“And he’s given a regular trial, and then he’s shot by firing squad.” “Um,” said O’Hare. “Don’t you think that’s really where the climax should come?” “I don’t know anything about it,” he said. “That’s your trade, not mine.”
Before beginning Billy’s story, Vonnegut recounts his own experience of trying to write Slaughterhouse-Five. Here, he recalls a conversation between himself and his war buddy O’Hare, in which Vonnegut realized conventional storytelling techniques felt foolish and flimsy in the face of his horrible memories. Vonnegut realized he needed to find a way to tell his account of senseless violence that wasn’t tidy or mannered, but which existed as fragmented and jarring as the experience itself.
As a trafficker in climaxes and thrills and characterization and wonderful dialogue and suspense and confrontations, I had outlined the Dresden story many times. The best outline I ever made, or anyway the prettiest one, was on the back of a roll of wallpaper. I used my daughter’s crayons, a different color for each main character.
Here, still describing the events that lead to writing the novel, Vonnegut mocks the ineffectiveness of his artistic training. He throws all the technique he can muster at the tale of the Dresden bombing, and all he ends up with is some scribbled crayon on a sheet of wallpaper. This failure sets up one of the running themes of the story: the inadequacy of words in the face of the abject horror of murder.
People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore. I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun. This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.
Vonnegut references the Biblical tale of Lot’s wife, who looked back on her city’s destruction and was turned into salt. Vonnegut, too, felt a compulsion to look back. He knew doing so would alter him, and in describing himself as a pillar of salt, he acknowledges this change. Looking back put a strain on his humanity. Like Billy, his trauma disconnects him from life—but, like Lot’s wife, he had to bear witness.
An American near Billy wailed that he had excreted everything but his brains. Moments later he said, “There they go, there they go.” He meant his brains. That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book.
Here, as Billy enters a prisoner camp, Vonnegut inserts himself into Billy’s story, describing himself as a nearby soldier violently losing his bowels. This self-portrait stands far from glamorous but speaks to Vonnegut’s determination to depict the awfulness honestly, even at his own expense. This meta-textual moment also bolsters the novel’s concept of a random, unforgiving universe: Even the “god” of this story’s world is reduced to wailing in a filthy outhouse.
The Population Reference Bureau predicts that the world’s total population will double to 7,000,000,000 before the year 2000.“I suppose they will all want dignity,” I said.
Vonnegut reads a list of facts and statistics about the world and finds that millions more people are on the way. By this point, he understands the painful conflict of human life: All human beings want dignity, but the universe is too random and unfeeling to award dignity to everybody. Vonnegut’s experiences taught him that some people will simply not have the life they feel they deserve.