“I just started reading Slaughterhouse-Five.”
“Oh, great! ‘Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.'” I respond with a goofy grin. It’s met with a blank stare. “Those are the first words of the novel,” I offer helpfully, priding myself in remembering lines I had read some thirteen odd years ago.
The blank stare turns to confusion. “Who’s Billy Pilgrim? I’m at the part where he’s meeting his friend from the war.”
“Wait. Isn’t that just the preface?” We take a look, and sure enough, he’s right. The first chapter is about The Author reminiscing with His War Buddy. The Billy Pilgrim stuff doesn’t start until the second chapter. So it goes.
Vonnegut’s narrative begins with a frame tale, much like Heart of Darkness or, to use a more recent example, Life of Pi. As The Author and His Buddy reminisce about the war, His Buddy’s Wife becomes concerned that The Author’s story will glorify the war. The Author promises that this will not happen, thereby setting the tone for the rest of the novel. He is now free to call in Billy Pilgrim without confusing His Buddy’s Wife or the reader about his intent.
I’d like to think there was more to the first chapter than simply setting the tone for the novel: a comment about community, history, and memory. While most of us have not had to serve in a war, we probably have shared common life experiences with others, whether they be siblings, classmates, or colleagues. Neither our affection for these companions nor the strength of the bonds formed with them should be confused with glorifying the history under which these relationships formed. By whitewashing our memory of history within these relationships, we may be in danger of forgetting the lessons of the past.