Posts Tagged ‘kurt vonnegut’

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.

Slaughterhouse 5

September 30, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Kurt Vonnegut

In Slaughterhouse 5 Kurt Vonnegut performs an astonishing balancing act between reality and fantasy. A science fiction novel, featuring a protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, who travels backwards and forwards along the timeline of his life, experiencing reality in the same way as the alien race that kidnap him and take him via flying saucer to their home planet, Tralfamadore, where he is placed on public display, it begins:

“All this happened, more or less.”

As usual with Vonnegut, everything is carried along by the world weary honesty of the narrative voice, exemplified by the novels’ catchphrase:

“So it goes.”

Here, however, this intimate, almost confessional tone is used initially not to animate Vonnegut’s characters but to discuss his attempts to write the book we are reading. Interestingly, what would seem to be a preface is identified as chapter one – intrinsic to the novel itself. In it Vonnegut is keen to establish the truth of his experience at Dresden, the importance of writing about it, and the difficulty of writing about it:

“When I got home from the Second World War twenty three years ago, I thought it would be easy to write about the destruction of Dresden since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen…But not many words about Dresden came from my mind then…And not many words come now…”

In fact, Vonnegut is not simply introducing his theme, but his approach to it: the bombing of Dresden is he contends, like all such acts of mass violence, incomprehensible:

“Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.
“And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like, ’Poo-tee-weet?’”

Only by adopting the viewpoint of an alien race can we even begin to understand it, “seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rockies.”

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is.”

It’s no surprise, therefore, that Vonnegut’s alter ego, the Cassandra-like Kilgore Trout, makes an extended appearance, unable to make a living from his science fiction novels, which are to be found gathering dust as window dressing in an adult book store. (Or that Pilgrim becomes an optician – this is a novel that is all about the way we see things).

Vonnegut’s central premise also provides an explanation of his structure as the narrative moves restlessly backwards and forwards through Billy’s life. It allows him to focus on the war throughout without ignoring either what comes before or after. It also emphasises the way in which his war experiences clearly never left him, creating a kind of eternal present in the novel. And, of course, the Tralfarmadorian view of reality corresponds to our own understanding of the novel, with the past and future clearly coexisting with the present no matter how the pages are sequenced. (In the first chapter, Vonnegut portrays a chronological retelling of events as childish, describing how he sketched the story on a role of wallpaper with his daughter’s crayons.)

The real question, however, is does it work? Does it deliver the anti-war novel he promises his friend, Bernard O’Hare’s, wife? It is certainly as readable now as it was when first published over forty years ago, though probably not as shocking (I could be wrong there, though – it was the end of the sixties). Vonnegut does not avoid the horrors of the war, but nor does he glory in them. There is no attempt to sicken the reader with descriptions of death and violence. Vonnegut uses the small detail or well-chosen phrase instead: less than a page tells of the removal of bodies from the ruins of Dresden, but Vonnegut says all he needs in the final sentence:

“Thus began the first corpse mine in Dresden.”

Despite an almost cosmic bleakness, you sense he feels sympathy for even his most unpleasant characters (Again in the first chapter, he quotes his father as having said to him, “you never wrote a story with a villain in it.”) War is not evil; it is – to go back to where we started – incomprehensible.

Danger rating: Vonnegut is very much a love him or hate him writer. His novels feel like conversations with the man himself, and he will either be someone you could listen to for hours or someone you will cross the street to avoid before he starts going on again…

God Bless You, Mr Rosewater

October 19, 2010

If any British writer is considering imitating Yann Martel’s campaign to get world leaders reading and is deliberating on a novel to break the ice with David Cameron, they could do worse than Kurt Vonnegut’s 1965 exploration of wealth and poverty, God Bless You, Mr Rosewater. Just like our present government, it seeks to examine issues of fairness (as they relate to money) and separate the deserving from the undeserving – though it perhaps goes a little further by facing up to the central question – “What are people for?”

I am sure Mr. Cameron would be gripped from the very first sentence, which is:

“A sum of money is a leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees.”

The income from this sum of money ($87,472,033.61), in an act of legal tax avoidance (little has changed), is placed at the disposal of a charity, the Rosewater Foundation, the presidency of which is to be inherited by the eldest male Rosewater, “free to compensate themselves for their services as lavishly as they pleased.” Unfortunately, the current President, Eliot Rosewater, has been taking the Big Society a little too seriously:

“Maybe I flatter myself when I think I have things in common with Hamlet, that I have an important mission, that I’m temporarily mixed up about how it should be done.”

After more than one breakdown, and many years of alcoholism, he eventually decides to return to the town where the family fortune began – Rosewater, Indiana – and to “care about” the people living there:

“I look at these people and I realise that they can’t even care about themselves anymore – because they have no use. The factory, the farms, the mines across the river – they’re almost completely automatic now….I’m going to love these discarded Americans even though they’re useless and unattractive.”

While this may not be exactly what William Hague has in mind when it comes to welfare reform, it is remarkably cost-effective as Eliot goes about this single-handedly by manning a phone line twenty four hours a day. (We’re later told, “Eliot’s Rosewater County operation had been cheaper than staying in a sanatorium.”) Of course, such philanthropy doesn’t go unnoticed – at least, not by Norman Mushari, a lawyer who knows a thing or two about wealth creation:

“In every big transaction…there is a magic moment during which a man has surrendered a treasure, and during which the man who is due to receive it has not yet done so. An alert lawyer will make that moment his own, possessing the treasure for a magic microsecond, taking a little of it, passing it on.”

If Mushari can prove Eliot insane then he can arrange for the Rosewater fortune to be inherited by a distant relative, after removing his share of course. As well as providing another commentary on avarice, this makes the reader question how sane Eliot is, or at least, how sane his actions appear to others.

Vonnegut’s novel is in a long line of literature dealing with this question of goodness and madness – Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot is another example; as is, presumably, The New Testament – but one that is particularly concerned with money. He is quite clear that inheriting wealth is just “dumb luck” (that may not go down well in Cameron household), and creates a back story for Eliot’s family that suggests he does not buy into the idea that the entrepreneur is the highest form of life. Their fortune is created (as so many are) during war – the American Civil War. While one brother goes to fight, the other hires the village idiot to fight in his place and profits by converting his saw factory to the production of swords and bayonets. And, naturally, proceeds to swindle his brother (who returns from the war blind!) out of his share.

However, the novel’s lack of subtlety (another reason to suggest politicians as a suitable readership) does not mean it lacks complexity or seriousness. The questions it raises about equality and fairness have clearly not gone away. It is unlikely that Vonnegut would see politicians as the answer – Eliot’s father is a congressman whose greatest achievement has been to define ‘obscenity’. Above all, he reminds us that it is not about money, but about people, and it all starts with that question – “What are people for?”