Slapstick: Or, Lonesome No More!
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),...
(The entire section is 1,915 words.)