Slapstick, or Lonesome No More

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.

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6 Responses to “Slapstick, or Lonesome No More”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Interesting choice, Grant. It does sound as if it has some interesting ideas, but perhaps has dated not so well?

    • 1streading Says:

      I’m not sure if it has dated so much as it just doesn’t feel as coherent as Vonnegut’s other novels. Having said that, there is always pleasure to be found in his prose.

  2. Jonathan Says:

    One of my faves from a favourite author. I like the fact that it will be seen as out-of -date now…. a bit like most of Brautigan’s work.

    • 1streading Says:

      I’m also a Vonnegut fan – and find his work generally lives up to my memory of it when I re-read. This was enjoyable and packed with good ideas but didn’t quite coalesce. The comparison with Brautigan is an interesting one, though I’ve not read as much of his work.

  3. Simon T Says:

    “on low gravity days, as Vonnegut never tires of reminding us, all men have a permanent erection.” – haha! I love your wryness here. What an interesting concept – I’ve never read Vonnegut, but I’d quite enjoy the silliness of starting here… maybe working my way up through his grading.

    • 1streading Says:

      I sometimes think that might be the best idea – after all, if you start with a writer’s best work, you are going to be disappointed by everything that follows!

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