Slapstick – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was one of the authors who welcomed me into adult fiction, or adult-themed fiction. So I go about the world with an understanding that he has impacted me and my reading. I respect him, which is clearly seen by my inclusion of the erudite “Jr.” after his name.

My wife also really likes his work. While we were dating, she read all of his long fiction—so, yeah, her birthday and Valentine’s Day were graciously easy one year.

The first of his books I read was Slapstick. I saw a used copy at a used bookstore and picked it up because it had a clown’s face on it and its first line was instantly inviting. I had heard of the author, Mr. Vonnegut, from a friend, whom I respected. My friend was reading Cat’s Cradle, which is probably my favorite novel by Sir Jr, and he had that book ostentatiously sitting in his passenger seat when I entered the vehicle one afternoon.

When I got home with my new clown-clad book, I was expecting some uproarious alone time. My expectations were engendered by the raving claims all over the front-/back-covers (just above the clown’s drawn eyebrows and below his painted lips). The claims said my gut would be busted and my side would be split and that I’d, in short, look like the clown after reading it, my face becoming that permanent rictus of the joyful because I’d—just as my grandmother warned—made the same face (a grand smile here) so much that it had stayed that way.

That didn’t happen.

However, I did smirk at some things. And I failed to understand others, which made me think that I didn’t understand the things I smirked at, which added to the whole discouraging affair. Thankfully, I have been equipped (a priori) with the facility of finishing. I dislike bookmarked books. I must assist that little booger on his quest to escape, so I read (except Twilight—there’s a copy of that book somewhere in the world that I started, and there is a sad, sweet, little bookmark, between pages 73 and 74, stalwartly fighting the good fight, keeping my page, a page that will forever be unturned).

So I persevered. I finished the book. And now, I think, that much of my praising of Mr. Vonnegut was really a positive projection (or is it displacement?) of my satisfaction with having finished a book I didn’t fully understand. I had read a book, but saying I’m such an awesome and cultured teenager because I read Kurt Vonnegut was somehow too much, so I instead said that the book and its author were great, which obliquely but sufficiently delivered the image of myself I wanted people to see, because saying Vonnegut was great meant I had read Vonnegut, which meant I was smart.

So now, something like ten years after I first read Slapstick, I returned to it.

The book is an autobiographical sketch by a 100-year-old, Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, living in a post-apocalyptic NYC. He gives his current living conditions, which are characterized by a deluge of ignorance—ignorant people ignorantly acquiescing to ignorant situations. And then he shares his life’s story, which is meant to explain how the world became the way it is, Mr. Swain being at the center of the change, not causing it but witnessing it (though he played his part; we all do).

So I didn’t really like the book because it didn’t feel like a real story. It felt instead like a sequence of outlandish events that were all constructed so that Vonnegut could turn a hyperbolically enlarged mirror to us, which held our own American and ignorant image. Yeah, that sounds mean. And the humor that was there felt stale in such a way that it didn’t pay off the debts the story incurred. And there was no answer offered. In fact, it felt so defeatist that an answer doesn’t exist in Slapstick’s universe except for exceptionally small Asians who do not share though they have recognized the power of togetherness and community. This is indeed Vonnegut’s answer, but the way to cultivate community is not given. Maybe reading Vonnegut is the way. (Let’s all read his book and discuss it, huh, what say you all?).

At any rate, I am conflicted. Vonnegut sits atop lists of great twentieth-century American authors. But give me Catch-22 or The Crying of Lot 49 before Slapstick. Fortunately, I am still in love with Slaughterhouse-Five, but I’m scared to reread Cat’s Cradle (it’s really great in my nostalgic-tinted shades). I still love Vonnegut, but I am sadly but properly growing out of him, I guess.

Here follow some context-less sentences from the novel:

“Hi ho.”

“I spoke of American loneliness. It was the only subject I needed for victory, which was lucky. It was the only subject I had. It was a shame, I said, that I had not come along earlier in American history with my simple and workable anti-loneliness plan. I said that all the damaging excesses of Americans in the past were motivated by loneliness rather than a fondness for sin.”

“And all the information we received about the planet we were on indicated that idiots were lovely things to be.

So we cultivated idiocy.”


About Tyler
At this time, there is nothing more beautiful than the gospel. The ways in which it's manifested are to be received with attentiveness and compassion and awareness. "A closed mind is a dying mind." - Edna Ferber

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