At the time of the 2004 presidential election, the nation was overwhelmed by fear—fear of terrorists, of John Kerry’s rambling answers, of gay people having the right to get married. It was clear that the war in Iraq was being mismanaged and that the rationale for military action had been severely flawed, based more on national anxiety than any real threat. On election night, I sat in the dark until George Bush’s victory was announced. I’ve never felt so disappointed as an American before. It was the first time in my life that the political had become personal.
I began working on a novel in order to come to an understanding of what was happening in our country. Why were we so afraid? And how had fear led us to war?
I searched out other novels that deal with similar questions and soon enough found myself rereading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. First published in 1969, the book follows Billy Pilgrim, a young American prisoner of war who witnesses the Allied bombing of Dresden, Germany, during World War II. In a good-natured prologue, Vonnegut recounts telling Harrison Starr, a movie producer, that he was working on it. “‘Is it an anti-war book?'” Starr asks.
“Yes,” I said. “I guess.”
“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”
“No, what do you say, Harrison Starr?”
“I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?'”
What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.
Why did Vonnegut believe war is inevitable? I started to write to find an answer, developing several chapters about a Chicago family struggling with that inevitability, set against the backdrop of the invasion of Iraq. As a tribute, I decided to set the story in Hyde Park, at the University of Chicago, where Vonnegut did his graduate work.
I wanted to attain the tone Vonnegut had achieved in Slaughterhouse—a combination of the epic and the comically absurd encapsulated in the book’s famous refrain, “So it goes.” I was especially interested in how he built Billy Pilgrim, who travels back and forth in time, searching for meaning in a fractured world. He’s introduced to the reader like this: “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”
What a startling, direct way to present the character and his situation simultaneously. I studied that line over and over. If Billy Pilgrim could become unstuck in time, then almost anything could happen. Vonnegut was exploring a phenomenon no other character in literature had ever faced before, which felt bold and exciting.
I decided to begin my novel, The Great Perhaps, like this: “Anything resembling a cloud will cause Jonathan Casper to faint.” I wanted to appropriate the same sense of surprise and suggest that the problems of the main character are completely his own, setting up Jonathan—a 48-year-old Chicago professor—as someone at dire odds with the larger world.
I went back to Slaughterhouse again and again, borrowing the sprawling scale of Vonnegut’s narrative, which darts in and out of place and time, from the past to the distant future. I wanted The Great Perhaps to have the same sense of scale because I was discovering as I wrote that the fears this Chicago family faces are very similar to the fears humans have had for centuries. I even included a number of illustrations to break up the text—something Vonnegut does throughout Slaughterhouse.
When Vonnegut died in 2007, I was only about two-thirds done with The Great Perhaps and I felt like I’d failed him I’d planned on sending him a copy as thanks for the years of inspiration. Even now, I like to imagine him reading it and thinking, “So it goes.”