“Making Nonsense of the Little Categories”: Slaughterhouse-Five and The Memoirs of a Survivor as autobiographical science fiction
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) are both novels that blend autobiography with science fiction. In a review of Vonnegut’s Mother Night, Lessing writes that he “makes nonsense of the little categories”. The same applies to Lessing. These two novels live in the porous borders between genre—between fiction and non-fiction. Vonnegut writes that he can’t remember much of his experiences in the firebombing of Dresden in the Second World War. The war novel he writes about them has a protagonist who is “unstuck in time”. I frame my discussion of Slaughterhouse around problems of temporal and narrative ordering. Through use of fractured time, repetitions, and the chronotope, Vonnegut finds a way to express his missing and traumatic memories of the war. Lessing’s memories are of her early childhood in Persia and Southern Rhodesia. These memories are warped, claustrophobic, and difficult to articulate. Like Slaughterhouse, Memoirs fractures time and space. I organise my discussion of Lessing’s novel around the latter, focusing on a literalised porous border: her dissolving living room wall. Borders and portals between spaces in Memoirs blend the dystopian, science-fiction world of the city with the world of Lessing’s memories; dreams with reality; and the static with the dynamic. I pose several answers to the question of why science fiction and autobiography. A shared occupation of the two authors was a concern for the madness and dissolution of society, and science fiction engages in a tradition of expressing these concerns. Additionally, Vonnegut and Lessing use the tools of a genre in which it is acceptable for time and space to be warped or fractured. These tools not only allow for the expression of memories that are fragmented, difficult, and half forgotten, but produce worlds that mirror the form of these personal memories.