A Series of Accidents is a chronological read-through of the books of Kurt Vonnegut. You can check out earlier articles in the series here.
Kurt Vonnegut describes Slapstick in his introduction as the most autobiographical novel he would likely ever write. I’m not sure this is true — Slaughterhouse-Five seems to hew a lot closer to his experience, alien abductions possibly aside – but it does reflect how personally invested he was in the novel at the time. Yet a decade later, when rating all of his books, he would give Slapstick a “D.”
This helps us get into the somewhat divisive reception and reputation of Slapstick. It was widely criticized by reviewers, the second book of Vonnegut’s in a row to be a critical flop. To some, Slapstick and Breakfast of Champions were enough together to indict Vonnegut as a shallow, gimmicky author only of interest to the burnout youth. And yet my impression has always been that among Vonnegut aficionados the novel is well-liked, one of the second wave of books readers get into after Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle.
It’s understandable that readers would have a hard time knowing what to make of Slapstick, a book that is both personal and deeply fantastic, wide-ranging but incomplete. It is written as the diary of Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, who narrates the story of his life at the end of it. Wilbur and his sister Eliza were born as part-Neanderthal mutants and were cut off from society, hidden away by their wealthy parents. This is a fantastical premise in itself, but is only the beginning of Vonnegut’s flights of fancy.
The twins perceive American society as the ultimate innocents, their naivete revealing its cruelty and loneliness. Wilbur writes of their parents that “They appeared […] to be under some curse which required them to speak only of matters which did not interest them at all.” Wilbur and Eliza pretend to be the idiots their parents expect, but they are actually geniuses, although only able to fully express this when their heads were pressed together. Wilbur is separated from his sister and becomes first a pediatrician and then the President of the United States, but is never able to fully recapture his childhood happiness.
Wilbur’s personal journey is set against the landscape of a disintegrating and increasingly bizarre world. By the end of Wilbur’s life, gravity has become unreliable and is prone to strange fluctuations, America has disintegrated into a patchwork of petty kingdoms, and the Chinese have vanished from the Earth as part of an effort to miniaturize their bodies and travel to Mars. (This last subplot could be fairly construed as racist, although I found it a little too absurd to offend.) The absurdist nature of the setting no doubt reflects the experience of the 1970s, when all of the rules of society that had seemed as unchangable as the laws of physics were evaporating into an uncertain future.
But social issues take a backseat in Slapstick to the personal tragedies of both Vonnegut and his protagonist. The book is explicitly a way of working through the 1958 death of Kurt’s sister Alice, and the persistent feeling of absence that he felt. It’s not hard to see parallels with the case of Wilbur and Eliza, two halves of the same mind (Wilbur is explained as the left hemisphere and Eliza the right) severed at a young age.
We know this because, well, Vonnegut tells us. The book opens with the kind of extensive, personal introduction that had become standard for Vonnegut’s books, to the extent that re-issued editions of his earlier editions had autobiographical forwards added. The introductions were Vonnegut’s place to explain his thought process, his thoughts on the current state of America and the world, and maybe include some soft promotion of his back catalogue.
Some of Vonnegut’s best writing is in these introductions. In particular, the clarity and honesty of the opening to Slaughterhouse-Five could be the best prose he ever wrote. At the same time, with a twenty-page introduction to a 150-page novel, one can see why critics would suspect that the product on sale was not Vonnegut’s fiction but his authorial persona. Such is the accusation levied in a very uncharitable New York Times review, which sees Slapstick not just as a disappointment but reflective of a larger fraudulence on its author’s part.
But ultimately I don’t think Slapstick is a flimsy work, despite its short length. In a sense, it’s one of Vonnegut’s most ambitious, combining a story of a life with political commentary, science fiction, and themes about loss and the nature of intelligence. That it does so much in a relatively short page count is to the novel’s credit, not its demerit.
As a character, Wilbur is a man who has had an exciting, traumatic life, but seems to narrate it all with a bemused indifference. Even after becoming President of the United States, he says that “The history of nations seemed to consist of nothing but powerless old poops like myself, heavily medicated and vaguely beloved in the long ago, coming to kiss the boots of young psychopaths.” The events of his life, however pleasant or cruel, are always punctuated with an indifferent “Hi ho.” (If there’s one thing I agree with the NYT review about, it’s that “Hi ho” is a pale imitation of “And so it goes.”)
Wilbur becomes presidency on a plan to create a new system of extended family in America, by giving everyone in the country an artificial middle name consisting of a nature-related name and a number – so Wilbur becomes Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, cousin to all the Daffodils and sibling to all the Daffodil-11s. He campaigns on this platform with a slogan that gives Slapstick its subtitle – “Lonesome No More.”
This policy is basically identical to the idea Vonnegut had proposed half-seriously in his Playboy interview years earlier, reprinted in Foma, Wampters and Granfalloons. Whereas once Vonnegut had seen these kind of transparently fake associations between people – national or state identities, races, religions, fraternal orders, sports fanbases and above all families – as harmful illusions, mere granfalloons, by the time of Slapstick he was mourning their loss. Wilbur’s program, however ridiculous, is the kind of radical action that was necessary to fight the plague of loneliness and atomization that was haunting America.
This is an idea that came to dominate Vonnegut’s writing, both fiction and not, in the 1970s, from the psychologically isolated people of Breakfast of Champions to the his desperate attempts to encourage connection at commencement speeches and the like. He saw loneliness as not a personal tragedy but a social problem, one that was created by postmodern capitalism, meritocratic ideas of superiority, and technologies such as automation and television.
To combat this affliction, Vonnegut turns to the distinctly premodern institution of the extended family or clan. It seems easy to attribute this to Vonnegut’s own loss of his family, including the premature deaths of his mother and sister, his divorce from his first wife and his now-adult children leaving his house. Indeed, Vonnegut’s autobiographical introduction invites such a reading. He describes being inspired to write the novel from a dream he had on the plane ride home from his uncle’s funeral, as straightforward a connection between life and literature as you’ll find.
But families and familial ties are also poisonous and suspect in Vonnegut’s work. The rich dynastic families that reoccur in his novels, the Rumfoords and Rosewaters, are dysfunctional and miserable. Eliza and Wilbur’s parents are the same, not knowing what to do with their irregular children and paying other people to take care of them. If families are the existing means of social order, then they are a failed one, prone to inequality and abuse.
The solution that Swain implements is, of course, not a serious one. Far from saving American society, Swain’s presidency ends it, seeing the country break down into its component parts. In the end, he gets what he wants: the premodern world of clans and kings and family being necessary for survival return. Vonnegut is not so much proposing a policy that he thinks should be implemented, but pointing out the difficulty of imagining a political solution for this problem that nevertheless affects millions of people. If the problem is a lack of genuine connection, then there’s no way to mandate that people have a genuine connection with others. This is why loneliness is both a haunting, universal problem, and one we don’t feel comfortable talking about as such. These days, the only people envisioning their loneliness as a political issue to be solved are the incels.
In my article on Mother Night, I compared the book to Nabokov’s Lolita. If we want to continue that analogy, Slapstick is Ada, a supposedly autobiographical novel about an incestuous brother-sister bond (even if one doesn’t accept the suggestion that Wilbur and Eliza make love when they “became a single genius again”, they still have a more intimate relationship than any marriage) that represents the divisive apogee of the author’s style. (Yes, I did have to read Ada for a class, and I am intent on shoehorning it in wherever I can, because that book is wild,)
But of course, while Nabokov’s body of references is the high culture of the old world, Vonnegut’s is the slapstick comedy that gives the book its title. Slapstick is dedicated to Laurel and Hardy, the comedic duo of early cinema, described as “two angels of my time.” (The only man who respects Laurel and Hardy as much as Vonnegut is Jesse Custer.) Vonnegut describes this inspiration in his introduction: “The fundamental joke with Laurel and Hardy, it seems to me, was that they did their best with every test. They never failed to bargain in good faith with their destinies, and were screamingly adorable and funny on that account.”
This quote reveals why Vonnegut was so interested in slapstick comedy. In the kind of slapstick done by Laurel and Hardy, as well as legends like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, the hero is a sympathetic character who is sabotaged by human fragility. Chaplin’s Tramp is an innocent soul, but still gets caught up in the gears of the machines. This is Vonnegut’s world view: that people are not so much evil as beset by their own weakness, stumbling and tripping into sin.
Thus, Vonnegut uses slapstick humour throughout the novel. His characters are always tripping over their own feet, beset by the changing gravity. There are a lot of jokes about how easy it is to get an erection in low gravity. The whole device of extended families leads to some Chaplinesque comedy, with different social classes colliding with each other. It’s a little hard to translate slapstick to the printed word, but Vonnegut’s wry prose tries its best.
Of course, in the wrong hands slapstick can go wrong, become simple mockery of the unfortunate instead of sympathy with them. Such was the case with the 1980s film adaptation Slapstick of Another Kind, starring Jerry Lee Lewis and Madeline Kahn as Wilbur and Eliza and bearing no other particular resemblance to the novel. The movie was panned and quickly disappeared – I haven’t particularly tried to track down a copy of it. Hollywood comedy of the 1980s, for all its snobs versus slobs pretense, was often a cruel example of society’s winners laughing at its losers. The kind of gentle, vulnerable slapstick Vonnegut named his novel after was on its way to becoming history.
But Slapstick is, like all of Vonnegut, as much of a tragedy as it is a comedy. It is about, fundamentally, dealing with a loss that feels impossible to move past. It is an attempt to understand a chaotic world in which tragedies do not obey human logic. It is a last plea for kindness in a society that was actively attempting to become more cruel. And, in the end, it’s pretty funny too.
Next month… or quarter, more like… we close out the 70s with Jailbird, one of Vonnegut’s most political novels.