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  • Billy Pilgrim can't sleep

  • because he knows aliens will arrive to abduct him in one hour.

  • He knows the aliens are coming because he has becomeunstuckin time,

  • causing him to experience events out of chronological order.

  • Over the course of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-five,

  • he hops back and forth between a childhood trip to the Grand Canyon,

  • his life as a middle-aged optometrist,

  • his captivity in an intergalactic zoo,

  • the humiliations he endured as a war prisoner, and more.

  • The title of Slaughterhouse-five and much of its source material

  • came from Vonnegut's own experiences in World War II.

  • As a prisoner of war, he lived in a former slaughterhouse in Dresden,

  • where he took refuge in an underground meat locker

  • while Allied forces bombed the city.

  • When he and the other prisoners finally emerged,

  • they found Dresden utterly demolished.

  • After the war, Vonnegut tried to make sense of human behavior

  • by studying an unusual aspect of anthropology:

  • the shapes of stories,

  • which he insisted were just as interesting as the shapes of pots or spearheads.

  • To find the shape, he graphed the main character's fortune

  • from the beginning to the end of a story.

  • The zany curves he generated revealed common types of fairy tales and myths

  • that echo through many cultures.

  • But this shape can be the most interesting of all.

  • In a story like this,

  • it's impossible to distinguish the character's good fortune from the bad.

  • Vonnegut thought this kind of story was the truest to real life,

  • in which we are all the victims of a series of accidents,

  • unable to predict how events will impact us long term.

  • He found the tidy, satisfying arcs of many stories at odds with this reality,

  • and he set out to explore the ambiguity

  • between good and bad fortune in his own work.

  • When Vonnegut ditched clear-cut fortunes,

  • he also abandoned straightforward chronology.

  • Instead of proceeding tidily from beginning to end, in his stories

  • All moments, past, present and future always have existed, always will exist.”

  • Tralfamadorians, the aliens who crop up in many of his books,

  • see all moments at once.

  • Theycan see where each star has been and where it is going,

  • so that the heavens are filled with rarefied, luminous spaghetti.”

  • But although they can see all of time,

  • they don't try to change the course of events.

  • While the Trafalmadorians may be at peace with their lack of agency,

  • Vonnegut's human characters are still getting used to it.

  • In The Sirens of Titan,

  • when they seek the meaning of life in the vastness of the universe,

  • they find nothing butempty heroics, low comedy, and pointless death.”

  • Then, from their vantage point within a “chrono-synclastic infundibulum,”

  • a man and his dog see devastating futures for their earthly counterparts,

  • but can't change the course of events.

  • Though there aren't easy answers available, they eventually conclude

  • that the purpose of life isto love whoever is around to be loved.”

  • In Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut's characters turn to a different source of meaning:

  • Bokonism,

  • a religion based on harmless lies that all its adherents recognize as lies.

  • Though they're aware of Bokonism's lies,

  • they live their lives by these tenets anyway,

  • and in so doing develop some genuine hope.

  • They join together in groups called Karasses, which consist of people we

  • find by accident but […] stick with by choice”—

  • cosmically linked around a shared purpose.

  • These are not to be confused with Granfalloons,

  • groups of people who appoint significance to actually meaningless associations,

  • like where you grew up, political parties, and even entire nations.

  • Though he held a bleak view of the human condition, Vonnegut believed strongly that

  • we are all here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is."

  • We might get pooped and demoralized,

  • but Vonnegut interspersed his grim assessments

  • with more than a few morsels of hope.

  • His fictional alter ego, Kilgore Trout, supplied this parable:

  • two yeast satdiscussing the possible purposes of life

  • as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement.

  • Because of their limited intelligence,

  • they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.”

  • In spite of his insistence that we're all here to fart around,

  • in spite of his deep concerns about the course of human existence,

  • Vonnegut also advanced the possibility, however slim,

  • that we might end up making something good.

  • And if that isn't nice, what is?

Billy Pilgrim can't sleep

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Why should you read Kurt Vonnegut?

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    Raven Lin posted on 2019/05/29
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