As a young person, I read virtually everything by Kurt Vonnegut and I took it completely at face value that in Slaughterhouse-Five Billy Pilgrim had come unstuck in time. I accepted that he toggled between periods in his life, including his time as the male half of a human pair in a zoo on the planet of Tralfamadore. It wasn’t until graduate school when someone casually mentioned, “Billy Pilgrim’s psychosis due to war trauma, particularly from the firebombing of Dresden” that I questioned the legitimacy of Billy’s temporal fluidity.
Ditto Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato. I rooted for Cacciato to make his way to France, via Vietnam, and believed narrator Paul Berlin that the squad was making a good faith effort to find (or emulate) their socially-awkward comrade. Again, the idea that Cacciato’s escape represents a fantasy invented by Berlin to mask his war trauma didn’t occur to me until someone else made this argument.
Of course I understood that both these novels intend to incite disgust at war in their readers, that they use ironic absurdity to reveal the mutually-constructed horror and stupidity of war. As Vonnegut writes:
“[There] is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.
And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet?“
But I nevertheless went along with the authors’ uses of magical realism techniques (in the case of O’Brien) and fictionalizing of relativity (in the case of Vonnegut).
And upon reflection, I’m fine with my credulous response to these (and other) novels. Yes, it tickles my brain to think about the symbolism within fiction, and I even wrote a whole dissertation on thematic and formal representations of war trauma. But I also believe that within fantasy, science fiction, speculative fiction, and other genres there can exist a truth that straightforward realism beats you over the head with, or buries in such subtlety you miss it, or cannot render entirely within its own generic constraints.
Vonnegut says something valuable about the horrific firebombing of Dresden in the “just” World War II by having his protagonist come unstuck in time, as does O’Brien with Cacciato’s oh-so-sweet attempt to flee Vietnam. Reading these aspects of the novels as traumatic psychosis from war trauma alone renders the anti-war arguments as limited to the effects of war on individual soldiers’ psyches. The magic, the science fiction, these literary choices enable these authors to make deeper, larger points about the wars they’re writing about, and war in general.
This principal of symbolism-through-genre-tropes functions in these two novels to make a point about war but other authors deploy it to explore gender or structural racism or the nature of narrative itself. By embedding fantastic elements, authors can make more expansive arguments about their subject without beating readers over the heads with it.
- Fantasy/magic books grounded or with a toe into the real world;
- Interesting, but not-gimicky playing with literary form;
- Stories about grief and trauma that come at the subject slant .