“Why don’t you take a flying fuck at the moon?”
I have been meaning to read more Vonnegut since reading Slaughterhouse 5. It was a novel that made a big impression on me and Slapstick is really no different. I am not sure what I was expecting from Slapstick but it certainly threw me off balance. The prologue welcomes you into this novel as the closet attempt at an autobiography that Vonnegut will ever try to write and outlines his family history. This family history and his relationship with his sister has, I suppose, influenced Slapstick. The novel reads like a daydream fantasy, it is effortless in it’s storytelling and often breaks the fourth wall with a very conversational style. It is a rapid bombardment of short paragraphs that gives a really easy read but doesn’t leave you disorientated. And it is so very weird.
Slapstick is set up as the memoir of Dr. Wilber Daffodil-II Swain and follows his life from a strange childhood with his twin sister to his Presidential term to, what appears to be, the end of the world. Wilber is quite a character, from his senile hiccup of ‘hi ho’ ending at least a third of the novel’s paragraphs to his pink toga and strange ideas about middle names. He is memorable, silly, and endearing.
The novel begins with Wilber and his sister, Eliza, living out their lives as they know it as deformed monsters that are seen once a year by their parents and are assumed idiots. However the twins have a secret, they have learnt to read and together have compiled all of the knowledge they can in the house and together they have become very bright children on the quiet. Until, one day they over hear their parents talking and wishing they would show some sign of intelligence.
The children give their parents their wish and it is deemed by doctors that they should be separated at once as the children appear to have an odd telepathic link while together. Wilber begins his life as a mediocre individual without the brilliance him and his sister have as a combined force. He becomes a doctor and drug addict and then runs for President. While Eliza is incarcerated in a sanitarium which of course she is released from and she then sues him and their parents for the unjust incarceration before her death in a landslide on Mars. Wilber is shortly to become the last President of the United States thanks to outbreaks of illness that is destroying half the population and turns the Island of Manhattan into ‘the Island of Death’.
I am really not sure what I thought of this one. Weirdly, Wilber and his sister are very much freaks and somehow seem the most normal. Humanity seems grotesque in comparison, as dysfunctional Wilber is in his drug addiction and failed marriage he admits his shortcomings freely and without resentment. It is an absurd plot that seems to be trying to make fun of things but I don’t really think it ever gets to the punchline.
Despite the shrinking Chinese spies and the lighter gravity and the two weirdly intimate siblings I found very little to giggle about. This is, I think, intended to be a satirical novel but instead it read to me as a bleak comment on society, where kinship is more strongly felt and fought for when families are randomly assigned rather than formed by blood and marriage ties. Where the fear of ‘going to the Turkey farm’ – death – and becoming a collector of candle sticks are equated to something akin to background noise.
This is a surreal read and perhaps I’ve missed the point of it, but from the reviews I’ve read you either love it or you hate it. It’s a quick read though and I couldn’t help but wonder if behind all the whimsy and frequent flying erections in light gravity, there was an undertone that I just couldn’t grasp. This novel has the plot of a fruit fly at a full picnic table, it is a weird read, it’s an unsettling read. It’s a novel full of ‘heavy gravity days’, but somehow I feel less at home in this fantastical meandering than I did in Slaughterhouse 5.