On the Bookshelf: ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ – The Manipulation of Structure

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For those who aren’t familiar with Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, it is touted as one of the greatest American novels as well as one of the greatest anti-war novels. Whatever opinion you may hold on war in general, or more controversially Kurt Vonnegut, it was a remarkably inventive novel. An offbeat dark comedy satirizing the struggle of a veteran turned professional writer attempting to chronicle his experience of the war; (specifically, the Dresden bombing,) all with an innovative approach (or a F*&% you) to the standard structure of the novel. What I want to discuss is not the subject matter of Slaughterhouse Five but its use of structure in the book as a literary device.

Structure is the often forgotten, often neglected, red-headed-step-child of literary devices. Writers are aware of its existence and its importance in creating the overall theme of a novel, but seldom is it ever used or considered (effectively anyway) outside conventional forms. Usually, the focus is on diction, syntax, character development, irony, metaphors, etc., which is what makes Vonnegut’s heavy (and very effective) reliance on format so innovative.

Slaughterhouse Five is a brazen deviation from the ever-popular Joseph Campbell “Hero’s Journey” format. He is not a pioneer in experimenting with structure, but he did take that experimentation to the next level with Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut masterfully manipulates the novel’s time-space continuum with the plot’s organization.

Without too much of a spoiler, the protagonist is a war veteran and a time traveler. The novel’s structure is crafted around the premise that time is ever shifting and mutable. Vonnegut uses this premise as the catalyst to shift the focus from one story to another story throughout the protagonist’s lifetime at any moment, with or without indication. My summation of it may serve to make it sound lackadaisical, but it yields some of the most intricate and strategic organization I have ever seen. Transitions between time periods are executed seamlessly. I never felt hopelessly lost in the telling of the story. However, there were times where I found myself so immersed in one particular story that when a transition occured, I forgot why the previous had begun, and what it was building off of. In this way, I felt my confusion was intentionally incepted by Vonnegut. In this way, the seemingly loose organization and structure of time echo that of the protagonists’ struggles with time and serve as the bedrock of relatability. The structure is a blueprint that exemplifies the fleetingness and aimlessness of time that the protagonist feels. The overall theme owes itself, mainly, to Vonnegut’s deviation of conventional structure and thus, structure, becomes one of the driving literary devices of Slaughterhouse Five.

Speaking of novels that push the acceptability of a story’s structural integrity, I’d like to elucidate the novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by, my personal favorite, Milan Kundera. The author refers to this book as, “a novel in the form of variations.” Kundera experiments with the stereotypical structure of what makes a novel – unity by plot. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is made up of seven unrelated parts united only by a common theme – laughter or forgetting. Literary conservatives might argue that this format is the definition of a compilation of short stories rather than one homogeneous novel. However, this is precisely the tradition that Kundera is challenging with The Book of Laughter and Forgetting – the mutable power of the novelistic form to adapt variations. Traditionally, what defines a novel is long synthetic prose. The intangible constraint that has seemingly birthed the rigid expectations surrounding the structure of a novel is popularity. Popularity guides conformity, as this is the requirement for marketability. Suddenly, we find the market saturated with the same story, devoid of imagination and teeming with repetition.

Hence, I tip my hat to authors like Kurt Vonnegut and Milan Kundera for pushing boundaries and opening doors.

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The Loss Legacy of First-World Writers

I want to share an inner monologue I had while reading Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.  As an aspiring writer gauging the merit of an established writer, this may come off as extremely self-deprecating, but this is not my intention.

I am committed to Kundera’s “legacy”. His is an apogee I may never surmount. Realistically, I thought about the level of greatness I was aspiring towards; Kundera, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Nabokov. Perhaps, my generation of aspiring writers is innately impaired. More than that, perhaps aspiring American writers (or any first-world aspiring writers) are aiming for a pinnacle that has closed its gates to us entirely. This concept stemmed from a very simple question.

What makes greatness?

First, let me establish what I perceive to be greatness versus legacy in terms of writers. The words are interchangeable, but for the sake of this argument they will take slightly different meanings.

To be considered a great writer is to be universally and timelessly acknowledged and lauded by fellow writers and academia in the field of literature, writing, and language. To have a legacy is to be withstanding throughout time, to be a milestone perhaps, but not necessarily recognized among peers or academia as a “Master of the Word”. Greatness is achieved through a prolific body or lifetime of work. Legacy can be achieved through one work that has a short burst of popularity that fifty years later might not ever be mentioned again. A distinguishing difference is that greatness is elected through popular vote and academia, whereas legacy is usually only popular vote (i.e., Twilight maintains popular vote, but the academia would not consider Stephanie Meyer a prolific or masterful writer, only an entertaining one.)

“Legacy” has another meaning; the sum of an entire lifetime’s work passed down through time. I know this gets confusing as I use this definition of the word in my opening paragraph to speak to Milan Kundera’s body of work and what it represents. Legacy is not necessarily accompanied by greatness. From here on I will use the words as I have defined them.

So, I pose again: What makes greatness?

After much deliberation over this question, this is what I came up with – experience. A writer that writes from experience or has experience to pen into their work is chapters ahead of the writer who only has imagination.

I am not discrediting imagination. It is impossible to be a successful writer without imagination, and some will argue that all writing is fundamentally based on imagination. I am not denying this or disagreeing with this. However, a writer that has experience has a perspective that one cannot imagine, simply because it is real. The reality comes through, sometimes subtly, in the diction, in the stylistic choices, in the vibrating passion underlying words.

Kundera experienced exile; Tolstoy experienced war. Perhaps the barrier between greatness and legacy is experience but also the timing of that experience. What macro hardship does the American author have to endure in this modern era? Most of a developed nation’s issues are reflections of internal or “micro issues” such as finding identity, finding happiness, finding love; certainly not revolution, famine or exile. Specifically, in America culture, we are in an era of tolerance. There is no real all encompassing dissidence. Americans are allowed to think and say whatever they please, and if everyone in the world disagrees with you – you cannot be persecuted, you cannot be silenced. There is no punishment; there is no consequence. (Note: Holes that I can foresee in this argument include the microaggressions and continued discriminations towards African-Americans and homosexuals. I want to make reference to these as to not seem callous but also as to why I do not consider these in this argument. I consider the struggles of the American homosexual or African-American “micro” in the global scheme of things. In America, despite skin color or sexual orientation, everyone may live with the option or potential of luxury and privilege. People who suffer from discrimination in America still have it infinitely better than in certain African or Eastern European countries.)

All the American, or first-world writer, has to offer the novel are stories about experienced micro issues and imagined macro situations. These imagined situations will be, even in the most subtle ways, evident in the novel. What makes macro situations greater than micro situations? Scope. A level of scope and understanding that cannot be imagined, only experienced. Here lies the fundamental difference between what establishes greatness.

Perhaps I will never achieve the pinnacle of Kundera because I have no understanding or experience of the macro situations that touch a nation, a world, and a people. Perhaps all first world writers are resigned to that same fate. We are born in the shadow of greatness because of the time and geographic location of our births.

Then my boyfriend derailed my dramatic train of thought by interjecting I was reaching for an excuse as to why I would fail. In which case, I have set myself up for failure before I even begin as talent isn’t confined to experience. What a killjoy… clearly he doesn’t understand that all I have are my first-world micro grievances. #FirstWorldProblems

Did Milan Kundera telegraph the advent of social media?

Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and lack of understanding.”

~Milan Kundera~

Referencing the last paragraph in the excerpt of Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, it appears that Kundera was telegraphing the advent of social media, but furthermore prognosticating the effects of such a cultural phenomenon. There are parallels between Kundera’s coined “graphomania” on his generation and the effects of social media on our generation.

As described in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting “graphomania” is:

Graphomania (an obsession with writing books) reinforces and aggravates the feelings of general isolation in that everyone surrounds himself with his own writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from without.”

In this abstract concept, Kundera is speaking to the universal and timeless human quality – self-preservation. Though this instinct is inextricably part of humanity’s DNA, civilization and technology have re-wired the human brain so that it functions more akin to self-obsession. The concept of self-obsession is motivated by something even more powerful that instinct – ego.

Freud’s notoriety was based entirely off of the ego. Likewise, so is Mark Zuckerberg’s and all his precursors.

As in Kundera’s generation, housewives needed to xerox their diaries to create the “Wall of Mirrors” ( this is just a tangible example, I harbor no hidden agenda against housewives). In this millennial generation, everyone has a “Wall of Status Updates and Pictures”.

Everyone wants a Facebook, a Twitter, a Tumblr, an Instagram, or a WordPress (guilty as charged). Social media has evolved from a means of mass social connectivity to a self-contained empire breeding and gratifying selfishness. We post pictures and write statuses about the most important life events, such as a death or a birth of a child; and the most mundane, what we ate for lunch or where we ate it. These “posts” or “tweets” allow our “followers” (Followers? Have we just regressed 100 years in history?) to envy, ogle, follow, and “like” you.

One could argue that postings on social media sites allow us to stay connected with loved ones through distance. Sure, that is one possibility for social media, but to the person that argues this point I pose another question.

How often do you check your families social media pages or your friends’? Once, twice a day? Or perhaps only when it pops up in your newsfeed as you are scrolling through your mobile app waiting in line at Starbucks. That sounds more accurate for the majority of my generation, again, guilty as charged.

Here is the conundrum: we expect to post a photo and receive at least several (definition of “several” subject to interpretation) “likes”, “comments”, or “re-tweets”. If this quota is not met, we are deemed unpopular on social media, and a correlation is made to our popularity in “real” life.

In this instance, we have failed at becoming immortalized and run the risk of being erased from the pages of history entirely. We as humans must leave our immutable mark.

Failing to become immortalized through our “photos” and “statuses” provokes us to populate another’s social media page. We “like” and “double tap”, and “comment” in hopes that the other party will reciprocate, thus immortalizing you on your social media page.

Kundera describes this fear, inspired by the ego, as the primary motivation for his generation wanting to become writers and surrounding themselves with their “Wall of Mirrors”, i.e., graphomania. For Kundera, he saw these desires in the form of words. In our technological generation, we see traces of this desire in the form of “likes” and “re-tweets”.

It sounds much more like a self-serving cycle than genuine communication with another person, doesn’t it? We may have gone into creating our social media pages with intentions of sincere communication, but this is not where we, as a culture, have arrived. Where we have arrived is indicative of mass isolation, universal deafness, and at times, lack of understanding, exactly what Kundera foretold.

“Graphomania” is a familiar concept to millennials. We call it “Facebooking”.

On the Bookshelf: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

On the agenda is Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

Full Disclosure: I am a HUGE Kundera fan. This article is NOT a book review (because if Kundera writes it, merit is not in question) but more a reflection of his unique penmanship.

If you are not familiar with any of Kundera’s works, then this is a tragedy. There is no amount of essays or reviews to help you understand the essence of his work, except, to read it. Understanding is the task I have proposed to undertake since first reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I will speak more of that novel in another entry. Today’s focus is on The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

One thing has become abundantly clear to me as I try to keep up with his poetically abstract prose from page-to-page – he is a philosopher. Kundera has the uncanny ability to craft an entire novel around a series of abstractions. His novel and story arcs are propelled forward (or backward) more by his character’s emotional metamorphoses (usually illustrated through internal monologs) rather than by plot or dialog. Not to say there isn’t plot. The events that incite these mental or emotional epiphanies are usually small, brief, and somewhat insignificant in that they are only necessary as a transitory catalyst from which the real “plot” may happen.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is divided into seven parts that speak to three different story arcs.

His style introduces an abstract concept pretty much within each small segment of a part of the novel (which is a LOT of abstractions since most of these segments are only 2-5 pages long). He makes his argument for the character’s emotional state of mind very quickly, then introduces an abstraction, much as a metaphor or conceit. He then relates it back to the character’s state of mind, making it tangible, then turns it back into an abstraction just beyond the scope of the reader’s grasp. The latter may be attributed to my ignorance in philosophy and many of the other literary works he cites or borrows his abstractions from, but I like to think he does this intentionally – with a smug half-smile.

Kundera also does something very unconventional in this book that I have not seen in my readings of The Unbearable Lightness of Being or Identity. In an entirely third person telling of the stories, he randomly inserts his first person perspective. This literary technique goes against every type of writing I’ve ever been taught. However, he employs this change in perspective so naturally, that the rhythm of the story is enhanced by it! The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a strange conglomeration of autobiography, literary criticism, fiction, and political statement – but it works!

For emphasis, I will post an excerpt from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Bear in mind that some of the effects may be lost if you haven’t read this book since this particular excerpt is taken from the middle. However, I chose this passage because the amount of damage and exposition required on my part is minimal as compared to other excerpts I could choose. Also, this is (in my opinion) one of the fewer abstruse abstractions, and one the aspiring writer (as myself) can relate.

Key:

  • Tamina – Main character in this story arc / bartender
  • Hugo – Bar patron
  • Banaka – Local writer
  • Graphomania – Unfortunately, this is another abstraction he coins earlier in the novel, which is eloquently introduced and explained, and crucial to understanding the abstraction of this excerpt. I will butcher and consolidate that eloquence in the spirit of the larger picture
    • Graphomania is not a desire to write letters, diaries, or family chronicles (to write for oneself or one’s immediate family); it is a desire to write books (to have a public of unknown readers). Graphomania (an obsession with writing books) reinforces and aggravates the feelings of general isolation in that everyone surrounds himself with his writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from outside.
  • Personal diaries – Tamina’s main goal is to retrieve a package of love letters between her and her dead husband from the Russian occupied Czechoslovakia.
  • Bibi – A friend of Tamina’s and an aspiring writer and a protege of Banaka.
  • I – Kundera is referring to himself in the first person.

Several days later Banaka turned up at the cafe dead drunk. He sat on a bar stool, fell off twice, climbed back up twice, ordered a Calvados, and then put his head down on the counter. Tamina noticed he was crying.

“What’s the matter, Mr. Banaka?” she asked him.

Banaka looked up at her tearfully and pointed to his chest. “I’m nothing, do you understand? Nothing. I don’t exist!”

Then he went to the men’s room and from there straight outside without paying.

When Tamina told Hugo about it, he showed her a page of newsprint with several book reviews including a short note on Banaka’s works – four lines of ridicule.

The episode of Banaka pointing to his chest and crying out of existential anguish reminds me of a line from Goethe’s West-East Divan: “Is one man alive when others are alive?” Deep within Goethe’s query lies the secret of the writer’s creed. By writing books, the individual becomes a universe ( we speak of the universe of Balzac, the universe of Chekov, the universe of Kafka, do we not?). And since the principal quality of a universe is its uniqueness, the existence of another universe constitutes a threat to its very essence.

Two shoemakers can live together in perfect harmony (provided their shops are not on the same block). But once they start writing books on the lot of the shoemaker, they will begin to get in each other’s way; they will start to wonder, Is one shoemaker alive when others are alive?

Tamina feels that the eyes of a single outsider are enough to destroy the worth of her personal diaries, while Goethe thinks that if a single individual fails to set eyes on his lines, that individual calls his- Goethe’s -entire existence into question. The difference between Tamina and Goethe is the difference between human being and writer.

A person who writes books is either all ( a single universe for himself and everyone else) or nothing. And since all will never be given to anyone, every one of us who writers books is nothing. Ignored, jealous, deeply wounded, we wish the death of our fellow man. In that respect we are all alike: Banaka, Bibi, Goethe, and I.

The proliferations of mass graphomania among politicians, cab drivers, mistresses, murderers, prostitutes, and doctors proves to me that every individual without exception bears a potential writer within himself and that all mankind has every right to rush out into the streets with a cry of, “We are all Writers!”

The reason is that everyone has trouble accepting the fact he will disappear unheard of and unnoticed in an indifferent universe, and everyone wants to make himself into a universe of words before its too late.

Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and lack of understanding.

The abstractions, “graphomania” and Goethe’s posed question of, “is one man alive while others are alive?”, are presented plainly. Banaka’s emotional state is illustrated and the reason – a bad book review. That is the action or inciting plot device I spoke about earlier in this article. It isn’t much, and one could not base an entire chapter on this small interaction without it being trite and forced. It doesn’t appear to be much of anything, yet Kundera uses this external communication (the inciting catalyst) and cohesively relates and propels the character’s of this arc, namely, Banaka, Tamina, Kundera (as he places himself throughout this novel in a pseudo-autobiographical way), and Bibi, into their evolved state.

Kundera is illustrating several things here. 1) the tribulations of a writer 2) speaking about a generation of selfishness 3) the struggles of wanting to become immortalized among fellow writer and human alike specifically through words 4) posing and answering the question of legacy of a writer, i.e., can one great author exist at the time of another 5) explaining the fundamental similarities and juxtaposition of a single isolated human, Tamina who wants her letters for private reasons, and a immortalized writer, Goethe who writes to immortalize himself in the public, yet both are completely alone.

While relating these abstractions to his character’s, he is also posing new abstract questions, though not necessarily in questions, and this is how he can end on an abstraction while keeping the segment cohesive and inclusive. All these minor abstractions amass to the scope of his story – the greater abstraction!

Brilliance!

His style is comparable to Wong Kar-Wai’s style of filmmaking – abstract, beautiful, pioneering. Of course, Kundera, as well as Wong Kar-Wai, have predecessors. Kundera’s style of writing, Wong Kar-Wai’s style of filmmaking, are not wholly original conceptions. However, their executions, are unique and coined exclusively theirs. They, as well as others like them, are making it acceptable to push the boundaries of traditional writing and filmmaking by making abstractions attainable and relatable to general audiences. No longer is the transcription of philosophers only for the minds of the bourgeois; this is the real landmark of our generation – the era of tolerance and accessibility.

I am in awe and in envy of this talent. Of course, Kundera’s style and technique vary from novel to novel, but three novels into his volumes he has been able to blow my mind with his methodology. An author’s work is constantly evolving. It seems Kundera is gradually working and re-working this unique style of writing in and about abstractions from book to book.