Kurt Vonnegut on story shapes, writing with style, and running experiments

Recently I picked up Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut, part of the Literary Conversations Series from University Press of Mississippi. The collection offers interviews and profiles of Vonnegut published between 1969 and 1999. The first comes shortly after the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five. The subsequent rocket ride of literary stardom Vonnegut enjoyed—or endured—follows.

The collection seems rather complete, culling all manner of sources, right down to a softball Q&A with Harry Reasoner for 60 Minutes. The collection is enjoyable if light reading, much like many of Vonnegut’s books, but it still held a few surprises for me. (Apparently after the success of Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut contemplated throwing out Breakfast of Champions when he realized he could now sell any book he wrote no matter its quality.)

The more I learn about Vonnegut the more I’ve come to see how pragmatic he was when it came to the craft of writing. Vonnegut often lists Robert Louis Stevenson as one of his favorite authors because, as a boy, he was “excited by stories which were well-made. Real ‘story’ stories…with a beginning, middle, and end.” His essay “How to Write With Style” is advice of the roll-up-your-sleeves variety, featuring chestnuts like “Find a subject you care about” and “Keep it simple.” While teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop he led a course help students make a career out of writing after graduating—teaching, technical writing, ad copy, anything to put bread on the table. Apparently the course was not well-received by other faculty.

One popular meme is Vonnegut’s lecture on the shape of stories. The audience chortles as he chalks out curves and lines graphing a set of basic story structures. (Maya Eliam’s infographics of these shapes are lucid and wonderful.) Most likely many in the auditorium thought he was satirizing when he said story forms could be graphed mathematically or analyzed by a computer, but his lecture is in earnest. This was his master’s thesis in anthropology, after all.

In a 1977 interview with Paris Review—the most in-depth interview in the collection—Vonnegut drops a mention of his story shapes:

Vonnegut: Somebody gets into trouble, and then gets out again; somebody loses something and gets it back; somebody is wronged and gets revenge; Cinderella; somebody hits the skids and just goes down, down, down; people fall in love with each other, and a lot of other people get in the way…

Interviewer: If you will pardon my saying so, these are very old-fashioned plots.

Vonnegut: I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. … When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do.

The last sentence may be the most plainly spoken argument against the avant-garde I’ve read.

Vonnegut even compared writing novels to experiments, which I’ve explored myself. He felt experimentation was in his nature due to his education as a chemist and an engineer. (I believe this is the first time I’ve read another fiction writer describe creating fiction as a kind of experiment.) Here he talks with Laurie Clancy about Breakfast of Champions (still unpublished at this point):

Interviewer: Could you indicate what direction your new work is taking?

Vonnegut: It’s in the nature of an experiment. I don’t know how it’s going to come out or what the meaning’s going to be—but I’ve set up a situation where there’s only one person in the whole universe who has free will, who has to decide what to do next and why, has to wonder what’s really going on and what he’s supposed to do. … What the implications of this are I don’t know but I’m running off the experiment now. I’ll somehow have a conclusion when I’ve worked long enough on the book. … Regarding [God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater], I said to myself “Well, all right, what happens when you give poor people money?” So I ran the experiment off and tried to control it as responsibly as I could.

The Clancy interview is one of the best in the book. Vonnegut is engaged, thoughtful, and revelatory.

Twenty Writers: Kurt Vonnegut’s Bokononism in Cat’s Cradle

See the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” home page for more information on this series as well as a list of other books and authors


Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Scholars elevate Slaughterhouse-Five as Kurt Vonnegut’s greatest literary achievement. Readers gravitate toward the warm embrace of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. For me, Vonnegut’s masterpiece is Cat’s Cradle. It belongs on the shelf beside 1984 and Invisible Man as one of the great novels of the 20th century.

Yet it’s a crime to call Cat’s Cradle a novel when it’s so much more. It’s not so much a work of fiction as Vonnegut laying down brick-by-brick his idiosyncratic worldview. It’s a worldview he spent a lifetime attempting to communicate to his readership. I say “attempt” because I’m unsure Vonnegut will ever truly be widely understood. Scholars and readers will be decoding his work three hundred years from now…assuming there’s any life left on this planet.

Most summaries of Cat’s Cradle will home in on topics like nuclear annihilation, existentialism, the role of Big Science in postwar America, and postmodernism and metafiction. The book orbits around all those topics of course, but it’s primary concern is a fictional religion called Bokononism, possibly the only legitimate secular religion ever invented. Make no mistake: Vonnegut’s phony Bokononism is the heart of Cat’s Cradle. You can hear its theology beating on every page.

“Secular religion” comes off sounding pretentious and self-consciously contradictory. My “legitimate” qualifier does little to shore up my praise for Vonnegut’s work. I choose these words carefully.

For context, secular religions were a booming cottage industry in mid-twentieth century America. 1950s and 1960s America is often viewed (or derided) as orderly, pious, and gray. Look again; freshly-minted religions based on pseudo-psychiatry and pseudoscience flourished in the 1950s among the upper-middle- and upper-classes seeking release from restrictive Judeo-Christian morality. A decade later, their teenage children would likewise search for escape from their dreary petite bourgeois existence among the raft of America’s invented religions.

Consider Unitarian Universalism. Founded in 1961, it espouses “no shared creed” among its adherents and draws upon Western and Eastern religions of all stripes for guidance. Eckankar (1965) states its religion’s name means “co-worker with God” and teaches its adherents how to achieve out-of-body experiences.

More sinister additions to America’s theologically-loose religions are Scientology (1952), Synanon (1958), Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple (1955), The Process Church of the Final Judgment (1966), even Charles Manson’s Family—the list of so-called New Religions in post-World War II America is staggering.

(Yes, many of these so-called secular religions dabble with a higher power, but on closer inspection the theology is window-dressing for more earthly philosophies. For example, The Church of Satan does not believe in a supernatural Satan.)

Kurt Vonnegut, 1972.

This is the zeitgeist Vonnegut was writing into when he produced Cat’s Cradle in 1963. While he’s properly regarded as a satirist, his faux religion in Cat’s Cradle is not a literary device for poking fun at God or devotion. It should not be considered a parody-religion like The Church of the SubGenius or that Spaghetti Monster joke. The humorous tenets and terminology of Bokononism are laid-out with absolute dead-pan conviction—an earnest joke, the first open-source religion with the source code being Cat’s Cradle itself and the sacred communion being laughter. Vonnegut expected no one to convert to his religion, but it’s apparent he hoped his readers would at least take its teachings to heart. If they didn’t—well, so it goes.

The contradiction of Bokononism is not that it’s a secular religion. The contradiction is that it was proposed by an atheist who distrusted scientists as much as he distrusted clergy, a man who found consolation in, of all things, religion. The final sentence of Cat’s Cradle is the final sentence of the Books of Bokonon: “If I was a younger man, I would write a book about human stupidity.” Vonnegut did just that.

Call me Jonah

Cat’s Cradle opens with the narrator (“Call me Jonah”) at work on a non-fiction book called The Day the World Ended. It’s to be a collection of interviews with various famous people discussing what they were doing the day America dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima. In the course of making inquiries he’s introduced to the family of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, an absentminded scientist who worked on the A-bomb project. From there the narrator’s life begins to spin in crazy directions as he finds himself caught up in Caribbean politics, Big Science, a new form of water, and, of course, Bokononism, Vonnegut’s secular religion.

Big Science is represented in Cat’s Cradle by the research arm of the General Forge and Foundry Company, a stand-in for General Electric. There the narrator is introduced to one of Dr. Hoenikker’s lesser-known scientific discoveries: Ice-Nine, the most famous fictional device to emerge from Cat’s Cradle.

(Vonnegut briefly worked for GE in the 1950s. The character of Dr. Felix Hoenikker is based on a scientist employed there, Dr. Irving Langmuir, who died before the book was written.)

A single flake of Ice-Nine will “teach” all water it comes in contact with how to freeze and remain frozen at room temperature. Those water molecules will, in turn, teach all liquid water they come in contact with to freeze as well, and on and on. (Ice-Nine is real; the version Vonnegut describes is not.) Dr. Hoenikker thought he was solving a practical problem of allowing Marines to cross swamps and lakes without being mired down in the mud. However, if a molecule of Ice-Nine were to make contact with, say, the Pacific Ocean, it would teach all the water in the world to freeze and bring life on this planet to an end. Perverse outcomes due to the actions of well-meaning individuals is a common theme in Vonnegut’s work (Mother Night, Jailbird), and it’s certainly a healthy component of Cat’s Cradle.

Flag of San Lorenzo

While writing his book on the end of the world, the narrator travels to the fictional island of San Lorenzo to interview one of Dr. Hoenikker’s grown children who is now second-in-command of the entire island. There the narrator is introduced to Bokononism, a religion indigenous to San Lorenzo.

By Vonnegut’s own telling the religion started as a sham. It was concocted by two shipwrecked passengers during World War I in order to control the indigenous peoples of San Lorenzo. One of the passengers, a U.S. Marine deserter, made himself the dictatorial President of San Lorenzo while the other took the role of pauper-philosopher Bokonon, who began crafting his religion from whole cloth. The chain reaction of Ice-Nine “teaching” every molecule of water it touches to become more Ice-Nine mirrors the way Bokononism spreads.

As Vonnegut later remarked:

Q: Did the study of anthropology later color your writings?

Vonnegut: It confirmed my atheism, which was the faith of my fathers anyway. Religions were exhibited and studied as the Rube Goldberg inventions I’d always thought they were. We weren’t allowed to find one culture superior to any other. We caught hell if we mentioned races much. It was highly idealistic.

Q: Almost a religion?

Vonnegut: Exactly. And the only one for me. So far.

Although Bokononism arrives late in Cat’s Cradle, the narrator has been discussing it since page one. He’s often discussing Bokononism without the reader being aware of it. The narrator’s late conversion to Bokononism has fitted him with new glasses to see anew the events of his own life and the world at large. As I said, the religion’s theology beats on every page of the book.

“Shameless lies”

While religion may be the focal point of Cat’s Cradle, the reach of this slender novel is far broader: Ice-Nine, Big Science, a fictional religion, the history of the atom bomb, the history of a fictional Caribbean nation, Cold War politics, and more. Vonnegut ably covers all this territory over the course of 127 (!) chapters, some only a few paragraphs long. My copy of Cat’s Cradle clocks in at a mere 191 pages, and that’s a pocket-sized mass market edition. Each chapter comes close to standing alone, a necklace of koans strung together in such a way to reveal greater truths.

While Vonnegut is recognized as one of the great writers of the last century, he’s not particularly well-regarded for his use of language, which is often received as plain or unadorned. I think Vonnegut’s prose is wildly underrated. Vonnegut was in possession of a finely-tuned bullshit detector. He was so attuned to honesty in writing (in his own and others’) that I believe he couldn’t bear to lard down his work for style points. His direct manner and careful choice of words is Vonnegut’s style. Anyone who attempts to imitate him, beware: it’s not a pose, it’s a way of thinking.

In Cat’s Cradle Vonnegut’s prose is at its best (yes, even better than Slaughterhouse-Five). He produces some of the most economical and expressive scenes in his entire body of work. Here the narrator examines one of the Hoenikker children’s model railroad dioramas:

And then he turned on a switch, and the far end of the basement was filled with a blinding light.

We approached the light and found that it was sunshine to a fantastic little country built on plywood, an island as perfectly rectangular as a township in Kansas. Any restless soul, any soul seeking to find what lay beyond its given boundaries, really would fall off the edge of the world.

The details were so exquisitely in scale, so cunningly textured and tinted, that it was unnecessary for me to squint in order to believe that the nation was real—the hills, the lakes, the rivers, the forests, the towns, and all else that good natives everywhere hold so dear.

And everywhere ran a spaghetti pattern of railroad tracks.

This is not Hemingwayesque tough-guy economy but the economy of describing a rather involved bit of scene and symbol with a modicum of words. (The child who built this model island would grow up and become second-in-charge of another island-in-miniature, San Lorenzo.) The language may not be impressive, but it wasn’t designed to be impressive. Vonnegut manages to describe all of Cat’s Cradle‘s intricate clockwork in a handful of pages because he’s boiled down his scenes with terse concision. The payoff is a readable, approachable book discussing a lot of big, abstract concepts.

Many paperback editions of Cat’s Cradle play up the apocalyptic science-fiction aspects of the novel without acknowledging the gallows humor and whimsical nature of Vonnegut’s world.

The succinct koan-like chapters reflect the contradictory nature of Bokononism. McCabe’s first edict upon taking power as President of San Lorenzo was a strict ban on Bokononism itself. This means, of course, everyone on the island practices Bokononism, including the President. The “dynamic tension” of absolute martial law versus an illicit but freeing religion keeps the people preoccupied. “All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies” reads the first line of the Books of Bokonon, perhaps an opening sentence Vonnegut considered for Cat’s Cradle itself. This is how the book folds in on itself: the religion it describes permeates the telling of the novel rather than being a crude device to express some ideas.

While Ice-Nine is the most powerful symbol to emerge from Vonnegut’s book, the child-like language of Bokonon’s concepts are also famous. A karass is a group of people cosmically linked for some greater purpose (although they might not realize it), while a granfalloon is a false karass (like Hoosiers or Democrats). A vin-dit is a “sudden shove in the direction of Bokononism.” Perhaps the most important Bokononian concept is foma, “harmless untruths” which serve a more important goal.

“Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, ‘Why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.”

Let’s face it: Bokononism is a pretty thin theology compared to the rich wisdom of the Jewish midrash, the teachings of Jesus, or the scope of Buddhism. And for every surprising observation Vonnegut tosses effortlessly at the reader, he pairs it with a circus-style joke, such as the Bokononist foot fetish. Compared to the world’s major religions, an exegesis of Bokononism would not be a terribly long tract. It might not be much longer than Cat’s Cradle. And perhaps that’s the point.

Much of Bokononism centers around discovering one’s purpose in life and the people who share that purpose with you. The funny names for Bokonon’s concepts—wrang-wrang or wampeter—playfully mask deeper and more serious human dilemmas. Bokononism is concerned with ideals like happiness, acceptance, and forgiveness. It makes a point to single out those who stand in the way of those ideals, the greedy, intemperate, and spiteful. Bokonon’s theology may be as simple as this: Be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem. Or, going back to Vonnegut’s anthropology studies: We are sadly far more alike than we want to believe.

The only misstep I find with Vonnegut’s religion is the (perversely) celebrated saying Bokononists utter when they commit suicide: “Now I will destroy the whole world.” While it plays into the major concerns of Cat’s Cradle, I find the self-centeredness of the statement uncharacteristic of the rest of the religion, and indeed the entire book.

In his final interview before his death, Vonnegut noted

…I don’t mock religion at all. It’s very helpful to people. … I am enormously influenced by the Sermon on the Mount.

Cat’s Cradle returns to the concept of fomas repeatedly, the “harmless lies” we tell ourselves to make us happy. If harmless lies keep us from hurting one other, then perhaps we should be lying to ourselves even more. This is the price of peace.

Postscript: “Busy, busy, busy”

I find it appropriate that the Dell pocket edition I’ve owned since junior high school contains a major typo in the front matter, apparently the result of a confused typesetter:

For Kenneth Littauer,
a man of gallantry and taste.
The Books of Bokonon, 1.5
*Harmless untruths

Nothing in this book is true.
“Live by the foma* that make you brave
and kind and healthy and happy.”

Read through it one more time. Obviously the attribution was married to the dedication and not the epigram. It’s an appropriate mistake for a remarkable little book concerned with mistakes, as well as truth, harmless lies, forgiveness, the end of the world, and most of all laughter.

Writing better fiction with Syd Field’s three-act screenplay structure: Completing the treatment

Syd Field

Syd Field

(See my “Continuing Series” page for a listing of all posts about using Syd Field’s paradigm to write fiction.)

Last post I explained the fiction writer’s treatment (and how it’s different than a film treatment) as part of this series on how to use Syd Field’s three-act screenplay structure for writing stories and novels.

To recap, the first four questions you should ask yourself for the treatment are:

  • Protagonist: Who is the main character of this story?
  • Setup: What is the minimum of backstory, history, setting, or exposition that must be presented before the main story begins?
  • Inciting Incident: What event disrupts the rhythms and rituals of the main character’s daily life?
  • Plot Point #1: What reverses the main character’s daily life such that there is no easy return to normalcy? (Sometimes this is the Inciting Incident, but often it is not.)

Answering those four questions puts you at the halfway mark for writing your story’s treatment. Now I’ll go over the treatment’s final four questions.

Conflict: What is the primary or core conflict the main character faces?
Your answer to the prior two questions (Inciting Incident and Plot Point #1) should suggest an answer to this question. You might find yourself going back to re-answer this question later, when the story is firmer in your mind and the characters’ conflict better defined. For example, although Raisin in the Sun‘s core conflict would appear to be racism, a close reading of the play suggests the conflict is the family’s response to racism—will they keep their heads’ down or will they walk proud?

Assessment: What does the main character do to immediately resolve Plot point #1?
So far, the main character has experienced some kind of disruption (the Inciting Incident) and then an event that ensures they cannot walk away from that disruption (Plot Point #1). Whatever your character’s desires or motivations, they will still want to resolve their situation as quickly as possible. What action would they take?

I’ve learned that, in many ways, this is a crucial hinge to the success of a story. The Inciting Incident is often—almost always—out of the main character’s control. The no-going-back event (Plot Point #1) may be of their device, but it often is not. The Assessment is the main character locking into a course of action. This decision often determines the trajectory, shape, and flavor of the rest of the story.

Midpoint: What revelation or reversal of fortune occurs that permanently shifts the story trajectory?
As the name implies, this is an event which occurs approximately halfway through your story. Depending on the type of story you’re writing, this is often where the main character’s true antagonist is revealed or discovered, but that’s not a requirement. The purpose of this question is, in many ways, to keep the plates spinning—to prevent the character from getting too comfortable in this new situation, and to prevent you, the author, from digressing too far from the core conflict (which is terribly easy to do with longer forms, such as the novel).

Syd Field (the creator of the paradigm I’m riffing off of) explained in The Screenwriter’s Workbook that he “discovered” the Midpoint while analyzing Robert Towne’s screenplay for Chinatown. Field recognized that in Chinatown (and many other movies), something significant was happening around the middle of the film, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on what the event was, or why it was significant. In Chinatown, after much analysis, he realized the Midpoint was when the protagonist (private detective J. J. Gittes) discovers that the head of Los Angeles’ water company is married to the daughter of the founder of the water company.

At this Midpoint moment, almost all the questions and complications in the film have been introduced: an unsolved murder, the taint of corruption in Southern California’s water politics, and the detective himself being setup to unwittingly smear an innocent man in the press. At the Midpoint, we think we’re watching a murder mystery against the backdrop of 1930s city politics. J. J. Gittes discovery of the true relationship of the three central characters transforms Chinatown into a drama of a highly dysfunctional family. That’s what Syd Field (and this process) is asking for you to consider for your own story’s Midpoint. It’s the moment when you’ve laid all your cards out for the reader, the moment when the reader now recognizes what’s really at stake for your main character.

The Midpoint is more than a new complication. It’s a chance for you, the writer, to reveal that the story so far is not the whole story. Jim Thompson said there was only one kind of story: “Things are not what they seem.” The Midpoint is where you introduce revelations and reversals that open up the story in larger ways.

Plot Point #2: What dramatic or defining reversal occurs that leads toward a confrontation with the core conflict?

This part of the treatment is the furthest removed from the beginning of your story, and therefore one of the hardest to commit to paper.

Often when I’m writing I have a crystal-clear view of the story’s opening and a hazy idea how I want it to conclude. Finding the path between those two moments is what the process of writing is about. Plot Point #2 is where you make a statement about the final actions and decisions before the end of the story.

To make this easier, go back to what you wrote for Conflict (above) and re-read it closely. Then ask yourself how you think the story will end. You don’t have to commit to this, just get it down to see the words staring up at you from the page. But remember: this isn’t Plot Point #2. It’s where Plot Point #2 is leading toward.

Between those two points—the Conflict and your idea for an ending, however sharp or hazy—lies Plot Point #2. Like the reversal in the Midpoint, a story rarely arouses the reader when it’s predictable. Look for another reversal here: an unexpected shift that leads your protagonist from the middle of your story (Act Two) into the third act, where the final confrontation lies.

An illustration might help here. (Warning: spoiler alert.) Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle has many unexpected twists and turns—it’s easily Vonnegut’s most unpredictable novel—but the reversal that sets up the novel’s conclusion is when the protagonist is declared the San Lorenzo’s next Presidente by the dying dictator. This is not the conclusion of the novel, it’s the final complication in the character’s dramatic journey. (It’s important to realize that some complications are welcome by the protagonist, even though they might come back to bite him or her later.) With the protagonist’s ascension to El Presidente, all the bowling pins are in place, ready to be knocked down with godlike force in the novel’s stunning final chapters. This final complication is Plot Point #2.

Don’t worry if you currently lack Vonnegut’s clarity in your own character’s journey. Like the rest of this treatment, the goal here is to get ideas on paper and begin organizing the whirlwind of inspiration now circling your as-yet-unwritten story.

Take a breather

It looks like a lot, but you can craft a treatment in less than an hour. Give yourself time and space to do it. Don’t rush yourself, and don’t do it while distracted—no Internet, no television, no kids. Most importantly, write your treatment down. Like writing a contract, putting pen to paper forces hard decisions, engagement, and thoughtfulness.

When you’re finished, set your pen down and take a deep breath. When I write a treatment I often feel much like I feel after a sustained time writing prose: a bit exhausted, a bit lost, and more than a little exhilarated.

Remember, writing a treatment is writing. Don’t mistake this as an academic exercise. Organizing your thoughts on paper is as important as writing, editing, and polishing the final prose—it’s just a preliminary to those important steps. Writing a treatment is writing.

Next: Now write it again

Twenty Writers: Unstuck in Dresden

See the Introduction for more information on “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books.” The current list of reviews and essays is located at Continuing Series.


Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Early one August morning in 2011, I set off for Dresden. I was lodging at a surprisingly spacious budget hotel located in what was once known as East Berlin. I showered, snagged a Brötchen from the breakfast table downstairs, and rode public transit to Berlin’s central train station, the Hauptbahnhof.

The Hauptbahnhof was a modest-sized transportation hub with a grand planar green-glass facade and crystal strands of staircases and escalators within. A number of national and international rail lines passed through the station on all levels.

In contrast to its modernity, the area surrounding the Hauptbahnhof appeared bombed-out. Weedy lots and half-built (or half-demolished) concrete structures of uncertain purpose surrounded the station, even though it was located in the dead center of town, and not the outskirts where this sort of thing might be excused.

In 2011, dereliction was not unusual in the eastern reaches of Berlin. The area that was once West Berlin was clean, modern, bustling—as sleek and efficient as the capitalism it had boasted of to its neighbors during the Cold War. What was once East Berlin was largely a patchwork of low-lying buildings, many redolent of America’s 1970s aesthetics bereft of its most garish extremes. Anything not man-made was lush and overgrown from the humid summer. (Berlin, my travel guide explained, was built on a swamp.) Buildings with blasted-out holes in the plaster stood here and there in East Berlin, the rubble having been hauled off but the damage not repaired. As I learned from the natives, Berlin was still recovering from forty years of Communist rule, where counterrevolutionary ideals like aesthetics and grounds-keeping were not prioritized.

Having visited Munich a few times, I would bet a stein of beer that the meticulous, efficient Bavarians would never have allowed for this situation to sustain. For any undeveloped lot, the Bavarians would have installed a beer garden or a park or some nice shopping. Munich is the neighbor who keeps their lawn trim and packs away the Christmas decorations on Boxing Day; Berlin is the family with the half-built additions and a porch painted a color intended for the whole house, but Dad never got around to finishing the job. It’s for those reasons I found what was once East Berlin relaxed and livable.

Having visited my favorite beer garden in all of Europe the night before, I didn’t wake quite early enough. I missed my train to Dresden by precious minutes, in part due to being lost in the Hauptbahnhof‘s Escher maze of escalators. Running up to the platform for Dresden, the train chugging eastward, I wondered if this was a bit of Vonnegutian fate, the kind of nondescript event that leads to major ramifications for the character later in the book.

Literary tourism

My visit to Dresden bore some emotional weight. It would probably be my only chance to see the city Kurt Vonnegut wrote about so prominently in Slaughterhouse-Five.

Literary tourism is a recurring compulsion in my life. I’ve sought out Hemingway’s Key West house and the six-toed cats who drink from an old bar urinal in the garden; Henry Miller’s ramshackle Big Sur cabin, surprisingly spartan for a hedonist; Beowulf under glass at the British Museum in London, a city practically designed for literary tourism, right down to the pub reproducing Sherlock Holmes’ parlor; even Mark Twain’s cabin in California’s Gold Country where he reportedly penned “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”. Literary tourism has even made its way into some of my stories, in particular “A Concordance of One’s Life”, and to a lesser extent Everywhere Man.

With only one more free day in Germany, I woke the next morning even earlier and made it to the Hauptbahnhof with time to spare. As my train left the platform, I was treated to the very European experience of an Italian family arguing with the unflappable German conductor over seats, some business about assigned seating and Second Class. As English was the common language between the two parties, I was able to follow the argument. The conductor eventually conceded and moved on, leaving the Italian family to overtake the compartment. The mother pointed out to me that there wasn’t enough room for all of them, and so I moved to the next compartment.

The train ride from Berlin to Dresden took two and a half hours. If I’d traveled the day before, I had planned to find a cheap room to crash in for the night. Now I had to make the same return trip in the late afternoon via the last train out of Dresden to Berlin.

The Slaughterhouse-Five Tour

In a different book, Kurt Vonnegut wrote

Ah, God, what an ugly city Illium is!

“Ah, God,” says Bokonon, “what an ugly city every city is!”

I was curious to see what had sprung up in Dresden’s place after the end of the war, after the firebombing. I was also curious how Vonnegut’s book was now received by the city. I had it in my mind that Slaughterhouse-Five was a literary gift to the City of Dresden, a rather lengthy handbill proclaiming to a cold and unaware world the war crime they’d suffered. Much like my trip to Hiroshima, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Everything I’d read about both cities focused on one subject: utter destruction.

I wondered if there were Slaughterhouse-Five tours of Dresden. If I ran a Slaughterhouse-Five tour of Dresden, I would dress up like Billy Pilgrim and pretend to be unstuck in time. I would start the tour with this:

“And now our tour concludes. So it goes.”

And end the tour with this:

“Welcome! My name is Billy Pilgrim. Today I’m your guide for the Slaughterhouse-Five tour. On your left is our first sight…”

For all my planning back at home, it never occurred to me to attempt to locate the actual slaughterhouse Vonnegut and the other American POWs huddled in during the Allies’ firebombing of the city, safe while Dresden burned to nubs and ash. I assumed (wrongly, it turns out) that the slaughterhouse had been demolished after the war. I focused on the city center itself rather than striking out to the industrial areas in search of the structure that saved Vonnegut’s life and changed American postwar literature.

On the last leg of my train ride, two young women joined me in the compartment, college-aged summer hitchhikers making their way across Europe. They hauled mountaineering backpacks with sleeping rolls, enough gear to scale K2. Minutes before the Dresden station, we struck up a conversation. They were from Switzerland.

“I’m American,” I introduced myself.

“We know,” they told me. Whenever foreigners know my nationality it’s a little discomfiting, like meeting someone who can read my thoughts.

They told me they headed to Amsterdam. When they said “Amsterdam” they giggled between themselves.

“I’m going to Dresden,” I told them.

“Why?” they asked me, honestly perplexed.

Anatomy of a church

Dresden workers' muralOn my walk from Dresden’s station to its Old Town I passed a reminder of the city’s time under the German Democratic Republic. A broad mural spanned the second story of an otherwise unremarkable building. In the town I grew up, such a building would have been the advertising offices of the local newspaper or something equally mundane. This is what I expected to find in Dresden: postwar Socialist-drab architecture erected in a hurry and on the cheap.

The building was forgettable but the mural was not. Like so much social realism to come out of the Communist bloc, it features idealized caricatures of workers—women in head scarves, men in Trotsky hats—raising their sickles and rifles in a show of unity. The mural stood over a wide walkway, where it could be admired as easily as it could be ignored.

DresdenOnce past the mural and its uninspiring canvas, I discovered Dresden was not ugly. In fact, the city was charming. Although seventy years had passed since the firebombing, plenty of time to rebuild, I did not expect to walk into such a minute jewel. With East Berlin as my primer to post-Communist Germany, I presumed Dresden would be a place of unkempt parks, weedy lots, and an opera house or civic chamber destroyed by the Allies and left as rubble with a statue before it memorializing the carnage.

Strange then to see Dresden work so hard to appear as the city it was five hundred years ago, more medieval than mid-century. Its stout Old Town proudly exhibited a collection of limestone spires and copper-green cupolas. In the Middle Ages, labor was cheap, free when pressed into service by the Church. In the 20th century it wasn’t so cost-effective to refurnish a city to its fifteenth-century original without making do with mass-produced raw material—the financial temptation to erect a Disney reproduction of the original must have been great. There was nothing fake or inauthentic about Dresden’s Old Town as far as I could see.

Dresden churchThe rebuild was so complete, so meticulous, at first blush I wondered if anything remained to mark the firebombing that melted this city down to hot rubble in 1945. I found one, a block of permanently charred masonry standing in a cobblestone platz before a stunning Baroque church, Dresden’s Frauenkirche. A wordless plaque indicated where the block had fallen from the cupola above during the firebombing. In the human anatomy of the Frauenkirche, the masonry block fell from its heart.

(I know now that many memorials for the Dresden firebombing exist, some in the city and others elsewhere in Germany. Some only exist on the Internet as frameworks for remembering. I didn’t visit Dresden to search out statues and plaques and modern art commissioned by governmental panels, but I did expect to more of these markers than I encountered.)

Hundreds of miles from the Berlin swamp, Dresden offered a cloudless temperate day, the air off the river smelling fresh. The church platz was ringed by bistros lively with business. Vendor carts served cold beer as fast as mugs could be filled. Standing aside the masonry block and surveying the scene, I developed a theory: Dresden understood that remembering is different than never forgetting.

Of course

My own failings hampered my time in Dresden. I don’t speak a lick of German. Unlike Berlin, where an English-speaker can manage thanks to a mostly-multilingual population, few people in Dresden spoke my native tongue.

Rendered all but mute, I pointed to the beer tap when I wanted a beer, pointed to the menu when I wanted a brat, and did my best to pronounce Bitte? and Danke schoen for everyone I had dealings with.

At one of the beer carts off the church platz I met an English-speaking couple. Not only did they speak English, they were American. I did not ask the obvious questions. With a beer in hand and the sun on my back, I was incurious to know where they were from or who employed them.

She was talkative. He seemed totally uninterested in conversation. She asked why I came to Dresden.

Slaughterhouse-Five, of course,” I said. That “of course” made me out as a snoot.

She searched the air above her. “Is that a book?” She asked her husband if he’d read it. He murmured “Never heard of it” and drank more beer.

I told her she probably read it in high school. She couldn’t remember.

Fox tossing

When I asked why they’d visited Dresden, she explained it was a layover on their bus trip to Amsterdam. She giggled when she said “Amsterdam.” His attention never left his beer.

“Have you visited the castle?” she asked me. Their package tour included a ticket to Dresden Castle, now a museum. “Their king was the King of Poland. Twice.”

“Augustus the Strong,” her husband said, still not looking at me.

“Why was he called ‘the Strong?'” I asked.

“Because he was strong,” the husband said. “He could dead lift hundreds of pounds.” A bit excited, he finally turned on his stool to face me. “And he was a master at this game called fox tossing.”

“What’s fox tossing?”

“You throw foxes as high into the air as you can.” So animated, his beer was sloshing.

Dresden?

I trudged back to the train station passing the workers’ mural once more. Now I saw how out of place it was in Dresden, this relic of propaganda today apropos of nothing. Like Communism, it was not erased and it was not forgotten, nor was it intrusive or even damned, but simply left to be, a curiosity.

On the train ride back, I experienced a conversation I would have twice more in Berlin, all with Germans. When I mentioned visiting Dresden, the Germans’ response was always “Why?” They expressed in their best English that Dresden was a boring town with nothing to draw a tourist, especially one who’d traveled so far.

I asked each if they’d heard of Kurt Vonnegut or Slaughterhouse-Five. None of them knew of him, which wasn’t terribly surprising. I don’t read German novelists, after all. The name confused them, though, since Vonnegut is distinctly Germanic. I assured them he was American.

I told the Germans Vonnegut had written one of the greatest English-language novels of the past hundred years. “It’s about Dresden. He was there during the firebombing.”

Only one of the three knew of Dresden’s destruction. (They were younger than me, I should add.) All were bewildered at the idea of a novel about Dresden—”Dresden?“—especially a novel important enough to be taught in American schools and universities.

It floored them. “You’ve read a book about Dresden?

Imagine the situation reversed. Imagine learning that every student in Germany read a novel about one of Bokonon’s ugly cities: Illium, or Bakersfield, or Walla Walla, or Duluth. Imagine if Germans eagerly traveled to Duluth because it was featured in a popular novel. Duluth?

The second bewildered German I encountered—”Dresden?“—sat across from me. We were at a picnic table in my favorite beer garden in all of Europe. It was muggy in Berlin and nine o’clock at night, strings of light bulbs threaded through the tree branches. When I arrived at the Hauptbahnhof, I went straight to the beer garden.

We were joined by an American who’d emigrated to Germany to marry. He had a wife and a child, and had carved out a rather enviable life in what was once East Berlin. The first time we met he told me he never wanted to return to America.

“What are you two talking about?” He had brought us fresh mugs of beer.

“He went to Dresden today,” the German told him.

“Sure,” the newly-minted Berliner said as he distributed the beer. “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

Other books in the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” series.