Note: This review was originally written back in 2016 as part of a personal "1001+ Book Challenge." I follow a Peter Boxall's 1001 Books: You Must Read Before You Die list and write about books I found particularly noteworthy. This post was edited recently to improve grammar and overall readability, but still reflects the views of a 23-year old me. My writing has improved since then, I promise!
Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut Review
After coming across a couple of his short stories, namely: “The Big Space Fuck” and “Harrison Bergeron,” I became fascinated with Kurt Vonnegut, and have since read 4 of his novels:
Breakfast of Champions (1973)
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965)
Player Piano (1952)
And now, Slapstick or Lonesome no more! (1976).
What interested me initially was Vonnegut’s ability to combine nonsensical comedy with social critique. His novels are often multi-faceted, including a lot of irrelevant characters that somehow seem to work really well together and contribute to an overall theme, one aimed at exposing the anxiety of the West as well as the absurdity of social norms and laws. The nonsensical nature of his novels seemed to escalate with time. Player Piano, his first book, is a relatively tame dystopian text while Breakfast of Champions, published some 21 years later, is off the wall crazy, full of seemingly unnecessary scenes, characters and events. Even Vonnegut himself appears, if briefly, to speak to his inter-textual scifi-writer protagonist, Kilgore Trout (who has his own Wikipedia page and bibliography, seriously). The meeting goes horribly wrong, but I’m getting ahead of myself, that’s a review for another day.
Where does Slapstick fall on the crazy spectrum? Well, somewhere in between. The story is narrated by Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, otherwise known as; The King of Candlesticks, The King of New York, and The President of The United States. We’re off to a good start so far, but the story, unlike some of Vonnegut’s other work, is linear and focused specifically on the experiences of the narrator. While a lot of things are alluded to, the book is full of plot holes, which Vonnegut actually acknowledges in the epilogue (259). The first person narrative style is not omniscient and therefore makes Wilbur unreliable as well as rendering most of the things mentioned in the book vague and unbelievable.
The structure of the text is quite interesting; there are frequent section breaks that lead me to think that Vonnegut was likely trying to meet a page limit. Each chapter is no more than about 3-4 pages and each page includes only about 2-3 paragraphs that are separated by empty space. Vonnegut often ends the paragraphs with “Hi ho,” something he attributes to having “lived too long” (25) and this continues throughout the book, though he promises not to say it anymore in Chapter 2 (29).
The events of the book begin with Wilbur recounting his childhood days with his sister, Eliza. The two are hideous twins who were born into a prestigious family. Their parents, horrified by their appearance and apparent lack of intelligence, confine them to a mansion on an asteroid. There the twins discover that they can become super intelligent when they “put their heads together,” an act that is loosely portrayed as incestuous intercourse. The two are separated by their psychologist because of the transgressive nature of the act and Eliza is confined to an asylum, while Wilbur is sent to live with his mother. He then goes to medical school and becomes a pediatrician and eventually becomes POTUS, while Eliza is said to have died on Mars. Things inevitably go to hell once Wilbur becomes president, but the people like him because he essentially does away with American loneliness by assigning citizens middle names. Sharing a middle name with someone makes you related, under President Swain’s law, and while the country plunges into the dark ages, people are nevertheless happy because they no longer feel alone. Yeah.
So, what the hell does it mean? Well, Vonnegut himself explains the book in the prologue via a brief autobiographical overview (1-21). Vonnegut came up with the idea for Slapstick while on his way to his uncle’s funeral. While on a plane with his brother, Vonnegut recalled the death of their sister. She died of cancer shortly before the funeral, and her husband had coincidentally died 2 days before her due to a train accident as well. Vonnegut was left with 3 of their sons in his custody. Having witnessed horrors in WWII, Vonnegut was no stranger to tragedy, and often approached life in a somewhat bleak, but nevertheless comical manner. The novel is a kind of ode to the relationship he shared with his sister as well as a “meditation” on the comforts of large families. There is also frequent mention of the Chinese in the book, which I would attribute to being a parody of communist concerns at the time, though that is somewhat speculative. I suppose the novel fulfills its purpose, though I think the meaning and significance of this purpose will be largely lost on most readers.
As for the rating? Well, there was no better judge of Kurt Vonnegut than Kurt Vonnegut. In his autobiographical collection, titled Palm Sunday, Vonnegut included a report card in Chapter 18, which gave Slapstick a “D.” I would agree with this grade, while the novel was an easy and fun read, it was not as interesting or engaging as Breakfast of Champions, for example (though he gave it a C).
I give Slapstick a 5/10. Fun, easy, and quick reading, but not particularly meaningful to anyone other than Kurt Vonnegut.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slapstick, Or, Lonesome No More! New York: Random House, 1999. Print.