Meditation on Slapstick

Lonesome no More!

Different writers speak to different people. There can be lots of writers that you like, and lots that you don’t. But I think for each of us, there are a few writers who speak to us in their novels in a way that most do not, in a way that feels personal and emotional, even though you know they aren’t really speaking to you, and you love the creator as

For me, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is one of those few writers. Slapstick, or Lonesome no More! (1976), is not the most famous or celebrated of Vonnegut’s work. Nor do I think it is necessarily his greatest book. Vonnegut himself graded this story a D in relation to his other works in his collection of essays Palm Sunday (1981). It might be more fitting for me to be writing on Slaughterhouse Five (except I’ve already done that), or The Sirens of Titan, due to my love of stories concerning interplanetary travel and aliens. But I’m instead going to talk about Vonnegut and my affection for him through the lenses of Slapstick, a novel that was poorly reviewed upon release, both because I recently reread it and because in a very personal way, I think it’s beautiful.

Because this book is very much about being personal, and about finding a connection with other human beings, whether it is rational or not.

Hi-ho.

That’s the storytelling hiccup of Vonnegut’s narrator. Whenever the story has to change pace or jump to a different part of the narrative. That is how he signals it.

When reading someone like Vonnegut, if you care the way I do, it’s important also to read the forward, a tiny, honest slice of the author’s mind as it was when the strings of the book were all pulled together.

So I will preface what the story is about, with what Vonnegut says on the very first page of my copy.

“This is what life feels like to me.”

Hi-ho.

Slapstick is the autobiography of Dr Wilbur Daffodil-11, the last president of the United States of America, who tried to solve the problem of American loneliness before Western civilisation is destroyed by a plague unleashed by China.

The narrative, like so many of Vonnegut’s work, is wonky and anecdotal, and often non-linear. He explains much of Wilbur Daffodil-11’s life story right from the get-go because the slow reveal of information has never been what Vonnegut’s storytelling is about, so much as it is about his desire to share an idea, or to bring himself closer to his reader in some way.

Wilbur and his twin sister Eliza were born as incredibly ugly, Neanderthal-like creatures. When separated, neither twin is very smart. Believing that they are brain damaged, Wilbur and Aliza’s wealthy parents lock them away in a mansion in Vermont, where they are expected to live out short half-lives and then die.

But Wilbur and Eliza survive. Slowly, they discover that while apart, each of them operates as half a brain. Wilbur is the left brain, logical, rational, and able to communicate while Eliza is the right brain, vastly creative with high emotional intelligence, but unable to communicate herself properly.

All throughout the novel, Wilbur repeatedly claims that Eliza is the smarter of the two, but nobody ever knows this, because she cannot read or write.

Through a strange telepathic power, only when in physical contact do Wilbur and Eliza become a single great intelligence, far beyond that of an ordinary being. Together, Wilbur and Eliza realise that it is their bond that has allowed them to survive their childhood. It was their togetherness. While hidden away in the mansion where their parents kept them locked away from the world, Wilbur and Eliza would devise a plan to save the all of the America from the loneliness that she and her brother saved each other from.

Their plan was to give every American a new middle name based on random objects and a number from 1-20. Everyone with the same name would be cousins, and everyone with the same name and number would be siblings.

This is how Wilbur Rockefeller Swain became Dr Wilbur Daffodil-11

It’s important to note that through their childhood, everyone, including their parents believed Wilbur and Eliza to be idiots. This is why they were locked away from the world together.

But then Wilbur and Eliza are separated for revealing their intelligence, and because he can communicate, it is deemed fit for Wilbur to enter society while Eliza is condemned to an asylum. Once apart, neither of them were a whole person and became unable to think of themselves as the special geniuses of Wilbur and Eliza, but two dull entities, which they nicknamed Bobby and Betty Brown. Eventually, after the asylum, Eliza was to immigrate to the planet Mars. She would die there. Her tombstone read like this.

Here lies Betty Brown.

As for Wilbur, living the life of Bobby Brown without his sister, he was to run for President of the United States and win. He would run the campaign that his sister had created when the two of them were children, with the slogan that became the subtitle of the book itself.

Lonesome No More!

And even as western civilisation crumbles around him, at the very least, nobody is alone. Everybody in America has a great wealth of brothers and sisters and cousins. Nobody is left alone.

Hi-ho.

There is more that I could say about the novel itself. I could get into what happens with Wilbur’s parents, his grandchildren, and his doctors. I could get into his interactions with life after the fall of western civilisation. But I won’t. I don’t want to spoil it. If the tidbits that I’ve given you is enticing, then go read the book. But what I have laid out is the theme, that desperate need to be close to another person, because that is the point of Vonnegut’s novel.

Instead, I’m rolling all the way back around the preface of the book. Vonnegut gave this story the title Slapstick because that is how he sees it. He sees this story as something grotesque and horrible but also somehow gut-wrenchingly funny, like watching someone fall down the stairs in a laurel and hardy movie for comedic effect. Situational poetry, he called it.

On the third page of the novel, Vonnegut sums up his thinking with a small anecdote. When about to go away, one of Vonnegut’s three adopted sons, the children of his sister, said to Kurt “You know – you’ve never hugged me,” So I hugged him. We hugged each other.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote this book because of his sister Alice. Three days before Alice Vonnegut died of cancer, her husband died in a train accident. Kurt was with her when she died. After, he adopted her three children. One of them is the adopted son he hugs in the preface to Slapstick.

So this is a novel about closeness. It is about the closeness one can have to family, or simply to other people in general. It is an examination on the sense of closeness that Kurt Vonnegut felt with his sister Alice. It is very funny, and secretly very brutally sad. It’s slapstick comedy.

Hi-ho.

I wanted to write a post on here about the strange closeness one can feel to a person they have never met. I wanted to write about the way a book can speak to you, even though you never have and never will enter the author’s thoughts. I wanted to write about Kurt Vonnegut, because his many novels, short stories, and lectures speak to me in an alien and personal way. These are novels that have had an unnaturally large effect on my life, and the way I live my life.

So I picked Slapstick, a meditation on the strange and alien closeness human beings can have for one another. Perhaps Vonnegut doesn’t speak to you the way he speaks to me. That’s okay. There are many, many other books and other writers out there, perhaps waiting to speak to you in the same or similar way. I pick up one of his books, and I read it as the author is speaking to me in that strange and personal way, a small stab to attempt the premise of the book, to be lonesome no more.

Thank you, Kurt.

Hi-ho.

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