- Home and Exilic Consciousness:Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaugherhouse-Five and William Spanos’ In the Neighborhood of Zero
Billy took his pecker out, there in the prison night, and peed and peed on the ground. Then he put it away again, more or less, and contemplated a new problem: Where had he come from, and where should he go now?—Vonnegut (2009, 158)
We also come from different times. We are innocent children in their eyes, and they are experienced adults in ours. Nor for that matter do I really know Aris and he me. And I am tempted to say the same about Brigitte and Frieda, despite their being German-Czech. We are all strangers to each other.—Spanos (2010, 179)
In his important essay, “Of Other Spaces,” Michel Foucault discusses various types and traits of the heterotopias. The heterotopias, unlike utopias, are spaces that are real and yet marked as different from the “real” spaces. One of the two types of the heterotopias, according to Foucault, is the heterotopia of deviation. Any sites that deviate from normality constitute the heterotopia of deviation, such as psychiatric hospitals and prisons. However, Foucault suggests that the heterotopias of deviation may include any site inhabited by deviatory subjects, who, in the U.S. context, include new immigrants, non-Christians, homosexuals, and non-conformists. Following Foucault, the heterotopias are both a part of and apart from normal spaces and function as counter-sites, “a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted” (1986, 24). The heterotopias at the same time challenge established conventions and, by the very act, function as their necessary “others.”
Foucault’s notion of heterotopias can be used as an analytical tool to investigate the way how the nation is structured and how it self-sustains. For one, the state’s identity depends, among other things, on its citizens’ [End Page 279] alacrity to conform to established norms, and it deems as deviant those who veer from them. But since the deviants of the nation-state inhabit within it while at the same time refusing to respond to its call to conform, the state labels them as dangerous others. According to Edward Said, these modern state’s dangerous others exhibit exilic consciousness, which enables them to be critical of a group, communal or national identity precisely because such exclusionary notion of identity often leads to devastating results. In this essay, I intend to investigate similar instances of exilic consciousness that appear in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and William V. Spanos’ In the Neighborhood of Zero. Similarities both in subject matter and form have prompted me to study these works together. More importantly, Vonnegut and Spanos dramatize the lunacy displayed by modern nation-states, and provide us with an alternative as shown through the exilic consciousness of their main characters, namely Billy Pilgrim and Bill Spanos.
Based on the Allied bombing of the city of Dresden, Germany during World War II, these works—which are “part-novels” in the sense that Jospeh Keith uses the term (2013, 19)1—demonstrate moments when the subjugated subjects either willingly or unwillingly do not fit into the forms of racialized and sexualized national identity. Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, and Bill Spanos in In the Neighborhood of Zero are anything but good “American” soldiers. They have neither a blind faith in their government that deploys them to war despite their lack of preparedness, nor the level of naivety and illusion that is required of a devoted soldier. Even their captors, once they fall into Germans hands, cannot help laughing at their childish appearance, especially in regards with Billy Pilgrim. Unlike Billy Pilgrim, Bill Spanos tries hard at the beginning to be a good American soldier, chiefly because his immigrant father encourages him to join the U.S. military. However, it does not take long for Spanos to realize that he cannot be just another regular American soldier fighting a “good war” for his country. He witnesses segregation at its ugliest during his training in the U.S. Army, in which African...