Monday. May 16, 2016.
Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks) unstuck in time on the planet Tralfamadore in a scene from the movie adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five.
Sometimes it seems I’ve spent my whole life chasing after Kurt Vonnegut.
I mean that metaphorically, as a comment on my so-called life as a writer. Vonnegut was one of the first grown-up influences on my ambitions, my sense of what writers do and how they go about it, the way I looked at life and people, and my prose style.
But I mean it as matter of geographic fact too. I chased him out to Iowa for grad school even though he wasn’t teaching there at the time. He was still the reason I went there. I figured if they’d had Vonnegut teaching there that had to be the place for me. But I’d chased him to Boston before that. That was kind of incidental. I didn’t go to Boston because he was there or had been there. He had been there, briefly. He taught at Harvard. In the prologue to his novel Jailbird, he called his stint at Harvard “undistinguished.” I went to Boston University more than ten years after he gave up the Harvard gig. But at BU, through Leslie Epstein, I met Samuel Shem, the doctor who wrote the wonderfully cynical novel about learning how to doctor, House of God, and Shem was a friend of Mark Vonnegut, Kurt's son the doctor and writer. It was a practically a flip of the coin that sent me to Iowa instead of staying at BU where I’d also been admitted. Leslie himself advised Iowa. I’ve never been sure if it was because he honestly thought the Iowa Writers Workshop was better than his own program or he just wanted to get rid of me. But if I had stayed at BU I might have gotten to know Shem better and through him might have met Doctor Vonnegut and through him...well, you know.
Before Boston, I could have caught up with him on Cape Cod, except at the time when Pop and Mom Mannion were taking us there for family vacations I hadn’t read any of his books. I probably didn’t even know who he was. My favorite living author at the time was Franklin W. Dixon. Sue me. I was a kid. I didn’t know.
By the time I got around to reading Slaughterhouse Five---that is, by the time I was old enough that Mom and Pop Mannion allowed me to read it. What were they going to say? I’d already read M*A*S*H and Catch 22---our family had stopped going to the Cape and so had he. He’d moved to New York City.
But the first place I chased him to, again unwittingly, and again arriving too late, was Schenectady. I say unwittingly because it wasn’t my choice to move to Schenectady. If anyone had listened to me we’d have stayed put in our house in Latham. But Mom and Pop didn’t listen and dragged me with them and the rest of the family to Schenectady in time for me to start first grade. My favorite living authors at that time were Robert McCloskey and Virginia Lee Burton.
Vonnegut worked in public relations at General Electric or, as he disguised it in his fiction, the General Forge and Foundry Company. He disguised Schenectady as Ilium, New York. He worked there at the same time as my grandfather...and tens of thousands of other people. Vonnegut left GE and hightailed it out of Schenectady, headed for Cape Cod, a few years before Pop Mannion started at GE. To insist even harder on that tenuous connection, Vonnegut’s older brother Bernard, the scientist, taught at the University at Albany at the same time as Pop (Pop left GE to start Albany’s computer science program when I was around ten) and they knew each other and chatted regularly. For a short time the computer science department and the department of atmospheric sciences had offices in the same building, which is where I met Bernard myself. Pop introduced us as they were passing the time of day in the hallway. We didn’t talk about his brother.
When Vonnegut worked for GE, he lived in a hamlet across the Mohawk River---disguised as the Iroquois in his novels---from Schenectady called Alplaus. Derived from the Dutch. Aal Plaats. Place of Eels. My first girlfriend lived there and whenever I rode my bike out to visit her I would pause in front of the house I’d been told had been his and stare at it as if I expected a rift to open up in time and I would be able to look through it back thirty years to see him coming down the steps and down the front walk to greet me.
We’re up in Schenectady right now, visiting the old Mannion Homestead, and this morning, in what’s become a routine when we’re here, I took a drive across the river to Alplaus. I don’t drive straight there and my girlfriend’s house isn’t my destination, it’s simply the end point of my tour of the old neighborhood. The old neighborhood is defined by where my high school friends lived and the limits of my range on my bike. Her house was at the western boundary. Nowdays, when I meander my way out there, that’s where I turn around to head back to the Homestead, after pausing to think fondly about that girl and the good old days.
Nostalgia isn’t really the point of the drive, exactly. The city of Schenectady itself isn’t much to look at, but the area surrounding it, shaped topographically and historically by the river and the Erie Canal, is beautiful. Even a short drive will take you up and down hills, on country roads that wind through woods and wide open fields and meadows, past farms and orchards, and into shady neighborhoods of handsome older houses, one-hundred, two-hundred, and some close to three-hundred years old, and, of course, along the river. Alplaus is one of those neighborhoods and it was built along the river. My girlfriend’s house was (still is) a large, late Victorian farmhouse with white clapboards, black shutters, and a porch that wrapped around two sides. You couldn’t see the river from the porch, the houses and trees across the street were in the way, but you probably could get a good look at it from the attic window. I don’t remember ever having been up there though.
The main point of these morning drives is to clear my head and take in the scenery, but I can’t help the onslaught of memories. Just about everywhere I look, lurking in ambush, is a memory from my kidhood and adolescenthood. Not all of them are pleasant. I don’t mind that though. In fact I like it. I like to be reminded of what was and to see what what still is but I also like to see what isn’t and what’s there in its place. I’m not one of those old men who hate to see change because it reminds them of their own impending final change into dust and nothingness. Not yet, at any rate. Not all change is for the better, some of it is decidedly for the worse, but on the whole I tend to like to see things change because generally to see them say the same is really to see another form of change---decay. Change of the kind I like to see, no matter how much of what I used to know and love is left behind, is life continuing itself.
Still, another point of the drive is to trigger memories and revisit the past. Not for mere nostalgia’s sake but for the physical connection. Sight is a sense, seeing is touching. My drives are a way for me to not get in touch with the past but to touch it. The past becomes physically present, and I am physically present in it. That’s a way of saying I feel physically present in time and to myself. I’m connected to the whole of my life, and I feel like I’m still me. Like I am a me.
For instance, on my way out of town, shortly after I set out, I happened to look out the window and glance up a side street that climbed a hill to the middle school. Over the top of the rise I saw the building’s entablature, a sight I’d probably seen hundreds of times when I was growing up. I was jolted out of the present moment and set down in one or all of the moments when I’d looked that way before.
It wasn’t that it was 1966 again or 1976 or 2016. And it wasn’t all those years at once. It was one eternal year full of eternal moments. I think of this a Tralfamadorian way of looking at life and I learned it from Kurt Vonnegut the first time I read Slaughterhouse-Five or, to be Tralfalmadorian about it, I’m learning it now as I am reading Slaughterhouse-Five for the first time again. I’ve always been reading it and I will always be reading it. Like Billy Pilgrim, I’m unstuck in time that way. My drives are deliberate attempts to unstick myself in time.
And that’s what I thought happened when later on the drive today I made my way across the river over to Alplaus. It was rush hour and for several miles I passed the long, slow-moving line of cars full of commuters headed the opposite direction. Once upon a time, just about everybody in one of those cars would have been on their way to work at General Electric, either at the main campus downtown or at the Research Lab and Atomic Power Lab in the suburbs. Some are still on their way to those places but most are aiming for offices and office parks in Albany and its surrounding suburbs. This morning, as I approached the river and saw the line of cars crawling across the bridge and down the hill on the other side I became unstuck in time, not at all to my surprise, but the eternal moment I was thrown back into wasn’t one when I was in a car but the one when I as at home reading Player Piano for the first time and getting a shock of recognition as I read Vonnegut’s description of the novel’s protagonist Dr Paul Proteus’s morning commute to the General Forge and Foundry company. I was remembering vividly how excited and amused I was to see a piece of my world turning up in Vonnegut’s fiction world and how I jumped up from the couch to go looking for Pop Mannion so I could show him that passage.
There was only one thing wrong with that memory.
What I was remembering never happened.
Not like that.
It couldn’t have.
That passage isn’t in the book.
This afternoon, at Barnes and Noble, I grabbed a copy of Player Piano from the shelf and sat down in the cafe to skim through it to find the passage to copy down for blogging purposes and...I couldn’t find it.
Instead I found this:
Ilium, New York is divided into three parts.
In the northwest are the managers and engineers and civil servants and a few professional people; in the northeast are the machines; and in the south, across the Iroquois River, is the area known locally as Homestead, where almost all the people live.
If the bridge across the Iroquois were dynamited, few daily routines would be disturbed. Not many people on either side would have reasons other than curiosity for crossing.
During the war, in hundreds of Iliums over America, managers and engineers learned to get along without their men and women, who went to fight. It was the miracle that won the war---production with almost no manpower. In the patois of the north side of the river, it was the know-how that won the war. Democracy owed its life to know-how.
There’s no description of the morning rush hour in Player Piano because there’s no morning rush hour in the dystopian future where the story’s set. That’s a main theme of the book!
Player Piano is set in a time when most people don't have jobs to rush to in the morning. They've all been put out of work and so rendered without purpose to society and the economy and to themselves by machines.
Not something I needed to be reminded of. It’s not something I have to remember. It’s something I know! It’s something I talk about and routinely write about. It’s something I’m prepared to devote an entire class period to discussing if ever some English department does a foolish thing and let me teach my dream course on Vonnegut, Asimov, Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, and Ursula Le Guin.
So how could I remember a passage in a novel that goes against what I know to be that novel’s plot and theme?
At first I thought the passage must be in there, that what I was remembering was a description of Proteus remembering what life used to be like in Ilium before the war. So I skimmed back through the book two more times.
Then I thought maybe I was misremembering reading it in Player Piano. Maybe I read it in another book. A good part of Slaughterhouse-Five takes place in Ilium. Billy Pilgrim doesn’t work at the General Forge and Foundry Company. He’s an optometrist. But Vonnegut might have had him making that commute. I went to fetch a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five.
But Ilium and General Forge and Foundry show up again and again in Vonnegut’s fiction. The passage could have been from one of the other of his books I read in high school. I looked through those---Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens of Titan, Welcome to the Monkey House---and couldn’t find it in any of them.
It finally occurred to me that what I might have been remembering all these years---it’s a longstanding memory. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t remember it, which, of course, may be a trick of memory itself.---is an early act of mature literary analysis on my part. In reading the book I recognized that something can be made present by its skillfully arranged absence. The rush hour traffic that Paul Proteus didn’t have to put up with implied the rush hour traffic Vonnegut had had to and the rush hour traffic people were still putting up with when I read the book. Somehow I had unconsciously rewritten the actual memory of what Vonnegut had written---or, rather, hadn’t written---and turned it into what I had been inspired to imagine by his writing. I’d turned a real memory into a false one.
I think that’s what happened.
I’ll never know. I’ll never know what sort of memory it is or how it got in there and how come it’s still in there even though I know now it’s a false memory. But there it is. I’m still remembering it and in the same old detail. Yet more evidence that my memories of anything can’t be trusted.
How about that?
There’s only one place left for me to chase Vonnegut to, and since neither of us believe in it, I’m not going to catch up with him there.
I thought I would catch up with him at last when we moved here. He was still living in New York City and we’re not that far from there and get into town regularly. But the bastard died on me before I could track him down.
So it goes.