(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In the prologue to Slapstick: Or, Lonesome No More! Vonnegut writes, “This is the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography.” That may seem surprising, given that the protagonist is a seven-foot, six-inch neanderthaloid with seven fingers on each hand and six nipples, but he clarifies his point by saying: “It is about what life feels like to me.” He calls it “grotesque situational comedy,” and that seems an apt description of the bizarre content of this novel. He also dedicates the novel to comedians Laurel and Hardy, who “did their best with every test.” There is a lot of that spirit in the novel, too.

Wilbur Swain and his twin, Eliza, are born so abnormal that their parents send them to be raised in a distant, obscure mansion. While they learn to behave like idiots in public because that is expected of creatures who look like them, they are actually capable of great intelligence so long as they are together. Separated, they become dull. Yet separated they are for most of their lives. Wilbur goes on to become president of the United States on the campaign slogan “Lonesome No More!” (which is also the novel’s subtitle). As president, Wilbur institutes a system of artificial extended families, wherein everyone is issued a new middle name by the government and thus inherits a whole set of new relatives of the same name. Wilbur, however, comes to preside over a country which, under the impact of variable gravity, the Albanian flu, and the “Green Death,” is disintegrating into warring dukedoms and states. He ends his days living among the ruins of Manhattan.

The world of this novel is one of hyperbolic distortion. In that respect it is heightened slapstick, the world rendered in manic-depressive surrealism. Vonnegut has amused with invented religions before, but the Church of Jesus Christ the Kidnapped, whose believers constantly snap their heads to look over their shoulders in the hope of seeing their abducted savior, seems peculiarly suited to this novel, in which so much of the humor is visual. Similarly, the Chinese experiments that vary gravity, so that on some days bridges collapse and elevator cables snap, while on others all men have erections and can toss a manhole cover like a discus, emulate the broad, often painful comedy of slapstick.

Vonnegut’s “grotesque...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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Giannone, Richard. Vonnegut: A Preface to His Novels. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1977.

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