Matthew Gannon and Wilson Taylor in The Tribune:
Kurt Vonnegut died 14 years ago today. A few weeks beforehand, he had been taking his dog for a walk and got tangled up in the leash. The 84-year-old American fabulist fell and hit his head on the sidewalk outside his midtown Manhattan brownstone, slipping into a coma that he never came out of. So it goes, the late author might have said.
‘So it goes’ is the characteristically resigned phrase that recurs throughout Vonnegut’s bleakly witty and moving 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five. In marking the anniversary of his death, we might also remember another line from that work, which includes time travel and aliens and the real story of Vonnegut’s time as a prisoner of the Nazis during the 1945 Allied firebombing of Dresden: ‘When a person dies he only appears to die.’
This is something the novel’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, learns from the Tralfamadorians, an extraterrestrial species that experiences time all at once rather than sequentially. Even if someone is dead now, they tell Billy, ‘he is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral.’
It’s a comforting idea of sorts. ‘When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse,’ Billy explains, ‘all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments.’
Billy Pilgrim becomes ‘unstuck in time’ in Slaughterhouse-Five, and he is unexpectedly dragged from one moment to another—even before his birth and after his death—by some unknown power. He’s an old man one minute and a baby the next. He never knows when he’ll be, and without warning he can be brought back to that firebombing that Vonnegut himself only survived because he and the rest of the prisoners of war sheltered in the basement of an abandoned slaughterhouse.