Slapstick: Or, Lonesome No More!
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1699
Readers of Vonnegut have come to expect his verbal end-punctuation—“So it goes,” “And so on”—by which he avoids arbitrary closure with the insistent implication that all closure is an arbitrary imposition by human beings on a reality that is obliviously continuous. The narrator of Slapstick, Vonnegut’s eighth novel, calls the accumulation of “Hi ho’s” that syncopate the story “a kind of senile hiccup. I have lived too long.” If Slapstick itself is not a “senile hiccup,” it is at least the senescent guffaw of a jaded satirist at the downswing of his emotional pendulum. That pendulum, in his earlier novels, takes us from bleak optimism to giddy pessimism, as Vonnegut focuses his satirical lens either on catastrophic human deeds (as in Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat’s Cradle) or on humanity’s absurd self-images (The Sirens of Titan and also Cat’s Cradle). At the end of his last novel before Slapstick, Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut turned his focus upon himself, to look and laugh at the satirist’s self-concept as no more immune from life’s absurdity than that of anyone else. The discovery that the artist’s function is a futile one is, in retrospect, the inevitable result of Vonnegut’s very methodical madness. It was implied as early as The Sirens of Titan (1961), in the lieutenant-colonel’s realization “that he was not only a victim of outrageous fortune, but one of outrageous fortune’s cruelest agents as well.”
Slapstick continues the inward-turning self-examination. Its long autobiographical prologue points to the center of Vonnegut’s comic satirical vision—an accessible vision that has made him, like Aristophanes and Jonathan Swift, one of those rare prophets who are listened to seriously by a large following in their own lifetimes. And Vonnegut is read precisely because he denies his own seriousness. The center of his vision is a kind of existential hysteria through which his characters recognize the abysmal gap between the degree of seriousness with which human beings take themselves and their own activities, and the degree of routine dishonesty they subject themselves to in the process. His vision is attractive because, laughing at the dishonesty, he recognizes its necessity as a coping mechanism against the emptiness within. And his writing is appealing because he freely admits that his emptiness is no less nor greater than ours. The human terror of existential solitude is something we can share only by laughing through our fears.
Vonnegut’s satirical art, both in theme and in style, is the recognition and revelation of the limited. Humanity, he feels, gets itself in trouble every time it pretends to limitlessness. “I find it natural,” Vonnegut writes in the prologue, “to discuss life without ever mentioning love.” Yet both the prologue and the novel are centered on a close relationship, between Vonnegut and his brother and sister in the former, between Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain and his sister Eliza in the latter. The apparent contradiction, as is usual in literature, dissolves into an informing paradox. Vonnegut does not believe in love; he does believe in hugging. He does not believe in brotherhood, but does believe in relatives. He shuns and distrusts all abstract generalizations, insisting on those few particulars that feel good to him. And Slapstick, he writes, “is about what life feels like to me”—recalling E. E. Cummings’ declaration that “feeling is first.”
In mock-parody of Faulkner’s solemn Nobel Prize address, Vonnegut says that his novel is “about desolated cities and spiritual cannibalism and incest and loneliness and lovelessness and death, and so on.” The bizarre, barren world which Wilbur inhabits is precisely the result of humanity’s insistence on grand generalizations. Even among the ruins of a country depopulated by Albanian flu and The Green Death, of a planet whose gravity has become unpredictable and whose sky is bright yellow (and with no TV), well-meaning survivors have established a fanatic cult of “the kidnapped Jesus Christ” and are constantly darting their heads over their shoulders in hopes of spotting Him. In the midst of chaos, the narrator-satirist is writing the epitaph to this world, addressed “To whom it may concern,” the invocation Vonnegut feels “should be used by religious skeptics as a prelude to their nightly prayers.” The irony of the invocation is two-edged since universal impotency has precluded future readers, and no one on Manhattan Island, where Wilbur lives as “King of the Candlesticks,” can either read or write.
From this irony we see the personal ramifications of the satirist’s public stance: the vacillation between his humane determination to reveal and mend the scars in the moral fabric of society and the simultaneous recognition of the futility of the attempt. As Vonnegut identifies with the narrator he portrays himself as a latterday Cassandra who sees everything and is believed by no one. Even worse, Vonnegut understands that being believed is not enough. Action must follow belief. But the satirist must remain content with causing us to recognize our follies, and maybe laugh at them, as we continue destroying ourselves through them while he looks on in horror, trying to hold his clown’s smile in place. Vonnegut aptly compares his own “grotesque, situational poetry” to the “slapstick film comedies” of Laurel and Hardy, to whom the novel is dedicated. “There are all these tests of my limited agility and intelligence. They go on and on. The fundamental joke with Laurel and Hardy, it seems to me, was that they did their best with every test.” Handling a limited situation, a sharply circumscribed scene, with maximum wit and good humor is what Vonnegut calls “bargaining in good faith with destiny.”
His sense of destiny (“zah-mah-ki-bo,” as he calls it in the Bokononist religion of Cat’s Cradle) is what separates Vonnegut’s satirical voice from its existentialist echoes of Camus, Sartre, and Kafka. These writers, too, present life and the universe as absurd, without order or reason. But Vonnegut laughs at the situation and lacks the existentialists’ grimness and intellectual despair which are themselves denials of the ultimate absurdity they propose. Like Joseph K. in The Trial, Vonnegut’s narrators feel that something greater than man exists against which human beings are helpless. But like Arthur C. Clarke, Vonnegut has no idea what that something might be. As with Camus’ Dr. Rieux in The Plague, the denial of rational order and logical causality leads to atheism (“The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent,” in The Sirens of Titan): God cannot be the source of order or reason if none exists. Man himself, therefore, must be the ultimate value. That is the conclusion reached in the religion of Bokonon, in which “just man” matters, nothing else (the conclusion of Sartre’s The Flies).
But Vonnegut extends the argument. He is not interested in “humanity,” another useless and distracting generalization. Only the individual matters, the lonesome individual. If society can be useful at all, then, it is useful only insofar as it can do something to make the individual less lonesome, or at least more comfortable with his solitude. So Wilbur Swain’s Presidential campaign is based on Vonnegut’s remark in the prologue: “Human beings need all the relatives they can get—as possible donors or receivers not necessarily of love, but of common decency.” Swain’s slogan is “Lonesome No More,” and he promises “a utopian scheme” of artificial extended families by which all persons with the same middle names would be relatives. After Swain’s election, a computer in Washington, powered by burning the papers of Nixon, Grant, and Harding, assigns everyone in the United States a new middle name and number (flower, fruit, nut, vegetable, mollusk, gem, and the like, followed by a number from one to twenty). Those with the same middle name are cousins, with the same number and name are brothers. The system is successful. “I realized,” Swain says as he resells the Louisiana Purchase to the King of Michigan for one dollar (on credit), “that nations could never acknowledge their own wars as tragedies, but that families not only could but had to. Bully for them!”
Readers of Vonnegut’s earlier works will recognize the artificial families as “granfalloons,” and sense a direct contradiction to the tenets of Bokononism. A granfalloon is an accidental, superficial affinity (such as being from Indiana, or having graduated from Cornell), as opposed to a real relationship (“karass”) like the one between Wilbur and his neanderthaloid sister Eliza. The contradiction is there, and not to be explained away. For those few who see with the one-eyed vision of the satirist, the prophet, or the priest, only a narcissistic, incestuous, symbiotic relationship with another seer is intelligent. For those who do not—the vast majority—the granfalloons are preferable to no relationships at all. If you must live with lies, Vonnegut argues, as early as Cat’s Cradle (1963), at least “live by the foma [harmless untruths] that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”
The sick one is the one who sees. Like Dostoevski’s Grand Inquisitor, on an Aristophanic comedic level, Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, dependent on the euphoric drug tri-benzo-Deportamil he takes for his Tourette’s disease (whose sufferers involuntarily speak obscenities and make insulting gestures no matter where they are), deprived of his beloved Eliza because of the machinations of miniature Chinese who take her to Mars, embarrassed by unpredictable and impotent erections caused by the earth’s erratic gravity, having spoken through a clay tube attached to a lunch-bucket to “the turkey farm” (the spirits of the dead) and having found things are even worse for them, scribbles an account of the melodramatic, tragicomic whimpering finale of “the human race.” What keeps the satirist going in such a futile endeavor is only this: his technique. Each telegraphic paragraph is a stunt, a walkon scene in a comedy of unquestioned duration. In each paragraph, Vonnegut does the best he can to make a laugh, bargaining in good faith with destiny. The structure of the novel, and of his continuing satirical vision, is the structure of slapstick: one thing at a time until you get them with you, everybody together, forgetting themselves, in common laughter.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 216
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