Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 968
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 situational comedy” includes an impression of his personal life as well as the national. He speaks of how his sister Alice loved slapstick comedy and describes how, when she heard that her husband had been killed as she herself was dying of cancer, commented, “Slapstick.” That situation, with both parents dying within days of each other in tragic circumstances and leaving four young children, is a good example of the kind of real-life grotesquerie that contributes to Vonnegut’s vision in Slapstick. The close relationship of Eliza and Wilbur may be seen as a play on Vonnegut’s closeness to Alice, whom he describes as still the imagined audience for most of his writing. Similarly, Wilbur’s dependence on “tri-benzo-Deportamil” may be a slapstick rendition of the author’s own use of antidepressant drugs at one point in his life.
“Lonesome No More!” is a slogan Vonnegut actually suggested that vice presidential candidate Sargent Shriver might use during the 1972 election campaign. Believing that the large, extended family of relatives living in proximity has virtually ceased to exist in America and that the small nuclear family is incapable of fulfilling the same role, Vonnegut has argued seriously that other kinds of social groupings are needed to support the individual. When he went to Biafra during the Nigerian civil war, he was most impressed with how tribal families operated, and this experience gave rise to the artificial extended families presented in Slapstick. The idea is treated humorously and shown with limitations, but the problem of individual isolation and loneliness within American society is one Vonnegut has always taken seriously.
His return to the theme of love in this novel is also familiar. Eliza’s argument that saying “I love you” to someone leaves them no option but the obligatory “I love you, too” echoes those exchanges in the same words and the same tone in Player Piano. Romantic love—and here, sibling love becomes erotic—remains volatile, emotional, and undependable. Vonnegut again reasserts the superiority of “common human decency,” of treating others with respect and consideration. There are other reiterations from earlier work. The name Bernard O’Hare—actually that of a wartime buddy—is used again, and Norman Mushari reappears. There is even the reappearance of a boring Paradise. These “in jokes” become part of the humor of the novel.
Some of the humor has aroused criticism of Slapstick as being cavalier with serious issues and carelessly dismissive. The repeated, interspersed uses of “Hi ho” and “And so on” particularly draw ire. They are the words of a first-person narrator, however, and one who is frequently high on “tri-benzo-Deportamil” and having to describe cataclysmic events beyond his control. The phrases and the tone are as much an invocation of the slapstick films of Laurel and Hardy, to whom the book is dedicated, as are the caricatures and exaggerated actions. That tone changes in the ending, where Wilbur has died and a third-person narrator takes over. The account of his granddaughter Melody’s journey to share Wilbur’s old age is a touching and affirmative one. Her act is one of family love, and the story of how she is helped along the way by other people, not only those of her extended family, and by birds and animals, is a warmly affirmative one. Closing the novel with “Das Ende” is Vonnegut’s gesture to the large, close-knit, German-speaking family that once existed in Indianapolis, as described in the prologue.
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