Examine how a narrative we’ve looked at this term manipulates time.
Slaughterhouse Five: A Four Dimensional Book
Reality is hard enough for us to get our heads around. So narratives, such as novels, screenplays, poetry, newspaper reports, tend to be well-organised. Narrators, by and large, adhere to rules. They fulfil a reader’s expectations with a beginning, middle and end; resolutions and new equilibriums, because such rules enable the audience to engage with minimum effort. The adherence to such engrained rules means that, from an academic point of view, specific conventions jump out for consideration: Genre, Character, Form and Time. And when unpacking a narrative, time is of particular importance.
“The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today.” (Lewis Carroll, 1871) And indeed narratives tend not to take place in real-time. Real-time may telescope out, such as in A Bullet To The Brain, (Wolff, ) – which hones in on the last second of Ander’s life as a bullet moves through his head. It may telescope in, such as Ray (2004), whereby seventy years of life are condensed into a 150 minute film. There can be flashbacks, flash-forwards, real-time interludes, dream sequences, repetition, the pre-figuring of events yet to take place: all used to delicious excess by the producers of Lost (2001-2010).
Furthermore, there’s not just the time of the Story being told to consider. There is the time the piece is written, along with the time the piece is read. So many factors, yet Metz pairs it down, “...one of the functions of narrative is to invent one time scheme in terms of another time scheme.” And there are few cross-genre books that fulfil this function quite so definitively as Slaughterhouse Five (Vonnegut, 1969).
A combination of historical narrative and science fiction, Vonnegut invented a time scheme. And it was his very manipulation of time that facilitated the coherence of multiple and traditionally divergent themes. Few books have covered the breadth of subject matter in 157 pages: the annihilation of Dresden, the fabric of social reality in the 1960’s, the positing of a fatalistic alien-race who experience life in four dimensional space-time. On first glance Slaughterhouse Five is three books rolled into one. Desperately it needed a unifying theme. And crazily, perfectly, Vonnegut used time – or the absolute intransience of it – to pull the whole mad-arsed thing together.
The following essay will show how Vonnegut played so successfully with time via the use of a non-linear narrative, repetition, reversal of time and syntax, yet whilst maintaining a deep underlying chronology. Specifically, I will show how this manipulation mirrors exactly his quantum-physical concepts of the fourth dimension; fundamentally how Slaughterhouse Five, a ‘four dimensional book’, is typically post-modern. Furthermore I will show the importance of this quantum physical/post-modern slant – not only as a literary tool to provide cohesion, accessibility, the shock-factor. But maybe more importantly, as a psychotherapeutic vehicle for its author. Vonnegut had deep-rooted personal issues – Slaughterhouse Five allowed Vonnegut to make sense out of the madness – for the tiniest moment, he tied it all up in a neat four-dimensional bow. In conclusion, it will be shown how Vonnegut manipulated time as much for himself, as for the reader.
1. Vonnegut plays with time FOR LITERARY EFFECT in a number of ways throughout the book. Says he re-write and re-writes and the appearance of “post-modern randomness” in his work conceals a careful deployment of thematic images
2. The manipulation of time has a strong four-dimensional, quantum physical – THEREFORE POST-MODERN slant – bring in