout in different ways, and have their own interpretations of events.
Trout is a writer whose novels have an extreme effect on his devotees. Amongst these devotees are the hapless Billy Pilgrim, the mad Eliot Rosewater, the criminal Starbuck, and in the case of Breakfast of Champions drive a man to murder. To some of these readers he is viewed as a messiah, the only man who can really see our world as it is.
Trout’s stories are presented in synopsis form, sometimes not more than a paragraph in length. These give thumbnail sketches of Trout’s utopias and dystopias. Worlds where ingratitude is a crime with the death penalty, where Einstein meets God in heaven and accuses him of cruelly deceiving people as to their opportunities on Earth, where a time traveler finds a twelve year old Jesus helping his father to make a cross for the Romans.
Trout’s perverse logic gives Vonnegut an alter-ego through which he is able to present some very radical ideas, sometimes in jest, sometimes in all seriousness. Sometimes he has a very close affinity to Trout; after all they are both aging writers of science fiction. On other occasions, however he denies that affinity, and attempts to distance himself from Trout. In Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut appears in person to watch his characters in action. He says of them:
Here was the thing about my control over the characters I created. I could only guide their movements approximately, since they were such big animals.There was inertia to overcome. It wasn’t as though I was connected to them by steel wires. It was more as thought I was connected to them by some rubber bands. (Breakfast of Champions p. 234)
In the context of the novel, this includes Trout, who has previously been a facsimile of himself. He can’t even control his alter-ego. This, surely, is an acknowledgment of the “death” of the author. The writer’s hand is guided by linguistic, prosaic, artistic and cultural conventions of his society. He is simply a channel through which they pass. He is as in control of his novels as he is of his reader.
Paradoxically however, he is also able to reassert the author’s existence, through his very appearance. Vonnegut takes his authorial intervention a step further when he approaches Trout and tells him:
I am a novelist and I created you for use in my books (p. 235 )
This completely shatters any illusions the reader could possibly have. Trout the messiah asks his own creator to give him back his youth. In refusing, Vonnegut acknowledges both a refusal to claim total control over his characters, and an inability to control himself.
Vonnegut blurs the line between illusion and reality in another way. He includes real people in his books, both important personalities and ordinary people. Karabekian meets W.C. Fields and is friends with Jackson Pollock. Starbuck works with Richard Nixon and has good luck messages sent to him from Salvador Dali and Robert Redford. His lawyer is based on a real person, Roy Cohn. Campbell works for and meets Hitler. These are always brief cameos, and are used to add a sense of truthfulness, a feeling that his protagonists are loose in the real world. But it also serves to blur reality, as these people are shown interacting with fictional characters.
As well as setting the reader loose in time, Vonnegut alters their reality, asking them to question it. In Bluebeard he states in an opening note that it is a hoax autobiography, and then proceeds to assert its reality by drawing in the real world, a kind of super-realism where reality itself is altered for the needs of the novel. As soon as a fictional character such as Starbuck or Karabekian is shown to be interacting with a real person like Nixon or Pollack, it must encourage the reader to question the honesty of the author, and also the boundaries of reality.
In Galapagos and Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut uses a little technique to ask the reader to ignore some details and emotions, and to concentrate on the wider picture. He attempts to minimalise the effect of death on the reader. After each death in Slaughterhouse Five he writes “So it goes”. He observes in the beginning that there is so little to be said after a massacre. To him, when someone dies, nothing can be said that will achieve anything. He prefers the Tralfamadorian view, where all time exists at once, so nobody is ever dead. They ignore the awful moments, and concentrate on the pleasurable ones.
This is Vonnegut asking for a limiting of emotional response by the reader. He achieves the same effect in Galapagos, by starring the names of the characters who are about to die, in order to prepare the reader for their deaths. He desires the reader’s assistance in achieving a true construction of his novel.
Seen overall, what Vonnegut is trying to provide is a new kind of reading experience. He constructs his narratives in complex interwoven strands. He uses introductions to slip the reader into a novel, warm them up for the transition from reality to fantasy, whilst reminding them of that process. He shares things in confidence with the reader, without telling his characters. He warns them of the falsehood of the novel, whilst drawing on reality to establish associations for the reader. He asks the reader to learn to view the book as a whole, collecting the moments along the journey through time and space, to produce a total greater than the sum of the parts.
In a 1973 interview, Vonnegut said of writing:
No other art requires the audience to be a performer. You have to count on the reader’s being a good performer, and you may write music which he absolutely can’t perform…it’s a learning process.
(The New Fiction, p. 204).
Vonnegut has always tried to help the reader with that learning process. Just as he has found the tools to make his stories really run , he has helped the reader learn to work those stories, his gadgets.
- Chapter 1 – America through the eyes of Kurt Vonnegut
- Chapter 2 – Heroes, anti – heroes and non heroes
- Chapter 3 – Stories are Gadgets