Archive for October, 2021

Kiss of the Spider Woman

October 17, 2021

Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel Kiss of the Spider Woman (translated by Thomas Colchie in 1979) remains his most famous work (it certainly seems to be the only one of his novels still in print in the UK). The novel is set almost entirely in a prison cell containing two very different inmates. One, Valentin, is a political prisoner; the other, Molina, is gay, charged with “corruption of minors”. The novel mainly consists of the dialogue between the two men – although there are moments when italics are used to show us Molina’s thoughts, and, later, Molina’s dialogue with the prison Warden and some police reports, there is no other narrative. This has the interesting effect of both emphasising their separation and togetherness; their difference and their need for each other.

It’s well known that Puig was influenced by cinema as much as literature, and the novel begins with Molina telling Valentin the story of the film Cat People to pass the time, at least in the evening – during the day, Valentin tells him:

“If I’m not busy reading and I’m still keeping quiet, it’s just because I’m thinking. So don’t take it personally.”

Valentin is presented as a serious person devoted to the cause of revolution; Molina as weaker and more trivial. Molina is, in Puig’s own words, an old-fashioned homosexual:

“I wanted to work with an unsophisticated type, a reactionary in a way – the type of homosexual who rejects all experimentation, all new trends. They’ve accepted the models of behaviour from the Forties – you know the subdued woman and the dashing male – and they have, of course, identified with the subdued though heroic woman.”

(as quoted in Suzanne Jill Levine’s Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman). This role he has adopted is not unrelated to his love of classic cinema. While he identifies with the heroine, his idea of the ideal man is also drawn from the screen:

“…to be marvellous-looking and strong, but without making any fuss about it, and also walking very tall.”

Valentin, meanwhile, has a girlfriend outside the prison, but he cannot afford to be romantic, as he sees it, describing her as “secondary” to the cause; “I’m secondary to her, too, because she also knows what’s most important.” Cat People is a film about repressed sexuality, and, if that wasn’t enough to suggest Puig’s focus, the novel contains numerous footnotes (a tactic he first used in his previous novel, The Buenos Aires Affair) on the subject of homosexuality, a potted history of discredited and often ridiculous theories. Instead, both Valentin and the reader discover Molina as an individual.

Molina falls ill with what appears to be food poisoning, and, just as he recovers, Valentin is similarly afflicted. Molina cares for him, bringing him tea and washing his sheets and his body. He shares the food his mother brings him until Valentin is well again. Except (and stop reading now if you don’ t want to know something the reader only discovers halfway through the novel) this is only what appears to be happening. Molina has, in fact, been placed in the cell to gain information from Valentin, having been offered the possibility of a pardon:

“…we’re expecting you to know how to manage things. Do you seem to be making any headway, or what?”

The groceries from his mother are actually bought by the Warden to explain why Molina has been out his cell; the illness a result of poisoned food, specifically designed to weaken Valentin and so strengthen his relationship with Molina. Yet we already sense that the plan Molina presents to the Warden is not the one he is carrying out in the cell. When Valentin is ill and he wants to tell his cellmate about his life outside, Molina stops him sharply:

“Don’t tell me about it please. That’s all just a lot of crazy business, and I don’t want to know anything about your political goings-on, all those secrets and who knows what else.”

The groceries he asks the Warden to buy are to allow Valentin to recover from his illness, avoiding the prison food. Where our initial impression is that Valentin is the heroic figure, in fact it is Molina who is acting heroically, and dangerously, though without recognition. Puig manages to write a novel that works both as a thriller and as a love story. He is able to include his cinematic influences – some of the film summaries are real films, others are not – in a way that enhances our understanding of the characters and allows them to understand each other better. In a sense, it is the language through which they initially communicate. Suzanne Jill Levine argues that Valentin and Molina represent two sides of Puig:

“Together they even inherit his real-life technique for dealing with insomnia by seeking refuge in movies.”

It is perhaps this that gives the novel it’s power, with it’s two central characters both in opposition and seeming to unite. Whatever the case, the novel deserves its status as one of the great novels of the Latin American Boom years.

A Lifetime on Clouds

October 16, 2021

If “Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three” (according to Philip Larkin) then masturbation can be dated to the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969. Seven years later, another Nobel Prize loser (though a less famous one) turned to the same topic for his second novel, A Lifetime on Clouds. The novel’s protagonist, 16-year-old schoolboy Adrian Sherd, supplements his dull life in the Melbourne suburbs of the 1950s with thrilling sexual fantasies set across the United States of America and featuring a cast of biddable movie stars. The suburban blandness of Adrian’s life is perhaps best summed up in the statement:

“In the two years since the Sherds had moved to Accrington, they had almost never gone out after dark.”

Even his fantasy life must rely almost entirely on imagination, lacking the regular visits to the cinema of his friend Seskis, the National Geographics of Ullathorne’s family, or even the variety of lubricants available to O’Mullane (“Sometimes he stung or burnt himself and had to give up doing it for a few days.”) His film stars come from the pages of newspapers, but his approach is methodical, using a model railway to decide which particular state he will visit, suggesting that geographical escape is as important as physical gratification. Sex just seems more likely in the USA; in fact, so sexless does Australia seem that Adrian wonders if he “might have been a very rare kind of sex maniac.”

The fantasies are not graphic – Adrian lacks the knowledge to go beyond:

“…he grappled with Marilyn’s naked body and finally subdued her and copulated with her.”

One of the funnier sections of the novel involves Adrian attempting to discover what exactly lies between a woman’s legs and being thwarted at every turn. At the age of nine he joins a ‘secret society’ whose sole purpose is to convince a girl to “pull down their pants” but on the only occasion they succeed he is unable to get to the front of the crowd in time to see anything. Next, he tries an art encyclopaedia – “there were cocks and balls and breasts everywhere” – but it is taken from him before he can find what he is looking for. Even Man Junior is no use:

“He saw plenty of naked women, but every one of them had something (a beach ball, a bucket and spade, a fluffy dog, a trailing vine, a leopard’s skin, or simply her own upraised leg) concealing the place he had waited so long to see.”

Though Adrian indulges his sexual urges, he is also tormented by them, due to his Catholicism. After confession on Thursday he must abstain until he has been to Mass on Sunday. At school the priests warn him against films, non-Catholic newspapers, and “the emphasis that some people nowadays put on the female bosom.”

When he is not fantasising about sex, Adrian rewrites history to accommodate his obsession – Cain becomes the “first in human history to commit the solitary sin,” something that even God does not foresee. Those that follow are lucky (according to Adrian) because “there were slavegirls in every city.” During the Dark Ages “Europe was hardly troubled by sex” but with the arrival of the Renaissance “nude paintings and statues began to appear” making the younger generation “resentful of the Church’s strict attitude to impurity” and thus leading directly to the Reformation. In other words, Adrian’s version of history is entirely filtered through the rise and fall of masturbation.

This rewritten history of the world demonstrates Adrian’s powerful imagination, so powerful that fantasy and reality, though never indistinguishable in the narrative, frequently blend. For example, when a priest tells him that Hollywood stars have to “surrender” their bodies to the directors and producers, he reflects how the actresses of his fantasies “never mentioned those things to Adrian for fear of spoiling the fun of their outings together.”

Adrian’s redemption comes in the form of a girl of his own age he sees at mass one day:

“Her face was angelic. She had the kind of beauty that could inspire a man to do the impossible.”

Beside this girl his fantasy film stars look “obscene and revolting.” “For too long he had been led stary by dreams of America,” Part One of the novel ends, “He was about to begin a new life in the real world of Australia.” The irony is that, while Adrian’s life may be new, it is not any more real. His erotic fantasies are replaced with Catholic fantasies. He finds the train carriage the girl travels to school on and begins a wordless relationship where, for example, he will bring out a poetry book to read (sensitivity) but follow up with Sporting Globe (“he dreaded her thinking he was queer or unmanly”). In this way he gets to know her name, Denise, after placing his own (on the cover of an exercise book) before her eyes (she reciprocates). For the most part the relationship takes place in his head, where they are soon married, thus allowing him to lecture her as a caring husband, delivering straight-faced such post-coital comments as: “I’m sorry, Denise, but I did my best to warn you beforehand.” Luckily for him, he is also in charge of Denise’s dialogue:

“And Adrian, if you feel the need for my body again in the next few days, please don’t hesitate to ask me.”

And so the novel becomes a satire of male fantasies of women – Adrian providing us with both the sexually avaricious and the angelically pure. Some readers may find Adrian’s imaginary marriage in the second part even harder to take than his adolescent fantasies in the first, particularly as it becomes increasingly detached from reality, but this, I suspect, is Murnane’s intention. In his introduction, Andy Griffiths declares, “If you only read one Gerald Murnane novel in your life, make it this one.” That would seem a strange choice, but as a counterbalance to his later work it is worth seeking out.

Too Loud a Solitude

October 15, 2021

Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude existed in not two but three different versions in 1976: two in verse and a third, which we are familiar with thanks to Michael Henry Heim’s 1980 translation, in prose. A further version, in which it was combined with the more recently translated Tender Barbarian, was published in 1981, partly in response to censorship, but primarily because recycling and reworking was central to Hrabal’s art – the narrator and central character, Haňťa, for example, had already appeared in a short story. Too Loud a Solitude also mines Hrabal’s own biography for its material, a process that began not on the page, but with the choices he made in his life:

“I even invented a theory to account for me, the theory of ‘artificial destiny’, sticking my own self somewhere I never wanted to be. I, shy little me, used to hawk life insurance, was an assistant in a pharmacy, had a job at a steel works, but always I kept on writing.”

(quoted in Jiří Pelán’s Bohumil Hrabal: A Full-length Portrait, translated by David Short). Like Haňťa, Hrabal worked compacting paper and books – though not for the thirty-five years his narrator announces at the start of every chapter, the first suggestion of the novel’s elegiac tone, leading the reader to suspect that Haňťa’s time may be up as larger machines and a less ‘hands-on’ (literally) approach replaces him. The object of his work was, of course, not simply recycling, but also censorship:

“Rare books perish in my press, under my hands, yet I am unable to stop their flow. I am nothing but a refined butcher.”

(The image of Haňťa as a butcher will be set before us when the slaughterhouse sends “a truckload of blood-stained paper”). Before he destroys these books, however, Haňťa reads them, though ‘read’ doesn’t convey the physical intimacy Hrabal’s language suggests as Haňťa describes “smearing myself with letters” and how he will “pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop.” It is as if he absorbs the books he must destroy, returning home…

“…with every bale I’ve compacted that day fading softly and quietly inside me. I have a physical sense of myself as a bale of compacted books, the seat of a tiny pilot light of karma, like the flame in a gas refrigerator, an eternal flame I feed daily with the oil of my thoughts, which come from what I unwittingly read during work in the books I am now taking home in my briefcase.”

Haňťa is aware that his daily work is barbaric – at one point he approaches a policeman and begs him to arrest him: “I’d committed a crime, a crime against humanity” – however, over time, he comes to see the “beauty of destruction.” He ritualises his job by “placing a book open to its finest passage in the heart” of each bale. More generally there is a spiritual dimension to Haňťa’s view of the world, though one not rooted in a particular religion. His digressions, in a narrative that is more digression than plot, frequently venture into religion and philosophy, for example where he riffs on Jesus and Lao-tze (though in “I see Jesus as a playboy and Lao-tze as an old gland-abandoned bachelor” I’m not sure ‘gland-abandoned’ would have been my go-to phrase in the translation, great as it sounds).

Unusually for Hrabal, the novel also touches on the Nazi death camps, here the destination of a Gypsy girl with whom Haňťa lived for a while, never knowing, he says, her name:

“She hardly ever kissed me, nor I her; we said everything with her hands and then lay there looking at the sparks and flickers in the old cast-iron stove, curls of light from the death of wood.”

The description of their relationship undermines any argument that Hrabal’s characters, or indeed the author himself, are clownish. In fact, the Gypsy girl’s disappearance lies at the heart of the novel, convincing Haňťa that “the heavens are not humane.” Her spirit can be seen in the mice who co-habit the basement with our narrator, “most of them friendly little creatures.” They both absorb and destroy the books like Haňťa by “munching” them. The mice, in turn, are conflated with Hrabal’s generation, lost to mundane, manual work:

“…the cellars are headquarters for Prague’s fallen angels, university educated men who have lost a battle they never fought, yet continue to work toward a clearer image of the world.”

It is a mouse that reminds Haňťa that “The highest law is love, the love that is compassion,” which, in turn, reminds him of the Gypsy girl. When she does not return at the end of the war, he is confident that, although the heavens are not humane, “I still was at the time.” Now, however, he feels that “anyone who compacts waste for a living is no more humane than the heavens.” At the same time, he realises that even his symbolic resistance to cultural destruction will no longer be possible when he visits the new “gigantic press that did the work of twenty”:

“Gone were the days of small joys, of finds, of books thrown away by mistake: these people represented a new way of thinking.”

(Though in typical Hrabal style, Haňťa is most shocked that the workmen are drinking milk rather than beer). It is this that sets up the novel’s tragic ending which only the power of Hrabal’s prose raises to transcendence.

The Space Machine

October 13, 2021

The Space Machine is, in many ways, out of keeping both with the three novels Christopher Priest wrote before it, and with those which came after. This is, of course, partly because the novel is an affectionate pastiche of H G Wells, but also, I suspect, because of the delight Priest seems to have taken in writing it:

“I thoroughly enjoyed writing this one, probably more than I should have done. For me it represents a kind of personal peak, because I wrote it in an extrovert mood during a happy period of my life, at a time when I wasn’t too broke, and I was not yet feeling held back by other people putting labels on me.”

(He does, however, go on to note that, “Everything went smoothly until publication day, when the Observer memorably observed, ‘Three hundred pages of homicidal tedium.’”)

The Space Machine takes two of Well’s most famous novels, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, and grafts them together into a single narrative. It begins in 1903 and, like Wells, Priest uses a narrator to tell his story, in this instance a commercial traveller, Edward Turnbull. As the novel opens the greatest mystery is far from scientific as Turnbull and fellow salesman, Dykes, discuss the arrival of a young woman, Miss Fitzgibbon, at the hotel where they are staying. Dykes wishes to take a bet on who can speak to her first (this may be Edwardian rather Victorian England, but Miss Fitzgibbon (Amelia) is strictly out of bounds), but Turnbull is more intrigued when he hears that she works for the inventor, Sir William Reynolds – he has recently designed a Visibility Protection Mask for motoring and hopes to interest Sir William. Turnbull arranges an ‘accidental’ meeting as Amelia passes his room that night but, when they face the danger of being caught by the landlady, they are forced to enter Miss Fitzgibbon’s room. Priest has fun with necessity versus propriety from the start:

“‘Your room?’ I said in astonishment. ‘Do you not want a chaperone?’”

Edward and Amelia’s attempts to behave with the appropriate decorum even in the most unlikely circumstances becomes one of the novel’s running jokes: at one point, for example, Amelia refuses to remove her stays even when they are faced with an apparently endless walk over a desolate landscape (and even when she does take them off, she insists on carrying them with her). Edward can be just as strait-laced – when, at the end of this journey, they encounter a group of slave-workers who are “almost completely unclothed” he suggests he go to them alone, but, as Amelia points out:

“We are about to starve to death and you smother me with modesty!”

Edward is not discovered in Amelia’s room even after the landlady insists on entering, but her suspicions are enough to necessitate his departure the next day, though not before arranging to visit Sir William. It is there, of course, he encounters the time machine, and not long before he and Amelia decide on a test run, secure in the knowledge that it will always automatically return to 1903. Ten years in the future, however, they are greeted with unexpected violence:

“Somewhere just outside the house there was a massive explosion, and some of the panes of glass cracked. Splinters fell down upon us.”

And for Edward, an even more disturbing sight follows when he sees a woman running towards the house only to be consumed by flame:

“I had recognised the woman and knew her to be Amelia, suffering her dying moments in the hellish war of 1913.”

And so Priest embeds a future into the narrative that we knowingly head towards no matter how unlikely it might seem, but also one his narrator will attempt to avoid at all costs. In shock, Edward attempts to interfere with the driving of the machine and accidentally dislodges the rod that ensures it travels in time only, sending it through space as well.

It is this accident which takes the travellers to Mars and here Priest does what Wells doesn’t: gives a picture of the world from where the invasion originates. Priest does not deviate from the Martians as portrayed in The War of the Worlds but describes a society which explains their behaviour on Earth. Perhaps the most surprising part of this is the existence of humans on Mars as slaves and food for the Martians; yet it is also the most logical, as the chances of Martians developing a taste for human blood within days of arrival are slim. Priest uses the depletion of humans on Mars – the reason for the invasion – to explain why Edward and Amelia are initially able to remain undiscovered, staying in an empty building and eating in communal areas, largely indistinguishable from the Martian humans. The description of their time on Mars is the longest section of the narrative and, if this does not interest you, you are likely to find this middle part a little slow.

They do eventually return to Earth (and, of course, nearer to Amelia’s possible death), using one of the projectiles designed for the invasion, and Priest introduces characters and events from The War of the Worlds, including a Mr Wells who is not so much the author as one of the author’s anonymous narrators. For those who love Wells, or classic science fiction at all, this novel is enormous fun, very much in Wells’ spirit of wonder and dread. Of the many novels inspired by his work, it is among the best.

The Voice of the Sea

October 12, 2021

By the time of the publication of The Voice of the Sea in 1976, Alberto Moravia had been writing for almost fifty years. This particular collection consists of thirty short stories, all written from the point of view of a woman, and almost all no more than six or seven pages long. As early as 1959 Moravia had spoken about the influence of writing as a journalist on both the concision of his work, and his use of the first person:

“This narrow limit suggested to me a form of highly concentrated narration, rapid and direct. To obtain these effects and that technique, I made use of the spoken language in the first person…”

(quoted by Giuliano Dego in Moravia, 1966). The brevity of the stories necessitates that characters are depicted quickly and the first person allows this, often within the opening paragraph, where the narrator will outline some essential facet of her personality. In ‘The Virgin and the Drug’, for example, we are told:

“Renunciation, prohibition, impediment, denial: this was my life.”

In ‘Inside and Outside’ the narrator begins by apportioning her success with men to her voice, before confessing:

“However, you must know that, apart from my voice, nothing in me comes from ‘inside’, everything comes from ‘outside’.”

This, in turn, creates a confessional tone, an intimacy between narrator and reader. There is no space for unreliability. Characters look back at their past in honest appraisal: one is “a silly girl” at sixteen, marrying a man in his forties because “he had been so obstinately insistent” (‘A Smell in the Nose’); another reflects that, at eighteen, she was oblivious to her good looks:

“…so serious and well conducted that I did not even know I was beautiful.” (‘The Discovery of Discoveries’)

The characters are similarly honest in appraising their appearance, whether it is to announce their beauty, or point out their flaws. In the previously mentioned ‘Inside and Outside’, the narrator describes herself as follows:

“In fact, with my harassed face, dark and slightly twisted, my green rather prominent eyes, my big mouth full of over-white teeth, my thin leggy figure but with a great bosom coming down to my waist – with all this I consider myself to be genuinely ugly.”

Duplicity and doubleness feature in many of the stories, duplicity largely as the result of affairs, conducted by both men and women. In the opening story, ‘Queen of Egypt’, the narrator tells her husband about a friend who is sleeping with an elderly man and then passing his monetary gifts onto a younger man she is in love with. The joke, she feels is on the husband – the woman is her, and she has even warned him of this by declaring that all women are “false, untruthful, treacherous, faithless and insincere” when it comes to men. We then see these relationships enacted in the hours that follow, and, perhaps as a result of telling her husband the story, she begins to reconsider. In ‘Madness’ we see things from the opposite point of view: the narrator has a breakdown when she sees her married lover with his wife. She then uses this to prevent him from visiting her, “alleging ups and downs in my illness,” a situation that goes on for years while she sleeps with other men:

“And so there began, for me, a double life, or rather, a life divided into two parts, one of which was real with its reality denied, the other unreal but claimed to be the only real one.”

Such doubleness reoccurs frequently. ‘The Superbody’, for example, begins, “For some time my husband might be said to be dividing my person into two distinct parts.” It will not surprise you to learn that “the first begins from the neck upwards, the second from the neck downwards.” A division also created by beauty, but differently, occurs in ‘The Most Terrible Thing in Life’:

“The beauty which is a mere professional requisite of my job as an air hostess seems to change its character and function as soon as I descend from heaven to earth.”

In ‘Mind and Body’ the division takes place between two sisters, one of whom makes the decisions while the other enacts them – one is the mind, one is the body. Doubleness, Moravia seems to be suggesting, is part of being a woman. As the narrator of ‘The Other Face of the Moon’ tells us:

“I am two persons in one or, if you prefer, I am a double-fronted person, that is, with two faces, like the moon. And like the moon, I have one face which is known to all and always the same, and one face which is unknown not merely to other people but even, in a sort of way, to myself.”

The question for many readers will be how successful is Moravia in presenting his female characters? – a question that can only really be answered by female readers. Luckily there are not too many scenes where the narrator is gazing into a mirror, and when she is, it is often to the purpose of the story – as in ‘The Discovery of Discoveries’ where the ‘mirror’ is a shop window, and she is admiring a skirt. Clothes are often used to aid Moravia’s attempt to enter the minds of his speakers – almost as if he is getting in costume. In ‘Judith in Madrid’ the story begins:

“There is nothing more squalid than a pair of holed and torn tights in the most intimate party of one’s body.”

In ‘The Apartment’ the narrator dresses in the clothes of a prostitute she has met the night before: “How the female body changes according to the clothes it puts on!” Psychological insight or fetish, each reader must decide for herself, but, overall, The Voice of the Sea felt less dated than some of Moravia’s novels from the same period. And if one story isn’t pleasing, it is soon time for another.

Slapstick, or Lonesome No More

October 11, 2021

When Kurt Vonnegut graded his own novels in the essay ‘The Sexual Revolution’ (collected in Palm Sunday) he awarded his 1976 novel Slapstick, or Lonesome No More a ‘D’ (his play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, was the only other book to dip beneath a ‘C’). In the New York Times, Roger Sale dismissed it as “flashy, clever and empty.” Sale’s main complaint was that Vonnegut had become formulaic, giving as one example the repeated use of “Hi ho” in a similar vein to “So it goes” in Slaughterhouse Five and “And so on” in Breakfast of Champions, though perhaps Vonnegut can be said to have foreseen Sale’s irritation describing the exclamation as a “kind of senile hiccup” and having his narrator declare:

“If I live to complete this autobiography, I will go through it again and cross out all the ‘Hi ho’s.”

Vonnegut’s narrator is 100-year-old Dr Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, his unusual middle name a result of his time as President when he arranged for all Americans to be given a middle name which consisted of a noun and a number so they could be part of a (very) extended family, hence his campaign slogan (and the novel’s subtitle), ‘Lonesome No More’:

“An ideal extended family… should give proportional representation to all sorts of Americans, according to their numbers. The creation of tens of thousands of such families, say, would provide America with ten thousand parliaments, so to speak, which would discuss sincerely and expertly what only a few hypocrites now discuss with passion, which is the welfare of all mankind.”

The idea is not Wilbur’s alone, but a plan created with his twin sister, Eliza. When the children are born, they are “so ugly that our parents were ashamed” They are assumed to be lacking intelligence and so give this impression, while at the same time learning to read and write in a variety of languages, reading the thousands of books in their parents’ library “by candlelight, at naptime or after bedtime.” This lasts until they are fifteen when they overhear their mother (eavesdropping in secret passageways is another pastime) say, “I would give anything… for the faintest sign of intelligence,” and so decide to reveal themselves:

“Thus did Eliza and I destroy our Paradise – our nation of two.”

They quickly discover that their intelligence is conjoined: “As the distance between Eliza and me increased,” Wilbur tells us, “I felt as though my head were turning to wood.” As with the artificial middle names they suggest, Wilbur and Eliza’s relationship speaks to Vonnegut’s criticism of loneliness as the main threat to happiness, both for the individual and for society as a whole. It also resonates on a personal level (in a Prologue, Vonnegut tells us “This is the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography”) as Vonnegut regarded his own sister, Alice, who died in 1958, as the reader for whom he wrote. In the Playboy interview in Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons, Vonnegut states:

“This is a lonesome society that’s been fragmented by the factory system.”

In the same interview, he outlines the idea for giving everyone a new middle name by law and comments, “I’m writing a Kilgore Trout story about that right now,” which suggests that Slapstick only grew into a novel later, and this is perhaps why it feels, at times, as if his reflections on loneliness have been padded out with a seemingly random selection of ideas largely unrelated to its central theme, as if pulled blindly from a science fiction ragbag.

These include a dystopian landscape in which Wilbur lives all but alone in the Empire State Building on Manhattan island – now the ‘Island of Death’ thanks to a plague known as the ‘Green Death’. The rest of the USA, meanwhile, has been decimated by a different plague (the Albanian Flu) and is now divided into a series of “Dukedoms and Kingdoms and such garbage.” The Chinese are dominant in every field, having succeeded in miniaturising themselves and colonising Mars (Wilbur is at points visited by a tiny Chinaman called Fu Manchu). Gravity is unreliable with low and high gravity days – on low gravity days, as Vonnegut never tires of reminding us, all men have a permanent erection.

Erection or not, Vonnegut has a fertile imagination, but this background is only sketched in. Wilbur’s only neighbour, Vera Chipmunk-5 Zappa, is introduced as “a woman who loves life and is better at it than anyone” yet, almost 200 pages later, we know little more about her. This is true of all the characters Vonnegut dreams up bar Wilbur and, to a lesser extent, Eliza. Perhaps more disappointingly, it is also true of Vonnegut’s wilder ideas – the tiny Chinamen seem to belong to an entirely different satire.

This is a pity as the core of the novel is far from “empty”; Vonnegut’s diagnosis of loneliness as the root of America’s problems is a prescient as ever. It also seems a long way from “flashy” – the throwaway lines and exuberant notions more an attempt to be seen to be doing his best, a quality he shares with Slapstick’s heroes, Laurel and Hardy:

“The fundamental joke with Laurel and Hardy, it seems to me, was that they did their best with every test.”

Here the joke has Vonnegut veering towards parody (would he have cared?) and leaving us with an ending so abrupt it requires a Germanic ‘Das Ende’ as a full stop. Despite this, the adventures of the dizygotic duo at the centre, the story of Wilbur and Eliza, stands on its own as both touching and provoking. (A boring afterlife, another off-cut that feels like a story in itself, is included so that they can reunite after Eliza’s death). The rest is just for laughs.