This piece is part of a specially commissioned portfolio in which three contemporary novelists look at the ways personal and historic memory shape the present. In another entry, César Aira recalls his childhood in Coronel Pringles, Argentina, and the cruelty of his hometown's self-designated cultural curator: his mother. And Leipzig-based author Heike Geissler delves into the imbrication of writing and mortality in our exasperated age of news cycles, scandal and movement.
During an elective stay at a psychiatric hospital, Billy Pilgrim, protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five, meets a science-fiction fan. Eliot Rosewater – the fan – likes a certain (fictional) writer very much. This writer, one Kilgore Trout, has become obscure. No one reads Trout’s books anymore. Even Rosewater maintains that they aren’t very well written. The only thing is, they’re full of interesting ideas.
Pilgrim’s madness, his tendency to come ‘unstuck’ in time, to claim to have travelled to an extraterrestrial zone inhabited by five-dimensional beings and to have been compelled to mate with a beautiful former porn star, is variously chalked up to his readings in Trout’s oeuvre. The effects of near-deaths suffered during his service in World War II, including Pilgrim’s experience of the fire-bombing of Dresden, are seen as negligible. It’s not the trauma, it’s the science fiction, the fantasy, that’s keeping Pilgrim from grounding himself reliably in postwar reality. Rosewater, Pilgrim’s guide to the Troutian universe, is, in his own way, reluctant to diagnose the latter’s temporal homelessness, but he does offer a clue. Having informed Pilgrim that ‘everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov (1880) by Feodor Dostoevsky’, Rosewater concludes, ‘But that isn’t enough any more.’
That isn’t enough any more. There hardly seems a more apt sentence to describe the state of the US during the year Vonnegut’s book was published. ‘That’ – by which we must assume Rosewater means a story about inheritance that privileges national history in its interaction with parental pressures, money and god – is no longer enough. It can’t tell us everything and/or knowing ‘everything there [is] to know about life’ is no longer all that useful. What you need to know in order to survive now – and specifically in 1969 – is something more.
Whether you think novels can reliably act as guides for living (and perhaps that’s an outmoded, 19th-century notion in itself), Vonnegut is pointing to a certain gap that has inserted itself into narrative, by which he seems to intend humanity’s narrative. He indicates this gap through his fiction, but we might also consider it by way of the actual experience of Michael Collins, the somewhat lesser-known third astronaut who participated in the Apollo 11 mission that put Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin on the lunar surface on 20 July 1969. Collins, who remained behind in the Columbia command module, spent a day orbiting the Moon while Armstrong and Aldrin cowboyed down. For 48 minutes of each rotation, the Moon’s mass blocked all radio contact between the Columbia and Earth. Although Collins has always maintained that he enjoyed these moments of unprecedented isolation from all humans, he wrote a series of notes during this time in which he described his ‘terror’ that Armstrong and Aldrin might not be able to ascend: ‘If they fail to rise from the surface, or crash back into it, I am not going to commit suicide; I am coming home, forthwith, but I will be a marked man for life and I know it.’
Everyone made it back, mostly in one piece, and thus there was no marked man, no guilty survivor singled out by history, no one with cause to wonder why he had lived while others hadn’t. It was apparently enough. Here we might think, too, of the strange pronouncement Armstrong made – ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’ – as he shuffled onto a landscape he and Aldrin compared to the North American ‘high desert’, as if they had been transported to a particularly desolate scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or The Wild Bunch. (Both films were, incidentally, extended narrative descriptions, also from 1969, of chummy suicide missions.) Later, no one mentioned the redundancy in the explorer’s valiant words. When I consider his language now, I’m only able to make sense of Armstrong’s sentence if I define ‘mankind’ not merely as a category of greater magnitude than ‘man’, but also as a category that exists in the future of ‘man’. Mankind is what man becomes, perhaps, through radical spatial and temporal re- and/or dis-location. In fact, a transmission glitch had removed an indefinite article from Armstrong’s sentence, so no one heard: ‘That’s one small step for a man …’ In other words, abetted by a minor telecommunicative failure, the astronaut produced a mysterious posthumanist aphorism instead of an obvious analogy. There was no solitary, marked man; mankind would go vastly, gigantically forward, together. Everyone stared up into the sky, which is to say, into their televisions and newspapers. They wore the latest sunglasses, which had recently proliferated in myriad space-age silhouettes and candy colours. Everyone, that is, who didn’t think the whole thing was a hoax enacted on a soundstage.
But that wasn’t enough.
Mick Jagger, lead singer of The Rolling Stones, would say, with unwitting irony, during a press conference held to announce the Altamont Speedway Free Festival of December 1969, at which a young man named Meredith Hunter would be stabbed to death: ‘It’s creating a sort of microcosmic society which sets an example to the rest of America as to how one can behave in large gatherings.’ There was a hope inherent to such ill-fated and unavoidably commercial visions of mass presence – as witnessed earlier that year at the muddy, trippy music festival outside the small town of Woodstock in upstate New York – that through ecstatic gathering, through the shedding of temporal and spatial constraints associated with a repressive national history plus norms of nuclear family, via emancipatory chemical and rhythmic means, etc. (we have been told the story many times), something resembling ‘coming together’ might take place. The Brothers Karamazov wasn’t enough and, although the Altamont Speedway was just outside of San Francisco, the Summer of Love had been over for two years, the Haight’s narcotic well increasingly stocked with methamphetamines. This was the autumn when Jagger, a dropout of the London School of Economics, frequently appeared on stage dressed as Uncle Sam. He and his band were solidifying their share of the US market. Altamont was a scheme thrown together by Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and Rock Scully, the manager of the Grateful Dead. At Altamont, Jagger, at first flirtatious, complained about the state of his fly: ‘You don’t want my trousers to fall down, now do you?’ And, later, with greater gravity, as the front rows of concertgoers brawled with a Hells Angels biker gang, he demanded: ‘Who’s fighting and what for?’ It was hardly the sort of rhetorical question on which a politics might be built and, in truth, attendees were about to witness the violent breakdown of the microcosmic society Jagger had heralded. The lifecycle of such utopias was becoming distressingly short and attendance, as in wider society, was safer for some than others. For those who disliked camping, mud and crowds, there was always the newly opened Gap store on San Francisco’s Ocean Avenue, purveyor of ‘nitty-gritty blue jeans’ and ‘rugged cords’.
Charles Manson was a great fan of popular music and always a casual dresser in spite of his grandiose pretensions. He and his ‘Family’ came together around an eschatological myth of a race war derived from demented exegeses of the New Testament and The Beatles’ White Album (1968). A rock’n’roll visionary in his own mind, Manson devised a method for surviving the end of the 1960s that required the violent deaths of people tangentially related to individuals in the Los Angeles music scene whom Manson felt had snubbed him. If Manson’s music seemed not to give rise to the historically predetermined slaughter his messianic pastiche of British invasion plus Book of Revelation had disclosed, then surely these killings would be a catalyst. Having brutally done away with seven people on 8 and 9 August 1969 (Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, Leno LaBianca, Rosemary LaBianca, Steven Parent, Jay Sebring, Sharon Tate), the Family retired to Death Valley. There, they believed that they were to discover a subterranean city where they would live out the apocalypse, during the course of which white people would be decimated. They would subsequently, marked men (and women), return to rule over the confused non-white victors, whom they would mercilessly exploit for profit, forming a new world-historical hegemony: a giant leap.
Thus, it really meant something to be a survivor in 1969; it meant something more than made sense. It felt like a species of space madness, a hope to become unstuck from all previously accepted narratives, which was at once terrifying and, allegedly, the only way out. It meant so much that it was enough for Senator Ted Kennedy to do just that. It didn’t matter that Democratic campaign specialist Mary Jo Kopechne had died on the evening of 18 July 1969, two days after the morning of the day when the three Apollo 11 astronauts had been launched overhead by means of a cone-like combination of skyscraper and bomb. Kennedy could not, in truth, have selected a better night to be the most prominent presidential hopeful in America committing vehicular manslaughter – if, of course, that is indeed what happened – so distracted was everyone on Earth. The Chappaquiddick Incident would dash this last surviving Kennedy brother’s ambitions to be the presumptive nominee in 1972 (George McGovern received the nod), but it did not fully incapacitate him. His continued liberty was, in no small part, due to a convincing performance involving a neck brace and other therapeutic props, along with a compliant local police force in Massachusetts, who ensured that there was no autopsy of Kopechne’s body. Indeed, Kennedy’s explanation of what did occur was so strange and obviously dependent on popular conceptions of the time-bending effects of compounded physical and psychological trauma – resulting from tragedies of both a personal and historical nature – as to resemble Pilgrim’s accounts of alien abduction to planet Tralfamadore: the world of beings who exist in all times at once, and who are thus always already privy to the form of future events. ‘My conduct and conversations during the next several hours, to the extent that I can remember them, make no sense to me at all,’ Kennedy explained, reading from a script into a television camera. His face was weirdly flushed, but his voice was even and flawlessly authoritative. The account of the incident featured a nimble leap between a valiant watery rescue attempt that left the senator panting, concussed, thrown from the confines of standard space and time onto his back on a nighttime lawn. (The viewer could only imagine the stars he saw.) ‘Although my doctors informed me that I suffered a cerebral concussion, as well as shock, I do not seek to escape responsibility for my actions by placing the blame either on the physical and emotional trauma brought on by the accident,’ he said, dropping the ‘T’ word in what was surely one of its highest-profile outings to date. Of course, this, ‘escap[ing] responsibility’, was exactly what he proceeded to do, just a few paragraphs later:
All kinds of scrambled thoughts – all of them confused, some of them irrational, many of them which I cannot recall, and some of which I would not have seriously entertained under normal circumstances – went through my mind during this period. They were reflected in the various inexplicable, inconsistent and inconclusive things I said and did, including such questions as whether the girl might still be alive somewhere out of that immediate area, whether some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys, whether there was some justifiable reason for me to doubt what had happened and to delay my report, whether somehow the awful weight of this incredible incident might in some way pass from my shoulders.
Kennedy time-travelled. He careened into a future in which he might, at last, become an unmarked man and then swam back again. In the present, he inquired about things that could not possibly be true. His delusion was offered up as proof of his status as a victim. His speechwriter had obviously read Slaughterhouse-Five when it had been released a few months earlier in March – and with a preternatural comprehension of the novel’s symbolic solution to the intertwined problems of guilt and inheritance. The Brothers Karamazov wasn’t enough these days; after all, you couldn’t escape to America, as Dostoevsky’s Dmitri plans to do at the novel’s close, if you were already living in it.
Kennedy’s survivor’s guilt could have come from any number of places and, in this sense, it was easy to believe him. All of his male siblings were dead and his father, Joe, had ordered his eldest sister, Rosemary, to be lobotomized in 1941, when she was just 23 years old. In 1972, National Lampoon printed a fake advert featuring a white Volkswagen Beetle buoyant in dark water to make the awful joke that, if only Ted Kennedy had been driving such a car – famously so non-dense that it would float – at the time of the Chappaquiddick Incident, he would have become president in that year’s election. It is not clear whether The National Lampoon knew that, while alive, Kopechne had driven an identical Volkswagen model. In any case, it was a strange, speculative repetition. Kopechne had been professionally successful, was unmarried at 28 and upwardly mobile. Her careful work strategy, connections and sobriety had not been enough to save her. What you needed to survive in 1969 was, apparently, not the straight and narrow. What you needed was fiction. And guilt.
This article first appeared in frieze issue 204 with the headline ‘Marked Men’
Main image: Bill Owens, Altamont Speedway Free Festival, 1969, photograph. Courtesy: Bill Owens Archive
First published in Issue 204