Dream State in Sturgis Library

A handful of years ago I spent half a day, all of a night, and another half day at a marathon reading of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick in New Bedford. It was a wondrous suspended state that I wrote about here on KtB in a piece called the Lingering Loveliness of Long Things.

One weekend this month, I stepped into that same time warp with a reading of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five Or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, his sixth novel and first bestseller, written fifty years ago. I only had to travel five minutes from my Cape Cod home to get to Sturgis Public Library in Barnstable Village, passing the white clapboard house where Vonnegut spent many of his best writing years on my way there. But once in the library, we – listeners and readers both – stepped back in time to . . . well . . . time is slippery in Slaughterhouse-Five. Billy Pilgrim slips between mid-twentieth-century decades: the early forties, the late sixties, the war years and the bore years between. At times, he is making love with his wife on his honeymoon as they conceive their first son, at other times he is sitting motionless in his frigid house as his grown daughter chastises him. Or he’s hunkering down in a cellar slaughterhouse as the beautiful city of Dresden and its 130,000 inhabitants are firebombed out of existence above his head during World War II.  

“All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist.”

I can’t remember who was reading those lines. For five or six hours, it was a dream state in Sturgis Library, in seven-minute stints. I most liked when the reader at one podium stopped immediately at the sound of the timer and the reader at the second podium seamlessly stepped in, mid-sentence. I experienced the same suspended state that the Moby-Dick reading had induced, everything else falling away, me falling into each voice, the cadence and speed and pronunciation. The copy I’d brought sat mostly unopened on my lap. Instead I was completely absorbed in watching and listening to the string of people, some friends, most strangers, all of us brought together by the wampeter of the book, a unifying object that brings otherwise unlinked people together. I reveled in the missing “r”s of those with the thickest of Massachusetts accents, the sonorous baritone of a bearded man with a bowler hat, the ‘40s radio-announcer-voice of a slender giant, the composed voice of my elegant stepdaughter. I delighted when the octogenarian woman with liver spots made her voice gruff when she read, “‘Get out of the road, you dumb motherfucker.’”

To write is such a solitary experience, though every word is part of a love letter of some sort to someone. To read is solitary, too, even as we play out our parts as recipients of the letters, even as we seek out book groups and friends to discuss the stories afterwards. But to read, out-loud, vocal vibrations skipping each and every word across an enclosed space that feels like a castle surrounded by a great moat, everything outside of it meaningless, the airwaves arriving to our awaiting ears . . . that is to slip again into the primordial bodies of our storytelling ancestors.

But the story threads written so long ago still tied us to the world out there, like spider silk unspooling across the moat. We dream of other lives. Seek out old lovers late at night when the alcohol takes grip (but no longer have to ask the operator for the connection). Trauma still causes us to become unstuck in time. Babies are still being sent to war. Still, it goes. 

The night before the reading, Kurt’s daughter Edie, a friend of mine, had given a talk a few doors down from the library in a structure that was once a church and then a courthouse and is now home to the historical organization Tales of Cape Cod. It still feels more like a New England church, with stiff wooden pews and high windows that bathed the space in golden light until darkness fell. Edie shared stories of her family, their dog Sandy, the marsh tromps and the always-open door. Of the moment of realization, with the reading of Sirens of Titans when she was almost a teen, that the man who holed up in his office downstairs amid a cloud of Pall Mall smoke was no ordinary father. 

Then, she paused.

She was not-yet-halfway through her talk, and she gathered herself. “You came to hear about my father,” she said, “but it’s my mother I want to tell you about.”A few years back, Edie found a box of love letters from her soon-to-be father to her soon-to-be mother, Jane. They were complete with his doodles and colorings, his self-deprecation and his adulation of Jane (“Dear Much-Loved, Very Warmly Adored Woofy”) and his hopeful dreams of marrying her and being a writer. Edie has poured over these letters, organizing and ordering them, saving them from the mice and the mold and saving them to share with us. (The letters have been featured in the New Yorker, and they will be published next year by Penguin Random House.)

Only Jane saved her side of the correspondence, but her faith in his potential to become the writer that he did is clear, even with only the mirror-images of his responses. Twenty-six years before Slaughterhouse-Five was published, he wrote to her that he knew there was a story that needed to be written about his experiences during the war – Christmas in a cattle car on a train that would take him to a prisoner-of-war camp, that time in the slaughterhouse cellar. Someday. Somehow.  

She buoyed him, there in their house so close to Barnstable Harbor. As they filled their house with Edie and her siblings and then her cousins that became her siblings after tragedy struck, Jane never asked for credit. Never took it. Edie didn’t know of the support that encouraged her father to write in those formative years until she came across the letters, years after both her parents were gone. She realized that there would have been no Slaughterhouse-Five if Jane had not been there, not only keeping the riot of children alive but seeming to accomplish the much more challenging marital task of continuing to believe in the partner you’ve picked. Even when there’s no money. Even when the recognition comes decades after the work of writing has begun. 

But Jane’s name is mostly forgotten now (along with how many other strong silent wives?), though she did write her own book, and her daughter Edie went on to paint women – domestic goddesses – in heroic states.  It is his name that lives on most.

Back at Sturgis Library, the readers read on, the listeners listen on, my turn comes and goes. And even now, so fresh from the reading, I can’t remember who spoke the words from his pages, but they stay with me:

“And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”

Meera Subramanian is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about the environment and culture for Nature, InsideClimate News, Virginia Quarterly Review, Orion, and others. Her first book is A River Runs Again: A Natural History of India from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka (PublicAffairs, 2015). Visit her at meerasub.org.