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Kurt Vonnegut’s tone as he relates a conversation he had years earlier, as a young reporter in Chicago, with one of the newspaper’s reporter-writers to whom he dictated his story over the telephone, is purely “matter of fact.” That, indeed, is the tone Vonnegut used throughout Slaughterhouse Five, his part-memoir of World War II/part-fictional narrative about Billy Pilgrim, his alter-ego who came “unstuck in time.” Despite his description of this female writer as “one of those beastly girls” who performed much of the work while male colleagues were off at war, Vonnegut is entirely dispassionate in his description of the conversation. Assigned to report on the tragic death of a fellow veteran in an elevator accident, Vonnegut’s writing is completely straightforward as he relates the conversation during which the female colleague suggests he pretend to be with the police department for the purpose of getting a newsworthy quote from the victim’s spouse. After returning to the newspaper office, he is asked by the same female colleague to describe the victim’s remains after he was squashed by the elevator. Vonnegut describes the exchange this way:
“When I got back to the office, the woman writer asked me, just for her own
information, what the squashed guy had looked Eke when he was squashed.
I told her.
'Did it bother you?' she said. She was eating a Three Musketeers Candy Bar.
'Heck no, Nancy,' I said. 'I've seen lots worse than that in the war.'”
Vonnegut’s demeanor is consistent with the hardened approach to tragedy characteristic of those for whom violent death is, or has been, a way of life, and the fire-bombing of Dresden was as horrific a sight as one could witness, even in that particular war. It is the female reporter/writer’s demeanor, however, that leaves one a little disconcerted. She does not flinch from the graphic description Vonnegut provided; in fact, she is as hardened to the realities of life as the war veteran. That she apparently got that way while never leaving Chicago is, possibly, a testament to that city’s legacy.
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