Slapstick (or Lonesome No More)
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Now I remember why I stopped.
Reading novels, that is.
You might not know that from the list of books discussed in this space. But for at least a half decade the only craftsman I trusted with story-telling was Elmore Leonard.
How to explain such a shift. Well, honestly, the fun went out of it.
And books like this one were a big part of that.
A while back, when I’d had a run in with an older, autobiographical Kurt Vonnegut, I made mention of why I’d stopped reading him. The novel I mentioned in that post, the one that drove me to stop reading Vonnegut, at least, appeared 8 or 10 years after this mid-70s effort. But make no mistake about it, both books suffer from the same sensibility. Uncharitable as it may seem, by the time he published this book Vonnegut was already past his prime.
In fairness, I should say what I mean by that. When I think of Vonnegut I think of what might almost be called the canonical novels. You know, Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, and so on. That string roughly coincides with the rise of the counterculture, a social phenomena that, to be generous, burned itself out after a mere two and a half years.
It also anointed all sorts of folks as high priests and priestesses of advanced consciousness and heroic insight. That’s a tall order for anyone to fill, let alone someone whose style just happened to properly–and I’d argue briefly–align with the zeitgeist. Vonnegut wasn’t the only avatar of that era who arrived in the mid-70s still trying to make lightning strike again.
Here, mostly, the effort feels forced. The author who so effortlessly deployed “And so it goes” in Slaughterhouse Five, summing up the insane futility of war, here tries the same trick again.
“Hi ho,” though, doesn’t even come close to having the same ring. Or is that really the catchphrase? More than halfway through the book we get not just a second phrase, we get a political slogan–presented as a lapel badge drawn in the author’s own hand–that becomes a subtitle.
Is it nasty to say the subtitle is never paid off?
Maybe I should backtrack a bit. Slapstick is ostensibly the story of a politician’s last days. And not just any politician.
Wilbur Dafodil-11 (neé Rockefeller) Swain is a two meter tall, near-Yeti who is the last President of the United States. He spends his days living in the lobby of the Empire State Building in a mostly depopulated Manhattan.
He’s not entirely alone. His granddaughter, Melody Oriole-2 von Peterswald lives with him. As does her beau, Isidore Raspberry-19 Cohen, who is a member of a Wall Street–dwelling tribe that saved Swain when he was about to give in to the great green malady. His nearby neighbor is a somewhat entrepreneurial woman, Vera Chipmunk-5 Zappa, who has folks lining up to be her slaves.
You might think you see my problem but it does, in fact, get worse.
Swain is the sole surviving twin of a dyad born to dynastic wealth in, probably, the mid-20th century. Gross, inhuman specimens, they are, almost upon birth, transported to a family estate in remote Vermont where they are raised as curious, retarded specimens.
Except they’re not, maybe. Because when the two of them literally meld their minds they are quite the pair, figuring out the troubles of the ages. And making some up, too. As President, Swain leads a charge to assign middle names and numbers to everyone in a way that scrambles family loyalties. The results speak for themselves.
But these two do dwell in a world beset by troubles. Odd Chinese men running about carrying inscrutable messages. (I used that adjective deliberately.) Riddles left in mausoleums. Secret passages and peek holes.
And just when it couldn’t get any weirder, gravity–a constant presence in the universe the last I looked–becomes variable. Heavy gravity days make elevator-filled New York uninhabitable; light gravity days give all males an erection.
It all must mean something, right? I mean, this is the argument at the heart of cinematic auteur theory. The director is like an author–every element is chosen and deliberate.
So that leaves me with two choices. I can decide that the revered sage who came in the 60s to help guide us through this mess of a world is a freakin’ sham. Or that I’m just too stupid to understand what this all means.
I try to keep a lid on such language in this space. But honestly, tripe like this book robbed me of one of my great pleasures for too long. And while I do plenty of stupid things, I’m not really all that stupid.
Which leaves me no alternative than to conclude that Kurt was phoning it in.
I know, some true fan is taking umbrage with me. Yes, I missed every metaphor, simile and analogy. Since I’m clearly failing to comprehend the depths of what’s going on I’lI also note I failed to grasp the literary intent of incest.
I’m sorry, the British kids have it right, sometimes shite is just shite and labeling it comedy isn’t going to make it any less so.
Let me note one more thing before ending. The book, which ends somewhat abruptly, is proceeded by an autobiographical prologue. I believe it is meant to lend explanatory background to the novel which follows.
In 1975, when it appeared, the caution that this would probably be the only autobiographical matter ever from this author may have had meaning. With the memoir, it’s a moot point.
I gather that the passing of Vonnegut’s sister, with whom he seemed especially close, hit him rather hard. And I’m unsure whether he’s suggesting that it was harder or easier because they were raised as and by unbelievers.
Few people I know have shared my lifelong seminar in the death of siblings and parents. The hurt never stops. I hope at some point Vonnegut got to the point where he understood that hurt wouldn’t stop merely by hurting others.
His readers deserve better than to have been used as his punching bag.