The Hand of Time
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
Time is moving backward in Kurt Vonnegut's living room. The writer perches on a sofa and grins.
It has been 36 years since he published "Slaughterhouse-Five," his breakthrough novel about a time-and-space traveler named Billy Pilgrim, the planet Tralfamadore and the firebombing of Dresden by Allied forces during World War II. Vonnegut's guest has mentioned a passage in which Vonnegut describes the bombing of a German city unfolding in reverse.
"Oh, I've made a recording of that -- to music," he says. He unfolds his lean, 82-year-old frame, locates the CD, hits "play."
American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backward from an airfield in England, the voice of a somewhat younger Vonnegut intones.
Sounds of rain and thunder fade into background jazz. A female vocalist wails along.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. . . .
The recorded Vonnegut keeps reading as women in factories dismantle those containers and separate their contents into harmless minerals for return to the ground. The present-day Vonnegut lights the cigarette he's been fondling for half an hour.
The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. . . .
Time travel seems to agree with him. Right now, he's looking pretty cheerful for a self-described "obviously unhappy" man.
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Kurt Vonnegut Jr. has made a life's work of being unhappy with the world.