Tuesday, December 3, 2013

ADVENT 12/3: Michael Martone: More or Less: the Camouflage Schemes of the Fictive Essay

More or Less: The Camouflage Schemes of the Fictive Essay


Michael Martone


[Editor's note: The sections of this essay are in an arbitrary order, and
the reader is invited to read them in whatever order she or he prefers.]

The essay feigns linear narrative but initiates if not a circular notion of narrative time at least an ox-bowed doubling back and forth.  The essay purports to document Vonnegut’s journey to Pennsylvania, there to remember with his old war buddy, Bernard V. O’Hare, the details of the bombing of Dresden in order for the author to write the book.  Within the journey from Cape Cod to Pennsylvania, two meanders are recounted.  Vonnegut is accompanied by two little girls, his daughter and her friend, who, he tells us, have never ventured from Cape Cod in their brief lives and who had “never seen water in that long and narrow, unsalted form before.”  There was a lot to see, he says.  And he “sees,” himself, once again through the new lenses of the children.  One does not step into the same river twice.  It is time to go, he tells the girls. It is always time to go.  And, later, after the visit, on the return trip, crossing the Delaware at Washington’s Crossing, the pilgrims visit the World’s Fair, the other eddy in the stream, and there we are told of the dramatic and corporate representations of the past and the future in the present moment that Vonnegut metaphors and maps into a Mobius river of time: “how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”

“'I don’t know anything about it,’ he said. ‘That’s your trade, not mine.’” Writing is depicted as a “trade,” and the writer as a tradesman whose expertise is the transformation of fleeting experience into solid stable reality.  Bernard V. O’Hare, who is said to have said the words above, is a prosecutor as well who uses words and witnessing to convict in the fictive theater of a courtroom.  But it is not true that this is not his trade.  He too is a storyteller.  He too trades in the blurred boundaries between fact and fiction.  He has fooled himself, however, into believing he only deals in facts.  His critique has to do with the sorting of many kinds of truth, the truth and the whole truth.  Prosecutor O’Hare’s brief essay foils the larger essay by suggesting that there are essays and then there are essays.  There is truth and the whole truth.  The essays composed for his courtroom, his trade, he suggests, are the naked truth, not tailored, stable.  True truth not the disguised truth of fiction.

The essay disguises itself in the remnants of its own criticism and through elaboration it recounts its own failure to recount the failure of the writing of the fiction.  The book it introduces is a failure, Vonnegut writes at the end of the essay that recounts the series of failed attempts to write the book that, in the end, turns out to be a failure.  The essay attempts to animate the obsessive looping sensation of survivor guilt.  Vonnegut regards his survival of the massacre meant to kill him as a failure of the massacre.  “Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again.” There has been a mistake.  There has been a mistake.  And the essay attempts to attempt not to rectify the mistake but to map its own paradoxical logic, the infinite, circling loop.  He concludes by writing that the book will stand as a failure, because it was written by a pillar of salt, another of Vonnegut’s disguises, a ruin that fragments, yes, and finally, like the book it inhabits and the essay it embodies, melts.

“All this happened, more or less.”  This is the actual first line of the book Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut though if you ask people they will tell you they believe that the first line of the book Slaughterhouse-Five is this: “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” I myself believed this.  I remembered inexactly, remembering that the section of the book, Slaughterhouse-Five, that begins with “All this happened, more or less” was some kind of auxiliary writing, an essay, an introduction to the novel that began at its conclusion: Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.  But the essay that begins the book beginning with the line “All this happened, more or less” is a faux introduction.  It pretends to introduce the novel, a nonfiction enabling device, a frame, a context for the fiction.  But, it is a nonfiction fiction embedded in fiction.  It is an introduction hidden in plain sight.  There, free-floating above the first line, “All this happened, more or less,” is not the titular banners: INTRODUCTION or PROLOGUE or PREFACE but the honest announcement of novelistic chapter: ONE.  The essay, disguised as an introductory essay, is an introductory essay that is really a novel’s chapter disguised as an essay.

“All this happened, more or less.”  A fact is a thing done. Finished.  Something that has happened, more or less.  A fiction is a thing made.  Fabricated.  Oddly, once something has happened, in fact, that fact, no longer exists.  We are left with the residue, more or less, of its happening, the physical evidence of the happening but not the happening itself as the happening has, already, happened.  That residue, that evidence, can be faked, manipulated, distorted, counterfeited.  The essay, nonfiction, that opens the fiction, Slaughterhouse-Five, constructs a spectrum right at the start.  It suggests that all of this book, even the “nonfiction” part of it is, in fact, fiction, a made thing, more or less.  The book creates the pattern of ombre.  The essay is a fictive essay.  It is to be about blending.  It is about the collaboration of corroboration.  It feathers and shingles.  It is about shading shading.  It shades shading.

The essay suggests that it is a report of its research. It is in the guise of a “finding.”  The essay titled ONE, the opening chapter of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, allows that it will recount the various research methodologies the author resorted to in order to write the book that follows.  Fact-finding trips.  Note-taking and outlining.  It should be read, it suggests, as a kind of after-action report.  The opening essay ends, quoting the opening line and the last line of the novel that is to follow. This suggests that though the essay appears at the front of the book it was most likely written after the writing of the book it seems to introduce.  It can be read then as a kind of memory of memory.  Or memory cloaked in memory.  It is the novel’s memoir.  But if it is the novel’s memoir it is to be read not so much as a reflection on the past but a premonition of a future, a future that is about the past and is about to pass.  Not about the writing of the book but about the writing about the writing of the book.

The essay that begins Slaughterhouse-Five assumes it contains a polemic aspect but then argues against itself.  Kurt Vonnegut introduces Harrison Starr, a filmmaker, the executive producer of the polemic movie Zabriski Point, who asks, “Is it an anti-war book?” to which Vonnegut says he says that yes, he guesses it is.  Starr engages in the argument, contributes to the drama by dismissing the validity of genre, the efficacy and aesthetic of the rhetoric of argument.  He says he says to people who say they want to write an anti-war book, “I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead.’”  Vonnegut goes on to interpret, concurring with Starr’s allegoric assessment that there would always be wars and that they would be as easy to stop as glaciers.  But is this a ruse?  By being amenable to the rhetorical position of being “anti” to the “anti,” one can contest it, confront the appeal to futility.  Is it about stopping the glacier or propelling it forward?  Is the book the immovable object or irresistible force?  Or both at the same time?  What’s that Frost said about the poem: Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.  Glacial essays as well.

The existential nature of the artistic medium called writing is linear.  It wants to move directionally.  It wishes to go someplace.  There is a beginning, middle, end. Literally, we read, in English, beginning at the top of the page moving our eyes left to write in lines that ladder down the page.  We turn the page from right to left.  The essay we read at the beginning of the fiction, Slaughterhouse-Five, might be a hack disguised as an essay to scramble the conventional code of the way the novel is to be read.  The essay as saboteur.  The essay infiltrates and makes possible a disruption of forward flow.  It inscribes and anticipates skipping and stuttering.  It is to get us ready for the unstuckness.  It unsticks us.  A river when one looks at it, moves and does not move, fluid and static.  A glacier, too, is the embodiment of static and yet is in a constant motion.  Language wants to line up, to lead someplace, to begin and conclude.  Narrative by its nature.  The lyrical essay attacks the line, in the wolf’s clothing of narrative, creates the illusion of the line that is actually a broad and rising tide.  Blot instead of plot.  It appears to condense and compress.  No way out of its specific gravity, only in deeper, a black hole, going nowhere fast.

Vonnegut’s essay is an accident.  My essay about that essay is an accident.  Accident as an accident.  Things happen in his essay and in my essay, more or less.  “Accident” stumbles into the essay as a charming mistranslation by a Dresden cabdriver in his Christmas card note to Vonnegut: If the accident will.  Vonnegut picks this up immediately and begins to worry it, adding the phrase and the pattern of accident to the weave of the writing.  Writing is the willing of accident.  Accident the engine of will.  Will the signpost of the future.  Will the document of the dead.  Living will.  Improvisation, accident, here is being cultured as not simply the technique but the aesthetic goal.  “It is so short and jumbled and jangled…” Vonnegut writes about the book and about the essay that introduces the book.  It is the costume of the controlled crash.

The illusion of forward momentum that masks the desired circular nature, the essay that opens the book, Slaughterhouse-Five, contains many rounds, many endings that are also beginnings.  It repeats and refrains.  The essay might be thought of as a staging platform, a work bench, scaffolding, and an assembly line to construct the one perfect phrase that encapsulates the lyrical essence, vibrates the emotional resonance, and becomes Vonnegut’s signature chord.  “So it goes,” that phrase, the incantatory Kyrie of the book and, escaping from the book into the vernacular, is formulated in the opening essay.  It seems to be a mutation of an utterance that appears earlier in the essay and is repeated, “and so on.”  Repeating encourages experimentation with inflection and, oddly, at the same time, the flattening of inflection.  Repetition flattens, bleeds the meaning out of the abstract scratches on the page.  Empties it of meaning.  Perhaps the only function of the essay was to be this ugly oyster with an irritant that spits out this pearl.  Persistent.  A perfect cyst.

The painter, Abbott Handerson Thayer, considered the father of camouflage, is the first to theorize disguise, his major book being Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom (1909).  While interested in disruptive camouflage or dazzleflage and mimicry, his main contribution was in the art of countershading.  As a painter, Thayer employed the technique of chiaroscuro, creating the illusion of volume and depth on two-dimensional surfaces.  Countershading in nature, the brown back and white belly of a deer, reverses the illusion, flattening the three-dimensional animal.  Such tinkering confuses foreground and background and depth of field.  Sunlight falling on a deer’s brown back whitens, matching the white of its belly below, flattening the silhouette, making it much more difficult to take its range.  The splotchy spots of military camouflage countershade, light the dark valleys and blacken the lit peaks of the uniform’s draping.  The soldier flattens and blends, the foreground sifting into the background.  Here, in what ways are the truths flattened or highlighted, countershaded with the fictions?  Camouflage is designed to conceal, but can the understanding of the mechanism of perception that explains its use be reversed.  Can it be engineered to reveal?

The essay is its own origin story.  It also explains the origin of Slaughterhouse-Five’s alternate title, The Children’s Crusade, and connecting that explanation to the origin of the book’s dual dedication, for Mary O’Hare, Bernard V. O’Hare’s wife, and Gerhard Muller, the Dresden taxi driver whose first appearance in the book, on the dedication page four pages before the beginning of the essay, advertises their reality before they are introduced as characters in the narrative of the trailing essay.  We have no reason to believe that Vonnegut made these two characters up, but he does deploy them as characters within the essay.  He is as he says in the essay: “…a trafficker in climaxes and thrills and characterization and wonderful dialogue and suspense and confrontation…”  The nonfiction of the essay enables the fiction in the way the nonfiction of the event, the firebombing of Dresden, its irreal reality, enables the fiction.

The writer Kurt Vonnegut writes that he has written this book, Slaughterhouse-Five, within which this essay about the writer and what he has written appears.  The opening essay identifies the real drama of the book, which is not the firebombing of Dresden or The War or War so much as it is the agony, the struggle, of writing.  The character, “Kurt Vonnegut,” that Kurt Vonnegut has written, appears in different writerly guises.  He writes that he has written public relations.  He writes that he wrote as a newspaper reporter for Chicago’s City News Bureau.  He writes that he writes letters.  He writes that he wrote as a creative writing teacher at the famous Writers Workshop in Iowa.  And, of course, he is the writer of this book, Slaughterhouse-Five, you are reading, that seems to be being written as you are reading it.  Having created the character of the writer, the writer launches the written writer into the body of the book where he makes cameo appearances (“That was I.  That was me.  That was the author of this book”).  As a character he traffics with Kilgore Trout, a writer of science fiction, whose day job is the delivery of news as well as the double-agent propagandist, the air force historian attempting to write his book about Dresden, and novelists from the planet Tralfamadore.

A pilgrimage is about being unstuck but also being stuck.  It is travel and velocity but also about stasis and staying still, the station stops.  The movement of the pilgrim is not sustained but constantly interrupted, by design.  Vonnegut’s essay is a travel essay essay.  The trip from Cape Cod to Pennsylvania with many stops and starts.  The trip to Dresden.  The telephonic transportation of the late night calls.  The letting in and out of the dog.  As we read we move through the text but we are delayed by its bafflement. We are baffled.  At the beginning of the essay, Vonnegut and O’Hare have reached Dresden and tour the modern city with the cab driver Muller.  And there is the side trip considering the Crusades, the spatial and spiritual pilgrimage infused with belligerent invasion.  Specifically the Children’s Crusade which was a perversion of the perverse pilgrimages that were the Crusades.  The essay ends with Vonnegut making the trip to the trip to Dresden and getting waylaid in transit, stuck in a Boston motel, a non-person.  There he reads three books about being marooned in time and space and genre, stalled, in between the in-between.  Where is this essay located?  It is perhaps a non-essay essay.  Not a fiction but also not not a fiction.

From Slaughterhouse-Five, the novel written in the form described within it:

Billy Pilgrim can’t read Tralfamadorian, of course, but he could, at least, see how the books were laid out—in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars.  Billy commentated that they might be telegrams. [1]  There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore.  But each clump of symbols is a brief urgent message—describing a situation, a scene.  We Tralfamadorians read them all at once not one after the other.  There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully so that when seen all at once they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep.  There is no beginning no middle no end no suspense no moral no causes no effect.  What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.

This could be a fairytale for all the gift exchange going on and the essay nothing more than an elaborate thank you note or a dramatization of the thank you note.  The propellant of the action of the essay, the trip to Dresden and the subsequent breaking of Vonnegut’s writer’s block, was the Guggenheim gift money.  God love it, he writes.  Later he writes: “Somewhere in there a nice man named Seymour Lawrence gave me a three-book contract…” Then there is the strange exchange (can we call it a gift exchange?) of prisoners on the Elbe, outside Halle.  Vonnegut arrives at Bernard V. O’Hare’s house, “carrying a bottle of Irish Whiskey like a dinner bell.”  There is this too, the part were they “give up” on remembering.  Lewis Hyde in his book The Gift calls gifts “erotic property” meaning that gifts are property that stay in motion.  The gift itself, the thing, is worthless.  It is only in the exchange and in motion that it is valuable.  The exchange binds us together.  The essay moves and moves.  It is relentless in its motion but like a planet, a galaxy spinning, it creates a stasis, a dynamic standstill, at its core.

I like how the essay infects the fiction of the novel that follows after it.  It infiltrates the seams and the seems of the novel.  The essayistic voice returns with a vengeance to open the tenth chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five with the news bulletin of Robert Kennedy’s assassination  coupled with the current events of Martin Luther King’s death and the dead in Vietnam.  The “I” assigned to Vonnegut is like a needle, hypodermic and sartorial.  The “I” proceeds to memoir and his father’s death and returns once more to the return trip to Dresden with his buddy Bernard V. O’Hare.  Interlarded with the essayistic paragraphs are the final anecdotes of Billy Pilgrim and the witnessing of the exhumation of the corpse mines of Dresden.  “The I instead of the eye,” the New Journalism famously asserted, reacting to the irreality of the Vietnam War, borrowing and importing the techniques of fiction into the realm of nonfiction.  But here in the midst of the same moment Vonnegut reverses that osmosis, a new new journalism, that filters back into the novel the hybridized concoction of fact and fiction but gauged now to snag time while always letting it go.



[1]    “What Hath God Wrought” was the first message sent by telegraph on May 24th, 1844. By coincidence, I was in Poughkeepsie, NY on January 27th, 2006, staying at a Marriott Courtyard next to Locust Grove, Samuel Morse’s estate on the day the last telegram was to be sent by Western Union. The last telegram sent, and several other telegrams sent the same day hoping to be the last telegram sent but were not, read: This is the last telegram ever sent.


Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  His father worked for the telephone company as a switchman and would bring home many different kinds of telephones as each of the rooms in the house had at least one extension and some as many as four, a jack on each wall.  These were rotary dial phones as this was the era of mechanical switching before digital circuitry and touch-tone keypads were invented.  When a call came into Martone’s house, the whole house rang.  The bells then were not simulated bells, not synthesized alarms, but actual bells built deep within the many phones, and they rang in bursts, the duration of each varying slightly from phone to phone so that some phone somewhere in the house was ringing even when the others were between rings and then the volume increasing as the silent ones cycled round to join in some tinny telephonic harmony.  Martone’s father retired when solid-state wiring replaced the mechanical switches.  His last job was the cutting over of the old system to the new one.  Martone’s father had, earlier, cut-over the system of direct-dialing long distance as well, spending a long Labor Day weekend away from home to work full time even sleeping in the office, making it possible to dial anyone in the world directly.  Years later, Martone is working on a book called Four for a Quarter.  It is made up of fictions connected to the number four—the four chambers of the heart, the four winds, the four corners of the world, the four types of blood, the four-in-hand tie, the Fab Four, and the country code for the UK, 44, his father wired into all the phones fortnights ago in the switch rooms of Fort Wayne, Indiana.

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