Sunday, December 23, 2012

Slapstick - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

In Palm Sunday (1981), Kurt Vonnegut gives each of his previous books a grade.  These are the results (books I have read will be marked with an asterisk; books I have reviewed on Flying Houses will be marked with a double-asterisk):

Player Piano: B
The Sirens of Titan: A*
Mother Night: A*
Cat's Cradle: A+*
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: A*
Slaughterhouse-Five: A+*
Welcome to the Monkey House: B-*
Happy Birthday, Wanda June: D
Breakfast of Champions: C**
Slapstick: D**
Jailbird: A
Palm Sunday: C*

Slapstick (1976) thus appeared to me to be a waste of time, something I would put off until after reading all the other Vonnegut novels.  (I still have a lot to go, and a lot to re-read to be posted on this blog).     Over Thanksgiving break, I saw a copy of the book on the kitchen counter-top in my parent's house.  I asked my mom who was reading it and she said she had come upon it at the dump and felt that I might be interested in it.

None of this sounds very reassuring, I am sure, but I have to say that Vonnegut was unduly harsh on himself in his grading of this novel.  While it does not rise to the heights of Cat's Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five, it bears a certain resemblance to God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, is probably more entertaining than Mother Night (though I would have to concede that book to be much stronger overall), and may be nearly as strong as Sirens of Titan (though some people may want to hang me for making that statement).  The bottom line is that, just as Vonnegut is too harsh on himself with Breakfast of Champions (which undoubtedly deserves at least a B+ if not an A-), so too does Slapstick deserve a higher grade (B+).

I am not sure why people would forget about this book more than the others.  It is typical post-Breakfast of Champions Vonnegut, where he seemed to dismiss the idea that he should attempt to write "serious" books, while concurrently writing on a more subversive level that was more reactionary to the contemporaneous political regime.  And yet Slapstick, despite its title and moments of sheer ridiculousness, is a very serious book in terms of pinpointing the problem of all government: the idea of "extended families," out beyond the "nuclear family" or the "immediate family."

The story concerns two twins who are grotesque and tall and ultra-intelligent.  But they seem to become stupider when they are kept apart from one another.  They have some sort of telepathic connection in their sinuses.  This makes the book sound strange.

But early on they make several discoveries about the world, and one of them was quite enjoyable for me, as I was studying for my exam on the First Amendment (Constitutional Law III) at the time of reading:

"Yes, and Eliza and I composed a precocious critique of the Constitution of the United States of America, too.  We argued that it was as good a scheme for misery as any, since its success in keeping the common people reasonably happy and proud depended on the strength of the people themselves--and yet it described no practical machinery which would tend to make the people, as opposed to their elected representatives, strong.
We said it was possible that the framers of the Constitution were blind to the beauty of persons who were without great wealth or powerful friends or public office, but who were nonetheless genuinely strong.
We thought it was more likely, though, that the framers had not noticed that it was natural, and therefore almost inevitable, that human beings in extraordinary and enduring situations should think of themselves as composing new families.  Eliza and I pointed out that this happened no less in democracies than in tyrannies, since human beings were the same the wide world over, and civilized only yesterday.
Elected representatives, hence, could be expected to become members of the famous and powerful families of elected representatives--which would, perfectly naturally, make them wary and squeamish and stingy with respect to all the other sorts of families which, again, perfectly naturally, subdivided mankind.
Eliza and I, thinking as halves of a single genius, proposed that the Constitution be amended so as to guarantee that every citizen, no matter how humble or crazy or incompetent or deformed, somehow be given membership in some family as covertly xenophobic and crafty as the one their public servants formed.
Good for Eliza and me!" (57-58)

The book details Eliza's and Wilbur's (the narrator) upbringing.  They are sheltered and locked away, they behave like idiots, and they secretly learn Greek and Latin and read every book in the family library.  There is also a fair amount of incest, which is a bit disturbing, but mitigated by the fact that the plot of this book is almost entirely absurd.

Wilbur is 100 years old as the novel begins in medias res and living in Turtle Bay in Manhattan.  Manhattan is referred to as the "Island of Death," or "Skyscraper National Park."  Gravity (and the Albanian flu) has destroyed a large majority of the human population on Earth, and the Chinese have figured out a way to shrink themselves beyond all possible human proportions.  Wilbur is President of the United States of America at one point, and runs his campaign on the slogan "Lonesome No More!"  It is based upon the idea of giving everyone new middle names, and it seems rather nice in theory:

'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.
An old man crawled up to me afterwards and told me how he used to buy life insurance and mutual funds and household appliances and automobiles and so on, not because he liked them or needed them, but because the salesman seemed to promise to be his relative, and so on.  
'I had no relatives and I needed relatives,' he said.
'Everybody does,' I said.
He told me that he had been drunk for a while, trying to make relatives out of people in bars.  'The bartender would be kind of a father, you know--' he said.  'And then all of a sudden it was closing time.'
'I know,' I said.  I told him a half-truth about myself which had proved to be popular on the campaign trail.  'I used to be so lonesome,' I said, 'that the only person I could share my innermost thoughts with was a horse named "Budweiser".'
And I told how Budweiser had died." (183-184)

It is also funny when another faction springs up:

"Was there no substantial opposition to the new social scheme?  Why, of course there was.  And, as Eliza and I had predicted, my enemies were so angered by the idea of artificial extended families that they constituted a polyglot artificial extended family of their own.  
They had campaign buttons, too, which they went on wearing long after I was elected.  It was inevitable what those buttons said, to wit: 
[Picture of a button that reads, 'Lonesome Thank God!']" (197)

There are moments in this book of total absurdity and also moments of deep profundity.  I can sort of understand why Vonnegut might have given himself a "D" (sometimes the book seemed "padded" in some way), but it is of fairly substantial length, and--typical for Vonnegut--able to be read in a day or two.  

The small moments of profundity definitely make this book worth reading.  One of them comes near the end:

"I was impressed.  I realized that nations could never acknowledge their own wars as tragedies, but that families not only could, but had to.
Bully for them!" (244)

The science fiction elements of Vonnegut novels are not always believable, but sometimes they are at least plausible.  As usual, his imagination is driving at full speed, and it makes for a solidly entertaining read.  I certainly recommend this book--with the caveat that there are perhaps a dozen Vonnegut novels I would recommend be read before it.  

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