Clark Blaise and Bharati Mukherjee both use personal experience to inform their works. Each of their writings bespeaks a sensitivity towards mixed identity-formation. As Mukherjee says in an interview with Mosaic: "Fluidity. I’m emphasizing the word ‘mythology.’ If you don’t have that national mythology at all [an American ideal that says you can transform yourself], as the countries like the India I grew up in [don’t], or the European countries, or the Canada that I lived in [don’t], then there isn’t even that potential for fluidity. In my fiction I’m thinking through the making of the American consciousness" (http://dolphin.upenn.edu/~mosaic/spring94/page7.html).
Fluidity of identity, or an ability to transform, marks the characters of Mukherjee’s fiction. In Jasmine, a novel that is perhaps the most traditionally written and the most popular of her longer works, the main character suffers prejudice and brutality as she immigrates to America. Isolated and friendless, she nevertheless transforms herself into a position that is ultimately empowering for her. Melanie Kaye of Kantrowitz—Women’s Review of Books, writes, "[Jasmine] is a witty, dazzling fairy tale disguised by naturalism and made possible by the whirling world of late-twentieth-century America, where people—at least the bright, beautiful and lucky—get to pick who they’ll be…"
Blaise, as well, is interested in exploring the relationship between identity and place, one that is intrinsically connected to the immigrant experience and also to family. Writing in a style that often mixes fiction with non-fiction—Resident Alien being a widely acclaimed example, Blaise depicts individuality and identity as constructions that are always in flux (DLB, galenet). While Blaise maintains that much of his character formation is "related to the Oedipal triangle in one way or another," this structure is also very much influenced by "cultural dilemma[s]" that the characters encounter (interview in Canadian Writers and Their Works, 1985). Of his own experience, Blaise writes, "Sociologically, I am an American. Psychologically, a Canadian. Sentimentally, a Québécois. By marriage, part of the Third World…" (DLB, galenet).
In terms of style, Blaise’s autobiographical mode constantly switches between lived experience and the conditional—what might have been. Lunar Attractions, which won the best first novel of the year award from Books in Canada, best exemplifies this mode. At the same time, Blaise’s characters survive in a world that is not governed by Fate, but randomness. In an interview with Canadian Fiction Magazine (1980), Blaise told interviewer Geoff Hancock, "I want to connect unpredictableness, shock, surprise, disorderliness, chaos… I want impact."
Blaise’s most recent novel, Time Lord: Sir Sandford Fleming and the Creation of Standard Time, explores the more traditional themes of a Sir Sandford Fleming’s establishment as an historical figure. Blaise tracks his identity-formation through place and time in a narrative form that is both biographical and "feistily non-linear" (David Vincent, writing for Amazon.co.uk). The book draws on Fleming’s letters, diaries and reports, while diverging into literary, philosophical, and personal musings that sometimes involve writers such as Hemingway and Faulkner or characters like Sherlock Holmes. David Vincent describes the novel has having a "gently ironical tone," and compares the work with Dava Sobel’s Longitude, as "a study of modernism, with its notion of fractured, recycled time."
Influenced foremost by Bernard Malamud, as Blaise’s tribute to Malamud in his article "Mentors" suggests, Blaise is also a graduate of the Iowa Workshop, where both he and Mukherjee met (Canadian Literature, Summer 1984). Mukherjee shares Blaise’s apprehension toward a holistic and unselfconscious sense of identity. As an American of Indian origin, Mukherjee resists hyphenation, saying in an interview with Nicholas A. Basbanes that the hyphen is "a covert form of racism" (George Jr. Online). She prefers. instead, to define her cultural allegiance as a summation of the parts of each culture that she wishes to retain. She likewise creates characters who reflect multiple cultures. Mukherjee herself became a political activist after experiencing racism in Toronto. The effects of similar experiences on the psyche can be traced in some of her stories, which depict characters whose resilience depends on their abilities to change ways of seeing, to change the mold of life from within. Empowerment, for these characters, often is the ability to chose who they can be and what that means to them.
Mukherjee’s most recent work, Leave it to Me, is a straight-forward "biting social satire" with "searing dialogue," as Basbane’s notes. Speaking on her style in an interview with George Jr, Mukherjee asserts, "I am less interested in pretty writing than I am in creating energy" (http://www.georgejr.com/oct97/mukherjee/html). The energy and suspense created in this most recent novel reach the proportions gained by Joyce Carol Oates in a hard-hitting style that is also similar to Flannery O’Connor. It is a tale whose structure Basbane compares to the Electra myth. Its plot is motivated by a search for identity through origins; whose unrelenting force of the action in the novel is similar to the powerful fatalistic drive of Greek myth.
Leave it to Me’s protagonist is the adopted daughter of a mid-western family, whose "exotic" appearance belies her quiet upbringing. Plagued by urges to violence, frightening over-reactions and dark mood-swings precipitated by both the actions of others and her unstable identity, Debbi DiMartino embarks on a search for her birth-parents. Debbi knows that her chances of finding her parents, and through them, a sense of identity, are slim:
Who are you when you don’t have a birth certificate, only a poorly typed, creased affidavit sworn out by a nun who signs herself Sister Madeleine, Gray Sisters of Charity? And that name? No mother’s name, no father’s name, just Baby Clear Water Iris-Daughter meticulously copied out, taking up two full lines, when Father and Mother with long spaces after them are just ink flecks of nonexistence. What are you when you have nightmares and fantasies instead of dates and statistics? And, in place of memory, impressions of white-hot sky and burnt black leaves?
As Debbi embarks on her search, she changes her name to Devi without knowing the Hindu origins of the name. Her path becomes a manifestation of the Hindu diety’s fierce and destructive nature. Lorna Sage, writing in The New York Times Book Review, calls Leave it to Me "…[A] brilliant creation—hilarious, horribly knowing and even more horribly oblivious."
Commenting on Mukherjee’s style, Michiko Kakutani says, "[Mukherjee’s] crazy-quilt plots not only [possess] a fable-like power but also [remain] grounded in meticulously observed descriptions and edgy, pointillist prose" (DLB, galenet). Mukherjee, well-known for both her novels and short fiction, earned a National Book Critics Circle Award for The Middleman and Other Stories (1988), which contains a short story that was the impetus for her book, Jasmine. Mukherjee has also written non-fiction about India and Indian issues, both political and cultural, some of which has been co-authored with Blaise: Days and Nights in Calcutta (1977) and The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy (1987). Days and Nights in Calcutta, especially, is an interesting work of perspective. When Mukherjee and Blaise spent 1976-7 in India together, they contracted with a publisher to independently record their experiences. Blaise’s first impressions of India are situated alongside the shifted perspective of Mukherjee, who had been absent from India for ten years.
Shifts in perspective and identity are at the core of both Blaise and Mukherjee’s works. Mukherjee explores the multifaceted process of identification and assimilation that immigrants, and perhaps all people, undergo each day. Blaise’s connection to the family structure and his concern with voice reflects a smaller process of dislocation, the impasses of communication that occur from event to event between people.
Kerry Morris is a summer Program Assistant at the NYS Writers Institute.
Congolese author Emmanuel Dongala is preoccupied with birth. His two recently translated novels, The Fire of Origins (1987, English 2001) and Little Boys Come from the Stars (1998, English 2001), begin with the unusual births of their principal characters—births that mark them for special destinies, and set them apart from the rest of humanity. Mankunku, "The Destroyer," the protagonist of The Fire of Origins, is born—without witnesses—in the middle of a banana plantation, while his mother is busy planting. The lack of witnesses leads the villagers to suspect that Mankunku is not of purely human origins. Matapari, the young protagonist of Little Boys Come from the Stars, is a triplet who is mistakenly left behind inside his mother’s womb when his twin brothers are born.
Both characters are "freaks of nature"—Mankunku, the only one in his village with green eyes, and Matapari, the village’s first and only triplet. Both are regarded as odd for not crying immediately after birth. Both are said to be able to perceive things that others cannot—Mankunku by virtue of his green eyes and Matapari, by virtue of the herbal concoctions that a midwife puts in his eyes, ears and nostrils. Both, because of their oddities, are rumored to be the reincarnations of dead and restless ancestors.
Though both are anomalies, outsiders, "freaks," they are also (paradoxically) embodiments of their nation. Mankunku lives and experiences the entire breadth of his nation’s history, from a time before the arrival of white people, to the corrupt regimes of modern times. Matapari is born on the nation’s anniversary of independence. His first cries are witnessed by a gathering that is a representative cross-section of the nation: Christians, Muslims, "animists," rich and poor. Since both Mankunku and Matapari are presumed to be reincarnated ancestors, their identification with the nation embraces an even broader span of history than the length of their own lives, including the primeval—the forest, soil, and ancient gods.
This sense that a single person can contain his nation’s entire history is perhaps related to the rapid modernization of the "Third World." As Calcutta-born fiction writer Bharati Mukherjee eloquently discusses in her well-known essay, "A Four-Hundred-Year-Old Woman," the stages of history that have occurred in the developed world over a period of centuries have often occurred in the developing world during the space of a single lifetime: colonialism, technology, education, liberation, civil war, uprooting, all in a matter of decades.
Dongala’s preoccupation with birth, and anomalous births in particular, may be related to the strange and sudden development of his native country, perpetually in the throes of its own political, economic and social rebirth. In the political sphere, for example, the Congo has witnessed an endless series of coups d’etat. Each new regime consigns the past to the dustbin, something experienced personally by Matapari’s grandfather, who was at one time hailed as a national hero for driving missionaries out of a public school. Succeeding governments do not recognize the honors bestowed on him by previous governments, however, and Grandfather is branded a reactionary—simply because of his association with the political past. As coup follows coup, his heroism is forgotten entirely.
In other ways, also, history is an endangered resource in Dongala’s fiction. In Little Boys Come From the Stars, history is overwhelmed by an inundation of Western pop culture. It is threatened, moreover, by the demographic youthfulness of Africa in general. Most of that continent’s population is under the age of sixteen, and the young (as everywhere) have short memories.
Matapari tells us:
My father was nine years old, younger than I am today, when men first walked on the moon. It is even said—but I admit that it's difficult to believe, even though I got this from my uncle—that when Papa was born you couldn’t follow the World Cup or the Olympics live and Coca-Cola had yet to spread the selling of soft drinks to our village. Even Michael Jackson had yet to become famous, there were no music videos on television, and rap and ragamuffin were still unknown . . . If all this was really true, I wonder how men managed to fill up the twenty-four hours of the day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year.
One of Matapari’s roles as narrator is to reiterate and reaffirm Congolese history, albeit in simplified and humorous fashion. It is as though the novel is intended, in part, as a history primer for young Congolese and non-Congolese readers.
Matapari, the youthful historian, is a kind of prodigy. So is Mankuku, who while still a youth comes to master all trades. The preternatural knowledge and intelligence of Dongala’s characters explains how they can be—simultaneously and paradoxically—anomalies and representatives of their nation. As prodigies, they symbolize the astonishing pace of modernization in Africa. While Matapari is a product of abrupt modernization, Mankunku represents the restless impulse to modernize, advance, evolve—whence his nickname, "The Destroyer."
Though raised to be a blacksmith, Mankuku tells the village wiseman, Nimi A Lukeni, that he would like to try another profession:
"It’s just that I’d like to know everything, old Lukeni. Why should I limit myself? Why shouldn’t I be a weaver, if I want to? Just because my father’s a blacksmith?"
"Things aren’t done that way in our society."
"And why can’t things be done differently? Why not shake things up so that people like me can find their proper place?"
Mankunku is always looking to improve things, an impulse that tramples traditions, upsets traditionalists, and sometimes yields benefits for the rest of society. After apprenticing himself to his uncle, the village healer, Mankunku decides to reveal his uncle’s secrets so that people might cure themselves. When white people first arrive and begin to conquer the continent, Mankunku studies their methods and turns the tables on them—enslaving them to learn their arts of conquest. After independence, Mankunku inevitably runs afoul of post-colonial regimes. Innovators, in Dongala’s world, are not always welcomed by their contemporaries.
One of Dongala’s talents is his ability to treat the "shock of the new" in vivid language. Here, for instance, is the wiseman Lukeni’s premonition of the first arrival of the white men:
"Last night I had a strange dream . . . I saw living cadavers, their faces as white as the Moon, with a strange hairiness only found in the land of the shadows, arrive from under the sea in the bellies of great whales. But this is what frightened me: they scattered over our lands like crickets, they marched over the tombs of the ancestors, destroyed their offering cups, pillaged our goods. I invoked the ancestors, I called on them to help, they didn’t come . . . All of this is beyond me, I’m too old. I can’t wait to die."
Dongala also recognizes that the abrupt integration of old and new necessarily adds richness to his culture. Here, for example, is his description of Mama Kossa, the modern traditionalist midwife who delivers Matapari in Little Boys Come From the Stars:
Mama Kossa arrived lively as ever, always in a hurry as if chased by the spirit of an ancestor who had died abruptly, displacing behind her huge volumes of air, which, momentarily imprisoned in the vast folds of her boubou, then escaped in big violent gusts worthy of a Category 5 tropical storm. And yet, like the eye of the storm, her face always stayed calm and serene with its jet black eyes whose shiny depths scared off owls, drove sorcerers to suicide, and protected newborns. She brought that mystical pouch she always had whenever she visited a woman about to give birth, a bag that contained everything: herbs, medicinal plants, liniments, disposable syringes, vials, powders, and even antibiotics, since she practiced both traditional and modern medicine. She knew how to prepare potions to drive off evil spirits, just as she knew how to set up an IV drip. . . .
A professor of chemistry and former dean of the Congo’s largest university, Dongala fled his country’s political troubles in 1997. He now lives with his family in Great Barrington, MA, where he is Visiting Professor of Chemistry and Literature at Simon’s Rock College.
Dongala received two of the French-speaking world's most prestigious literary prizes for The Fire of Origins, the Grand Prix d’Afrique Noire and the Grand Prix de la Fondation Francais. The upcoming publication, at long last, of Dongala’s fiction in English translation is a hopeful sign that great literature from francophonic regions of Africa may finally find its way to an American readership.
Mark Koplik is a Program Fellow at the New York State Writers Institute.
Ken Kesey: An Overview
Ken Kesey was born in La Junta, Colorado, in 1935. As a child, he moved with his family to Oregon, where he spent much time outdoors, hunting and fishing with his father. Kesey has always been attracted to the wild, especially the potential for wildness that lies within each of us. This may well be the thread that ties together his works and his life--a key to the riddle posed by his unusual career, which was nearly swallowed up by the larger myth of Kesey. As he admits in a 1994 Paris Review interview:
"What I explore in all my work [is] wilderness. Settlers on this continent from the beginning have been seeking wilderness and its wildness. The explorers and pioneers sought that wildness because they could sense that in Europe everything had become locked tight....When we got here there was a sense of possibility and new direction, and it had to do with wildness. Throughout the work of James Fenimore Cooper there is what I call the American terror. It's very important to our literature, and it's important to who we are: the terror of the Hurons out there, the terror of the bear, the avalanche, the tornado--whatever may be over the next horizon. (Kesey in Robert Faggen's Paris Review Interview, Spring 1994)
In high school Kesey excelled in sports, especially wrestling, which earned him a scholarship to the University of Oregon at Eugene. During his college years Kesey began to write, demonstrating the literary talents that would bring him serious critical attention only a few years later. His restless questing spirit drove him to seek out new and diverse experiences, all of which he threw himself into with characteristic passion.
In his sophomore year Kesey married his high school sweetheart, Faye Haxby, with whom he would have three children. He was named the outstanding college wrestler of the Northwest United States, and he began to pursue writing more seriously. He wrote an unpublished novel titled "The End of Autumn," as well as poetry, one-act plays and a number of short stories under the tutelage of James B. Hall. In 1957 Kesey's first published short story, "The First Sunday in September," appeared in the pages of the Northwest Review.
Immediately after College Kesey took a year off from his studies and worked as a bit actor in Hollywood films. Then in 1958 he was awarded a creative writing fellowship at Stanford, where he studied with Malcolm Cowley and Wallace Stegner, among others. Other creative writing fellows included Larry McMurtry, Tillie Olson, Wendell Berry, Robert Stone & Ernest J. Gaines. When Kesey took up residence in the Perry Lane area of Stanford, a bohemian community modeled on San Francisco's North Beach, he came into contact for the first time with a counterculture whose unorthodox political and social views were radically different from those of mainstream America. At the heart of this fringe community were the works of such writers as Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg and other leaders of the Beat literary scene. Kesey's identification with Beat literature played an important formative role in his own writing, as did the cultural milieu in which he began to undertake his literary projects at Stanford.
During his time at Stanford, Kesey worked as a night attendant on the psychiatric ward of the Veterans Hospital at Menlo Park, an experience that would provide the raw materials for his first major literary accomplishment, the 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Also central to the development of the novel were experiences that grew out of Kesey's involvement in the Perry Lane scene. A fellow grad student and Perry Lane resident, Vic Lovell, suggested to Kesey that he volunteer to be a paid subject in drug experiments taking place in the hospital at Menlo Park. Kesey agreed and was paid $20 a session to ingest various psychoactive drugs and to report back on their effects. Many of these drugs caused very unpleasant reactions, but turning on to LSD was an eye- and mind-opening experience for the budding author.
Kesey reportedly smuggled hallucinogenic drugs out of the hospital for personal use. He and his friends from Perry Lane began to experiment regularly with the drugs--peyote, mescaline & LSD in particular--and the tripping parties came to play a central part in their lives, with an apparently salutary effect on Kesey's writing. Kesey's experiences of altered consciousness were ideally suited to the narrator of Cuckoo's Nest, Chief Bromden (or Chief Broom), a physically enormous Indian suffering from schizophrenia and paranoid delusions who pretends to be deaf and mute to avoid detection by "The Combine" (the Chief's term for the constellation of institutions intent on controlling and dehumanizing humanity). As Kesey admits: "Peyote...inspired my chief narrator, because it was after choking down eight of the little cactus plants that I wrote the first three pages." (As quoted in John Clark Pratt's Introduction to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Viking Critical Library, ed. John Clark Pratt, expanded edition, 1996)
Before anybody can turn to look for me I duck back in the mop closet, jerk the door shut after me, hold my breath. Shaving before you get breakfast is the worst time. When you got something under your belt you're stronger and more wide awake, and the bastards who work for the Combine aren't so apt to slip one of their machines in on you in place of an electric shaver. But when you shave before breakfast like [Big Nurse] has me do some mornings--six-thirty in the morning in a room all white walls and white basins, and long tube-lights in the ceiling making sure there aren't any shadows, and faces all around you trapped screaming behind the mirrors--then what choice you got against one of their machines? (from Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Viking Critical Library, ed. John Clark Pratt, expanded edition, 1996)
The importance of Kesey's writing was not lost on fellow student writers at Stanford, nor on his teacher Malcolm Cowley, who believed that Kesey's "hallucinated but everyday style, smelling of motor oil, was something new in fiction." (Malcolm Cowley, Introduction to Kesey, Northwest Review Books). As Cowley wrote in a letter to Pascal Covici, an editor at Viking, shortly after reading an early draft of Cuckoo's Nest:
"[Kesey] hasn't ever learned how to spell...and didn't even begin reading for pleasure until he was an upperclassman...he went to school in Oregon on a football scholarship....Last year Kesey nearly made the Olympic wrestling team--he has a 19-inch neck, like wrestlers. He's married, 11/2 children, works in a state loony bin in this vicinity....[his] manuscript might just turn out to be something that would HAVE to be published." (Malcolm Cowley, as quoted in Donald W. Faulkner, The Portable Malcolm Cowley, 1990).
Already at Stanford the two public faces that we have come to identify with Kesey's persona were emerging. Just as he began to establish himself as a writer of real importance, his dominant, charismatic personality was drawing other young people around him, as if to feed off his boundless store of energy, his dynamism and adventurous spirit. In his reader's report on Cuckoo's Nest a year later Cowley described Kesey's magnetism in near-prophetic terms:
"He's tough, sentimental, and inventive-experimental in matters of conduct--I could tell you about his diabolical punches made with dry ice, alcohol, and lime juice, so that the mixture boils and fumes as the ice melts, or about his experiments with hallucinogenic mushrooms. He'll probably end by corrupting the whole Stanford group of writers, among whom he's a leader." (Malcolm Cowley, "Reader's Report on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," 1961, in Donald W. Faulkner, The Portable Malcolm Cowley, 1990).
The Stanford writers survived, but for most of them the world would never be entirely the same. Kesey studied with Frank O'Connor at Stanford as well, but their relationship was far from cordial. O'Connor apparently did not sympathize with the radical individualism promoted by Kesey in Cuckoo's Nest, and cared even less for Kesey's personal style of testing the limits of everything and everyone around him, especially himself. "Kesey had stopped attending [O'Connor's] classes," reports Cowley, and "was persuading others to stay away too, sometimes by inviting them to his house on Perry Lane and keeping them there with drinks and conversation until the class was over. He had become the man whom other young rebels tried to imitate, almost like Hemingway in Montparnasse during the 1920s." (Malcolm Cowley, Introduction to Kesey, Northwest Review Books) Kesey's mission seemed to be to take things further, ever further, as far as he could go and get away with it.
After his studies in the Stanford program, Kesey continued to live and write in the Perry lane area until a real estate developer bought the neighborhood and razed it to the ground. In 1962, when Cuckoo's Nest first appeared, Kesey was already at work on his next novel, Sometimes A Great Notion, the story of a family in a Pacific Northwest lumbering town at odds with its community, and with itself--the destructive sibling rivalry between brothers Hank and Lee Stamper bears the true dramatic weight of the novel.
Kesey moved to the mountains outside San Francisco when he was forced to leave Perry Lane, taking up residence on a large property in La Honda, California, bought with proceeds from Cuckoo's Nest. Kirk Douglas bought the stage rights to the first novel, and hired playwright Dale Wasserman (Man of La Mancha) to write the stage adaptation.
In the play's initial run Douglas starred as the messianic convict McMurphy, who enters the psychiatric ward to liberate its emasculated patients by refusing to submit to the tyranny of Big Nurse (Miss Ratched). While the play ran for only three months, it struck a chord with contemporary audiences and ensured the commercial success of the novel, which would go on to sell more than 8 millions copies.
Kesey continued work on the new novel in La Honda. When Sometimes A Great Notion appeared in 1964, the novel was considered by many critics to be an even greater accomplishment than Cuckoo's Nest, and Kesey proved that he was no one-hit wonder. The true wonder was that Kesey managed to get any writing done at all in the chaotic La Honda environment. Many of Kesey's Perry Lane friends moved in with him. They prefigured the hippie collectives of the later sixties, though with Kesey as their spiritual, intellectual and financial leader, they seemed part entourage, part commune, part cult.
Calling themselves "The Merry Pranksters," the group shared Kesey's belief in the transcendent, transforming potential of hallucinogenic drugs, and tripping parties were a routine activity. The core members of this group were Carolyn "Mountain Girl" Adams (mother of Kesey's fourth child, Sunshine), Ken "Intrepid Traveler" Babbs, George "Hardly Visible" Walker, Mike "Mal function" Hagen, Ron "Hassler" Bevirt, and Paula "Gretchen Fetchin" Sundsten. Kesey's nickname was "Swashbuckler." As Vic Lovell explained in an interview, the Perry Lane group that evolved into the Merry Pranksters pioneered what later became the hall-marks of hippie culture: "LSD and other psychedelics too numerous to mention, body painting, light shows and mixed media presentations, total aetheticism, be-ins, exotic costumes, strobe lights, sexual mayhem, freakouts and the deification of psychoticism, eastern mysticism, and the rebirth of hair." (As quoted in Stephen Tanner, Ken Kesey, Boston: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1983, p.13.)
Many others were involved with the group, staying on for brief periods in the La Honda Community. These included the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady (the inspiration for the character Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac's Beat classic On The Road) and many members of the Hell's Angels, who had been introduced to Kesey by Hunter S. Thompson. Kesey's powerful personality (reinforced, no doubt, by his physical stature and prowess as a world class wrestler) helped to keep such strange bedfellows in check at La Honda. The Hell's Angels respected Kesey, but made a number of the Merry Pranksters very nervous. Hunter S. Thompson once described the tripping retreat at La Honda as "the world capital of madness. There were no rules, fear was unknown, and sleep was out of the question."
The debut of Sometimes a Great Notion coincided with the 1964 World's Fair. When Kesey and the Pranksters decided to drive cross country in a 1939 International Harvest school bus to attend the fair and the publication party for the new novel, they entered the realm of legend as catalysts of an incipient counterculture, the group's antics along the way prefiguring the Hippie movement that swept the United States in the late 60s.
Kesey recruited Neal Cassady to drive the bus, and shot forty hours of film on the journey. They painted the bus in wild psychedelic colors and emblazoned the name "Further" across the front. It was on this trip that the Pranksters first met Jack Kerouac (who was reticent and unimpressed) and Allen Ginsberg (who became an instant devotee to the band's consciousness-raising cultural mission). The trip was recorded in a film the Pranksters shot themselves--called simply "The Movie"--and was later immortalized in Tom Wolfe's book of new journalistic non-fiction, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. During the trip Kesey and his band wore outrageous attire, performed strange acts of street theater and peacefully assaulted prevailing notions of conformity and decorum. Kesey would later show clips from the trip to audiences at the (in)famous "acid tests" that took place between 1965 and 1966.
The 'Acid Tests' were public events organized by Kesey, Cassady, and the Merry Pranksters, with music from The Grateful Dead (then the Warlocks). They have been called an orgy of psychedelic liquid light shows, drugs, rock and roll, and free sex. LSD-spiked orange Kool-aid was always on hand and distributed freely. Many participants claimed to gain lasting spiritual revelations from the experience, while others had severely bad trips. Ken Kesey was the driving engine behind the public festivities, during which he gave rambling monologues over a PA system. A note that Kesey wrote to himself at around this time reveals his own sense of the transformation he was undergoing as a public figure:
After two successful novels and ten times two successful fantasies I find myself wondering "What to prove next? I've shown the buggers I can write, then shown them I can repeat and better the first showing, now what do I prove?
The answer seems to be "prove nothing."
A clever challenge, Chaps, and one, I confess, that stirs the fight in me. Now anyone can crank out a nice, compact commercial, slide it between covers and read it as literature, but how many are there capable of advancing absolute proof of nothing? (As reprinted in Kesey, Northwest Review Books)
Kesey has been called a pivotal figure between the Beats and the Hippies, a characterization whose very mixture of categories suggests the evolution of Kesey's public role from that of literary voice to cultural icon. The acid tests, especially as immortalized in Wolfe's book, were the primary vehicle for his transformation into cultural property. To many young people he became one of the leaders of the new generation, while to the establishment he became a threat. It was almost as if Kesey was no longer content with his role as a creator or chonicler of stories. His creative energies seemed to flow into creating a novel out of his own life. Leslie Fiedler would later observe:
...the images and archetypal stories which underlie [Kesey's] fables are not legends of Greece and Rome, not the fairy tales of Grimm, but the adventures of Captain Marvel and Captain Marvel, Jr., those new style Supermen who, sometime just after World war II, took over the fantasy of the young. What Western elements persist in Kesey are, as it were, first translated back into comic-strip form, then turned once more into words on the conventional book page. One might have, indeed, imagined Kesey ending up as a comic book writer...but he has preferred to live his comic strip rather than write or even draw it. (From Leslie A. Fiedler, "The Higher Sentimentality")
Like one of his own highly individualistic heroes, Kesey would come into direct conflict with "the system," and this conflict would eventually take a great toll on him personally. His arrest and conviction on drug charges in 1965 would lead to his flight from the country and eventually to imprisonment. By the time the 1960s had ended, Kesey's turbulent life had taken him through enormous highs and profound lows.
After serving time for a conviction on marijuana possession Kesey settled down again to a relatively quiet life on an Oregon farmstead. He continued to write through the 70's and 80's, editing and contributing to the journal Spit In The Ocean. Yet the works he produced were uneven and less coherent than his first two novels. A number of individual articles and stories, however, demonstrate the brilliance that won him fame as an author.
The 1990s saw a more focused and consistent output of literary works, including the novel Sailor Song (1992) and Last Go Round: A Dime Western (1994), the latter co-written with fellow Prankster Ken Babbs. It seems as though Kesey the cultural hero has gone full circle--after departure, initiation and return--confident again as an author and committed to that role. A new novel, Seven Prayers By Grandma Whittier, a fictional account of the battle of Kesey's grandmother with Alzheimer's disease, is due to be published shortly.
Steven Hartman is a Program Fellow at the New York State Writers Institute.
In recent years, Ken Kesey has continued to startle and amaze readers with his ability to breathe new life into archetypal characters and fables. Connie C. Rockman in School Library Journal is writing on Kesey’s self-avowed favorite literary endeavor of the past ten years when she says, "[Kesey’s] vigorous, colorful style… invites reading aloud" (Interview, Mary Jane Fenex and Matthew Rick for ulster.net). The story is a children’s picture book, entitled Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear. In classic-Kesey fashion, Little Tricker, the underdog, must overcome the hefty, terrorizing Big Double through courage and cunning. It is a plot reminiscent of "Sody Salleratus" from Richard Chase’s Grandfather Tales (Houghton 1973), while the characters recall those of the Brer Rabbit stories, as Rockman notes. However, Kesey’s "quirky vision and his freewheeling use of language" creates an involving, spirited dialogue with the reader that moves the story along in a torrent of colorful images (Publishers Weekly, bn.com). Critics have praise for both the tall tale and its watercolor illustrations: "[Kesey’s] dialogue crackles, his forceful images and metaphors tumble one after another in an inexorable rush. Moser’s watercolors capture the strange, strong flavor of the tale" (Publishers Weekly, bn.com).
These aspects of his writing, parable, quirky dialogue, and archetypal though nuanced characters, are strengths from which Kesey has made a name for himself. In the literary arena, he is perhaps most famous for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) and Sometimes a Great Notion (1964). Both of these novels are satiric of American capitalism and its effect on personal identity; both are stylistically and psychologically complex works with relatively simple themes. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey deals with the stifling technological and bureaucratic control of the head nurse at a mental hospital, Miss Ratched (or Big Nurse), through a transcendent, savior-like character, Randle Patrick McMurphy, who fakes insanity in order to escape the conditions of a prison work farm. His exuberance, spontaneity and laughter allows other patients, especially Bromden, to re-connect with the natural world and sensory experience. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was made into a movie in 1975, starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher; the film, going on to win six Academy Awards, was met with the same critical and popular success that characterized the novel’s debut.
Sometimes a Great Notion makes use of the archetypal heroic American-frontier man through the character of Hank Stamper. Hank runs the family logging business and is plagued by his half-brother, Lee, a bookish college student who aims to take revenge on Hank for having sex with Lee’s mother—he will eventually seduce Hank’s wife. Meanwhile, the loggers strike, and Hank, wishing to maintain his independence, acts as a strike-breaker. While Hank manages to keep his company afloat, his success nonetheless costs him dearly. Sometimes a Great Notion is a wide-reaching and ambitious novel that has attracted the attention of both scholars and fans of the hugely popular One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. While the flavor and scope of Kesey’s novel recall those of William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932), especially in terms of his experiments with narrative form, Kesey’s prose has been likened to "the frontier humor and vernacular style established by Mark Twain" (DLB, galenet.com).
While Sometimes a Great Notion can be read as a critique of the archetypal American hero, Kesey’s life in many ways reflects a search for transcendence and unity that hero persona embodies. Profoundly influenced by the Beats but removed from the movement in his style, Kesey straddled the Beat and Hippie generations. Both an innovator and a pivotal figure in his generation, Kesey became the leader and chief chronicler of a group called the Merry Pranksters, who popularized the use of LSD in mixed-media "happenings" in 1960s California. Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) chronicles these experiences, to which Kesey also refers in The Further Inquiry (1990) albeit in a less direct manner. In The Further Inquiry, Kesey melds the traditions of existentialist and participatory theater (as in cult-classics like The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Kesey fans will find The Further Inquiry "a funny story" that "stirs up the Prankster in you;" while much of the humor takes the form of inside-jokes that are directed towards fans of the Pranksters, the screenplay is also highly accessible (Colin Pringle in review for halcyon.com).
Kesey used the "happening" in his trips with the Merry Pranksters to develop a mode of entertainment in which the audience participates in an event so much so that the audience’s perception of the event controls its production as much as the actors themselves. Kesey brings this mode of performance art to his own work often, most explicitly in Kesey’s Garage Sale (1973) and Caverns (1990). Caverns is a mystery novel written by Kesey in conjunction with thirteen creative writing students at the University of Oregon (for which the pseudonym O.U. Levon is an anagram). Like Kesey’s Garage Sale, Caverns is written in a melange of styles, combining the livliness of "the adventures of Indiana Jones with the cosmic spirit and multiple perspectives of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales" (New York Times Book Review, Alfred Bendixen, 21 Jan’90). Kesey’s Garage Sale is a many-layered presentation of written pieces in a variety of genre, in a range of styles. It is strongly influenced by comic-book style and includes photomontages and typographic design in the tradition of early Beat literary magazines (DLB, galenet.com). Kesey’s Garage Sale pays tribute to various cultural figures of the ’60s and can "be deposited in a time capsule as a record of the chaotic influences that shaped the ‘revolutionary consciousness’ of the 1960s" (DLB, galenet.com). The book also contains Kesey’s screenplay, Over the Border, which immortalizes and mythologizes the character of Neal Cassady (the Merry Pranksters, and Jack Keroac’s On the Road). The screenplay also introduces an alter-ego character, Devin Deboree whose adventures strongly parallel Kesey’s own. Over the Border "can be read as a morality play conceived in the modern form of a psychedelic comic-book film scenario, with line drawings on every page representing the action dramatized in the text… yet just beneath the surface, under the high-camp fun and games, lies an unmistakably serious investigation [of a purely experiential lifestyle that attempts to find meaning solely through drugs, sex, and fun]" (DLB, galenet.com).
The publishing date of Kesey’s Garage Sale marks the end of Kesey’s ten-year hiatus from writing in which he sought to connect with his audience in a more direct manner through "happenings" and "Acid Tests." The Merry Pranksters’ 1964 bus trip across America included such American legends as Neal Cassady and Jerry Garcia. It was during this time that Kesey became the kind of pop-culture icon that he remains today. Kesey’s affinity for a sensory connection with his audience is perhaps indicative of a need for immediacy and directness experienced by many in the midst of the alienating factors of a capitalistic era and during the isolationist mentality of the cold war: as one reviewer notes, "There is a link between [Kesey’s] wait for disintegration of apocalypse [his 10-yr hiatus] and the notion of subsequent remaking of a decadent and ruined world with the fractured form of the Garage Sale itself" (www.liv.ac.uk). In this way, Kesey recalls both the desperate, struggling characters of Beckett and Brecht’s theory of a stage that extends into the audience and beyond. Strongly influenced by "techniques borrowed from theatre and film such as flashbacks, fade-outs, and jump cuts…[Kesey] shows a familiarity with the conventions of horror films and popular Westerns" which often lends his work a theatrical and/ or cinematic feel, especially in The Further Inquiry, which is written like a script and involves film editing metaphors (DLB, galenet.com).
Kesey himself has likened the process of writing, indeed the relationship that occurs between the audience and the show (the text, or the happening), to a magician’s slight of hand. He says, "[The slight of hand trick] has to do with art at its best. It leaves you with that little crack in your mind. The bus trip [in 1964 with the Merry Pranksters was like that slight of hand because there are] 60, 000 books every season and there’s only one of those. And that communicates something that can’t be bottled and sold so people don’t think of it as valuable" (Interview). At the heart of Kesey’s search for a meaningful connection with his audience is the need for the transcendent, the un–reproducible. An experience, he maintains, is transcendent in a way that literature can never be. Kesey’s most recent works, however, come to terms with the disparity between direct experience and the removed milieu of the novel through narrative form. Works like Sailor Song and Last Go Round demand that the reader participates actively in their interpretation. In terms of plot structure, they tend toward caricature and parable, a melange of which might seem "pointless and idealess," as Roger Rosenblatt of The New Republic maintains, only if a reader’s expectation is one of passive detachment from the text.
In Sailor Song, the "writing style is complex and sometimes the story line changes abruptly without transition," but the effect is to involve the reader in such a manner that the reader’s perception of the text is as important as the text itself—a replication of the "happening" dynamic (Grace Baun, School Library Journal). Last Go Round, on the other hand, is an at-times-campy rendition of the Pendleton Round Up of 1911, one that is both a critique of a dime western, and a dime western itself. Janet Burroway of The New York Times Book Review says, "Mr. Kesey has produced a pulp-thin plot… together with an excess of episode, inflated atmosphere and wonders of prowesss, just what’s demanded in the formula for the original dime westerns… Telling the tale this way evokes the period just as filming in black and white evokes the 1940s; the genre style jogs our sense of how things were back then, even if things weren’t really that way except in genre style."
In Kesey’s recent work, one can detect a movement towards what Kesey calls "ritual reality" (as opposed to "virtual reality": "it’s that word virtual that goes back to the word virtue. Goodness. Goodness is something that is about to happen. It hasn’t really happened. It is by virtue of its nature it will happen. But it won’t happen without some kind of observance of it. Ritual is necessary for us to know anything. You’ve got to get out and pray to the sky to appreciate the sunshine otherwise you’re just a lizard standing there with the sun shining on you. We need the rituals or else we have to contrive our own because all of our rituals have been coopted and corrupted and taken from us and used by Coca-Cola and Nike. A ritual has to be a little dangerous. It doesn’t come chap or free… Everywhere I go, I feel the hunger for people wanting to be a part of a ritual. Not to be there and have somebody present something to them" (Interview).
It is a rare phenomenon to find an author so able to meld the strong influence of pop culture and its audience with a genuine taste for literary device. The effect is both complex and profound. Kesey perfects the larger-than-life comic book hero, the underdog that has become an American myth. Yet at the same time, his books often critique the very possibility of such a construction. Likewise, Kesey has been at the forefront of literary innovation that fuses author and audience. Unlike other alter-egos in literary history, Kesey’s Deboree does not emerge as a transcendent hero. While Kesey’s productions often engage in a unifying structure, it is this very structure that challenges our notions of an author-figure who is transcendent. By including text, film, hypertext, photo, and/ or cartoon in the same space, Kesey allows authorship to become a collective endeavor. Kesey’s melange of styles has the effect of dizzying splashes of color—similar to the psychedelic stream that Kesey visually creates in The Further Inquiry through multi-colored swirls of paint. Likewise, his writings increasingly support the ritual act of reading, a process that is collaborative and celebratory.
At a dinner in January, following Kurt Vonnegut’s induction as the new State Author of New York, novelist Russell Banks threw out a contentious observation. “Vonnegut,” he said, “is one of only two writers who continue to exert a phenomenal appeal to young audiences across generational borders—not just two generations but three.” (The other writer whom Banks placed in Vonnegut’s company was Jack Kerouac.) Banks looked around with expectant eyes, as if he were ready for a good, spirited debate from some of the literary luminaries gathered at the dinner table, a group that included William Kennedy, George Plimpton and Donald Faulkner, among others. But no one seemed inclined to argue to point. Vonnegut did—and still does—have this phenomenal appeal, as was evident from the talk he had given an hour before. Of the more than 1,000 people who turned out at Page Hall to attend the State Author induction ceremony, the majority were young people. Hundreds had to be turned away because the auditorium was filled to capacity. The event had more the feel of a rock concert than a literary reading. I had never seen anything like it.
We know Kurt Vonnegut as one of the great satirists of our national literature. We know him as an inimitable humorist, as an irreverent critic of culture and society, and as the author of more than two dozen remarkably varied books. These include the novels The Sirens of Titan (1959), Cat’s Cradle (1963), Breakfast of Champions (1973), Bluebeard (1987) and Hocus Pocus (1990); several collections of non-fiction, including Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons (1975) and Palm Sunday (1981); and the play Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1971). We know Kurt Vonnegut best, however, for his innovative novel Slaughterhouse Five (1969), a landmark work of postmodern fiction that inspired two generations of imitators, but no equals.
Russell Banks‘ comments on Vonnegut got me thinking about the author, and his 1969 masterpiece in particular. How would it be remembered fifty years from now? I wondered. How is it remembered now? I decided to try one of Vonnegut’s old standard moves, and pulled out a reference guide—Merriam Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature. This is what it told me the novel was all about:
Novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., published in 1969. The book blends science fiction with historical facts, notably Vonnegut’s own experience as a prisoner of war in Dresden, Ger., during the Allied firebombing of that city in early 1945.
On being pigeon-holed as a genre writer Vonnegut has remarked famously: "I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled "Science Fiction" ever since [Player Piano was first reviewed] and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal." (from "Science Fiction" in Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons)
Like virtually anything Vonnegut says in public (and print is very public indeed), this comment should not be taken at face value. His works do more than invite identification with the genre of science fiction. Most ardent sci-fi readers would insist he is part of the club, as Vonnegut facetiously terms the culture that has evolved around science fiction literature. But if his novels work within this genre—a notion few would dispute—they do so playfully, lampooning it even as they make use of its conventions. In Vonnegut’s hand science fiction becomes both a vehicle for and an object of satire. The ubiquitous Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut's alter-ego, is a memorable case in point. Even his name is tongue in cheek in its not-so-subtle play on “Theodore Sturgeon,” one of the genre’s modern giants. Most story types and themes that are the standard fare of science fiction have surfaced in Vonnegut's novels—intergalactic travel, apocalyptic visions of the future, dystopic worlds, time-travel, technology threatening to strip the human race of its very humanity. Vonnegut became identified with the genre and its traditions long before he began to play around with readers’ conventional expectations. So by the time he completed his masterpiece many readers may have been unprepared for his highly unorthodox use of the genre.
Far more prominent than the novel's science fiction subplot is its pervasive air of tragedy. Not that tragedy and science fiction are incompatible, but in readings that overemphasize the elements of space opera in this particular novel there is a risk that the very real tragic dimensions of the work may be placed at too far a remove. Of course, a literal reading of the novel as a work of straight science fiction is no more or less legitimate than its other possible readings. Billy Pilgrim's strange adventures in time and space—the comic absurdity of his experiences on the planet Tralfamadore—set the novel’s numbing depiction of the Dresden holocaust in welcome relief.
But beyond the purely mechanical function of these scenes as a restraint against reader despair, the Tralfamadorian subplot is also—if not primarily—an extension of the novel’s psychological realism. If we ignore this, or fail to perceive its possibilities, we risk missing out on what it is that makes Slaughterhouse Five such a fully realized work of tragic literature. Early in the novel we learn that our protagonist, Billy Pilgrim
...has come unstuck in time.
The reiteration, "he says," is crucial. It is our key to the psychic distance Vonnegut creates between reader, narrator and Billy's subjective consciousness. Most of the story is rendered through Billy’s eyes. As the elliptical plot develops, we jump around with him, travelling seemingly at random in time and in space, seeing what he sees, being where (and when) he is, experiencing the universe as he does, with the same wonder, trepidation and confusion.
Billy is "spastic in time." He is in a constant state of anxiety because he never knows what part of his life he will visit next. We learn, early on, that Billy was the sole survivor of a plane crash in 1968 in which all of his fellow travelers died. He has sustained a head injury, which brings about a dramatic change in his personality. He becomes desperate to preach the gospel of time travel, which he has learned from the Tralfamadorians, a race of aliens who look like "plumber's friends" and who communicate telepathically. The Tralfamadorians had abducted Billy, we are told, a year before the plane crash. Then they took him to their planet, where they put him in a zoo and mated him with a beautiful young porn star named Montana Wildhack.
All very far out, of course, especially in contrast to some of the stark elements of realism in the sections of the novel depicting the war. In the larger scheme of the work the alien-abduction subplot represents only a fraction of the entire narrative. Time-travel, on the other hand, is ubiquitous, both as a feature of the story and as a storytelling device—it justifies the elliptical narrative, making Billy’s “spastic” journeys to key episodes in his life central to the novel’s structure and also accounting for his feeling of utter powerlessness. Most of the narrative consists of Billy Pilgrim's war-time experiences before and after he lives through the horrendous fire-bombing of Dresden, and almost as large a portion is given over to his years after the war, first in convalescence in a V.A. psychiatric ward in 1948, and then as a "respectable" member of his community in the years leading up to his personality change two decades later.
This is the point where we enter Billy's story, in medias res, when he has become an embarrassment to family and friends by going onto radio shows in the middle of the night to preach the gospel of time travel. It is also the point, more or less, where we exit the novel. In between the bookends of this constant, unalterable present, we jump around through time with Billy, spastically visiting the defining moments of his life wholly out of sequence—chronologically, that is, not dramatically. The ordering of these moments appears to be arbitrary, unpredictable, but the novel's dramatic progression is perfectly balanced.
An important key to how the Tralfamadorian elements of the novel can be read on a plausibly realistic level comes in the first section that deals with Billy's convalescence in the V.A. hospital, when he meets the protagonist of one of Vonnegut’s other novels.
The man assigned to the bed next to Billy's was a former infantry captain named Eliot Rosewater. Rosewater was sick and tired of being drunk all the time.
Billy's crisis is also the author's. It took Vonnegut more than twenty years to write his “famous war book,” as the author sardonically calls the work many thought would never materialize—twenty years of reliving the same experiences, trying to find a way to make sense of the whole mess. The story of Billy Pilgrim became his vehicle, and the questions raised by this story are ultimately Vonnegut’s own. How does one go on living, how does one find meaning in life, after witnessing one of the worst, not to mention one of the most senseless massacres in human history? How does a person conduct himself? Is it possible to live a "normal life" after such an experience, going through the routines of job, family, community? What is there to do, and what is there to say? These are questions, the author reveals, that have no meaningful or satisfying answers. The novel "is so short and jumbled and jangled," the author-narrator admits in his unorthodox first chapter, "because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything again."
In Billy's spastic story, time-travel almost always occurs during moments of intense physical strain or psychological trauma, as in one passage that recounts how he is forced to wait for days in an overloaded boxcar before being delivered to a German P.O.W. camp:
Even though Billy’s train wasn’t moving, its boxcars were locked tight. Nobody was to get off until the final destination. To the guards who walked up and down the outside, each car became a single organism which ate, drank and excreted through its ventilators. It talked or sometimes yelled through its ventilators, too. In went water and loaves of blackbread and sausage and cheese and out came shit and piss and language.
Human beings in there took turns standing or lying down. The legs of those who stood were like fence posts driven into a warm, squirming, farting, sighing earth. The queer earth was a mosaic of sleepers who nestled like spoons.
Here and throughout the novel time-travel mirrors the non-linear nature of thought processes, and memory, not to mention the psychology of denial, where a present or recollected moment of despair finds escape through a transforming imagination. Billy's Tralfamadorian mate, the voluptuous Montana Wildhack, makes most sense as the product of such a coping mechanism. She is an adolescent's dream mate. And Billy, as his name implies, is the perennial adolescent, a case of arrested development—the utterly unheroic hero of a work subtitled "The Children's Crusade." At one point in the novel Billy is drawn into a pornography shop by the lure of some Kilgore Trout novels placed in the display window to give the shop a touch of respectability. He then notices a bin of pornographic magazines. "Billy looked at one out of the corner of his eye, and he saw this question on its cover. What really became of Montana Wildhack?"
Nothing is spelled out, only suggested. The science fiction fantasy world into which Billy Pilgrim has slipped, for escape, is inspired by the writings of Kilgore Trout. (A similar fate befalls the protagonist of Vonnegut’s next novel, Breakfast of Champions; the highly unstable and impressionable Dwayne Hoover reads a Kilgore Trout novel and—on the basis of this novel’s premise—becomes convinced that every creature on earth with the exception of himself is a machine, which sets him on a violent rampage.) Montana Wildhack’s involvement in Billy’s escapist fantasy as his unlikely mate is the associative result of this moment, when the three frames of reference—Trout, Pilgrim and Wildhack—meet in the pornography shop.
So the question remains. Is Slaughterhouse Five a work of science fiction? Or is it something else altogether—a mutant strain of realism? The best answer is relativistic, but also truest to the spirit of the work. The novel is both and neither simultaneously. It is something unto itself that contains either possibility while transcending both of them.
Such ambiguity may help to explain the novel’s enormous critical and popular success. Built into the very fabric of the work are two plausible readings that are not necessarily self-canceling. This constellation of plausible interpretive possibilities is part of the work’s tremendous allure. We find it mirrored rhetorically in the provocative opening line to Billy's tale, when the narrator says to us, simply: “Listen:” Thus begins the fractured tale of Billy Pilgrim. In its very simplicity, this opening line is multiply, tantalizingly suggestive. Listen. Is it a whisper in the dark? Or a con man's hook line? A desperate exhortation? Or the beginning of a Jeremiad, to be boomed from a mountain top? It is precisely the open-endedness of this technique that grabs our attention and leaves us puzzling over its meaning.
This element of indeterminacy, reinforced at every turn throughout the work, has also established Slaughterhouse Five as a seminal—perhaps even a defining—work of postmodern fiction. For obvious reasons we often stumble over ourselves when we try to define the essence of the postmodern. Part of the difficulty is that we’re still in the midst of it. Postmodernity is not a movement. It is something closer to a profound shift in sensibility that affects how we view art and culture and ourselves in relation to both of them. We may find it hard to agree on a single overarching definition of the postmodern. But we know it when we see it. And we see it—exploding our traditional notions of life, art, history and meaning—in the novel Slaughterhouse Five.
Steven Hartman is a Program Fellow at the New York State Writers Institute.