Diagnosing Billy Pilgrim: On Tom Roston’s ‘The Writer’s Crusade’

November 22, 2021 | 6 books mentioned 7 min read

covercover

1. A couple of months ago, when I was feeling stuck in a revision of the novel I’ve been working on for too long, I decided to reread Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Slaughterhouse-Five. My reasons for rereading were a writer’s reasons. I was having trouble balancing speculative and realistic elements in my novel and I wanted to see how Vonnegut did it. Vonnegut was one of my favorite writers in my teen years, someone I read and re-read, but at some point in my 20s, I stopped reading him. When I picked up Slaughterhouse-Five, my memories of the book were vague. I knew Vonnegut would use the device of time travel to tell the story of his experiences in World War II; he was taken as a prisoner of war and survived the bombing of Dresden, Germany. I also knew, from Charles Shields’s biography of Vonnegut, And So It Goes, that it was a difficult novel for Vonnegut to write, one he approached from many different angles over two decades. And so, pencil in hand, I opened the book in an analytic spirit, hoping to learn a thing or two from a great writer.

If you’ve read the book recently, you may guess what happened: I pretty much dropped the pencil after a couple of pages. Everything about the book surprised me; it was almost as if I’d never encountered it before. I had completely forgotten that the first chapter is told from the point of view of Vonnegut, the writer, and reads like a memoir. It’s all about how hard it is to write an autobiographical novel, and the misgivings Vonnegut has about turning his war experiences into an entertaining narrative. He claims to have written and discarded thousands of pages, and it feels true; he comes off as genuinely anxious and tired in a way that it surprisingly raw. But the thing that really startled me was Vonnegut’s depiction of Billy Pilgrim’s time travels.

For those of you unfamiliar with the structure of Slaughterhouse-Five, I will quote from the book I’m supposed to be reviewing—and will eventually get to, I promise—Tom Roston’s The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut and the Many Lives of Slaughterhouse-Five:

Vonnegut writes the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five as if it’s nonfiction, but then the next nine chapters are about a fictional character, Billy Pilgrim, who travels in time and is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, and whose war experiences loosely parallel Vonnegut’s, all of which makes it metafiction, meaning it upends the conventional fictional narrative by blurring the line between the author and the story being told.

Pilgrim’s time travel, combined with the metafictional aspects, are what give Slaughterhouse-Five its extraordinary power. On a storytelling level, the time travel element allows Vonnegut the writer to escape the bonds of linear narrative. I believe he needed to do that for this particular book because he could not bring himself to write a story about a massacre of human life that followed the laws of cause and effect. Instead of building momentum around the question of Pilgrim’s survival, Vonnegut shapes the novel around Pilgrim’s traumatic memory of the bombing of Dresden, inching closer and closer to it until the final chapter, when we get the full picture of what happened to Pilgrim during the war, and why he was never the same afterward.

As a teenager, I took the time travel elements in Slaughterhouse-Five literally and enjoyed them as funny sci-fi elements. Reading it as an adult, Billy’s time traveling immediately struck me as tragic, a symptom of deep trauma. I felt I was in the company of a man so haunted by terrifying memories that he was unable to settle into the present. It’s possible that I’m still taking Vonnegut too literally, reading his characterization of Billy as early reporting on what we now call PTSD. But the parallels are quite eerie.

Here’s Vonnegut, describing Billy’s state of mind, in an opening chapter:

Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next.

And here’s a passage from Bessel van der Kolk’s bestselling study of trauma, The Body Keeps the Score:

Dissociation is the essence of trauma. The overwhelming experience is split off and fragmented, so that the emotions, sounds, images, thoughts, and physical sensations related to trauma take on a life of their own. The sensory fragments of memory intrude into the present, where they are literally relived.

And here’s Roston, again, describing how Vonnegut uses time travel in Slaughterhouse-Five:

By splintering reality, time, memory, and Pilgrim’s identity, Vonnegut aestheticized one of the primary effects of trauma, dissociation, in which there is a disconnection or lack of continuity between one’s thoughts.

coverOne of the most remarkable things about Slaughterhouse-Five is its ending. The war is over, but there are anonymous, brutal deaths right up to the very end. Then, a bird tweets in Billy’s direction and the book ends. There’s no emotional catharsis for Billy, and no feeling of victory for the reader. This was as Vonnegut intended. In a preface to a special edition of Slaughterhouse-Five, (included in the Library of America’s collected Vonnegut, Novels & Stories, 1963-1973), Vonnegut rejects the idea that he gained any knowledge from his war experience. In witnessing the firebombing of Dresden he says he “learned only that people become so enraged in war that they will burn great cities to the ground and slay the inhabitants thereof.”

2. When I finished Slaughterhouse-Five, I found myself wondering if Billy Pilgrim could be understood as having PTSD, and to what extent Vonnegut might have suffered from it. That’s how I happened upon journalist Tom Roston’s new book about Slaughterhouse-Five, one in a series of “books about books” published by Abrams Press. In The Writer’s Crusade, Roston argues that Slaughterhouse-Five was ahead of its time, and that “our views of its central themes—war, trauma, and the delicate act of telling war stories—have finally caught up with Vonnegut’s accomplishment, allowing us to see it, and the author, more clearly.” Roston structures his analysis of Vonnegut’s novel around the question of “whether or not Slaughterhouse-Five can be used as evidence of its author’s undiagnosed PTSD.” Although Roston poses the question sincerely to people who knew Vonnegut, it’s also a useful rhetorical device, and one that leads him down different research paths as he delves into Vonnegut’s notes and early drafts and talks with Vonnegut scholars, trauma experts, psychologists, and veterans who have personal experience with PTSD.

In structuring his book, which is a mixture of literary criticism, biography, and a cultural history of PTSD, Roston borrows from Slaughterhouse-Five, with an opening chapter that reflects on the process of writing and researching The Writer’s Crusade, and his ambitions for it. Roston recounts a reporting lead that he chased for some time, hoping to uncover a secret side of Vonnegut. But it’s hard to break news on a writer whose novels, particularly Slaughterhouse-Five, have been combed over by two generations of critics and hundreds of thousands of readers. Reading Slaughterhouse-Five through the lens of psychological trauma is also not a new angle. Roston notes that as early as 1974, the literary critic Arnold Edelstein describe Pilgrim’s time travel as a “neurotic fantasy” to help cope with the trauma of war.

No writer wants to be diagnosed through his work, and perhaps the best thing that Roston does in his book is to give context to the question of whether Slaughterhouse-Five is an autobiographical portrait of Vonnegut’s own war trauma. Roston writes in depth about the novel itself and how it came to be written, including the nitty-gritty of Vonnegut’s literary career before he became famous for Slaughterhouse-Five. (One of my favorite details from this section was just how lucrative the short story market used to be; Vonnegut supported his family on short stories, and even bought a house in Cape Cod.) Roston also provides a history of war trauma and how our understanding of it has evolved over the years. Although the negative psychological effects of war have been observed since ancient times, the symptoms of PTSD were not defined until the late 1970s, when it became apparent that many Vietnam veterans were having difficult adapting to civilian life. In 1980, PTSD was added to the DSM-III, and has now become so well-known that that people refer to it in casual conversation to describe any number of symptoms in the wake of traumatic events. Roston calls it as “the signature mental disorder of our age” and tries to untangle its popular definition from its clinical one. He also brings in the expertise of veteran-writers, such as Tim O’Brien, as well as veterans with an affinity for Vonnegut’s work. He wants to hear how they interpret Slaughterhouse-Five, given their experiences with war and trauma.

It’s with the help of a veteran that Roston finally attempts to diagnose Billy Pilgrim and Vonnegut, using a Veterans Affairs-issued PTSD screener. He brings many voices into the discussion, including Vonnegut’s children, literary critics, psychiatrists, and Vonnegut himself. Billy, being a fictional character, is elusive. Vonnegut, even more so. Those who knew him personally have varying opinions as to the extent of his war trauma and whether it falls under the diagnostic rubric of PTSD. Certainly, Vonnegut could be diagnosed with the loose, popular definition of the term. Speaking for himself, Vonnegut did not regard himself as someone with PTSD, and did not see Billy Pilgrim as an alter ego. In interviews later in life, Vonnegut revealed that Billy was loosely based on a private he knew in war, who died of malnutrition a few weeks before the war ended because—it seemed to Vonnegut—he had lost the will to live after witnessing so much senseless violence. Nor did Vonnegut conceive of the time travel element as a way of representing the symptoms of PTSD. Instead, he saw it as a comic device to lighten the heavy mood of the book. (So, my adolescent reading wasn’t totally stupid.) Roston doesn’t argue with Vonnegut’s analysis, but he does observe that at least some of Vonnegut’s reluctance to dwell on the past is generational. Vonnegut may have gotten in touch with war buddies and made his share of desperate late-night phone calls—as detailed in the opening chapter in of Slaughterhouse-Five—but he wasn’t visiting the VA for help. “To the best of my knowledge,” Roston writes, “Vonnegut never sat in a room with a VA-organized group of veterans to process his feelings.”

coverVonnegut also avoided overly autobiographical interpretations of Slaughterhouse-Five because he didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a writer traumatized by war, or as someone whose impulse to write was related to his war trauma—and anyone who looks at his life and work can see that this isn’t the case. But Slaughterhouse-Five is a special book. To say that it is Vonnegut’s most personal doesn’t seem quite right, in part because I don’t know Vonnegut personally. (If I had to guess, I’d pick Cat’s Cradle as the book closest to his heart.) After re-reading it, and reading Roston’s book, I think it’s actually the novel that has the least to do with Vonnegut. In the strange way of great works of art, it escapes the confines of Vonnegut’s autobiography as well as the PTSD diagnosis. Maybe it even eludes war and instead speaks to a feeling of bewildered pain that is universal to all human beings when confronted with violence. The flights to Tralfalmadore feel like a way to get some distance from the psychic mess we’re all in on this planet. Roston concludes as much in his final analysis: “As much as I’ve tried to pull out the threads on Slaughterhouse-Five to determine its relationship to war trauma, a book can never be just one thing.”

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of Home Field. Her short stories have appeared in The Southern Review, The North American Review, The Chattahoochee Review, and Visions, among others. She writes about movies on her blog, Thelma and Alice and thelmaandalicesubstack.com. Read more at hannahgersen.com or sign up for her newsletter here.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.