Sunday, June 3, 2018

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: "Slapstick"

What would I have thought of Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s 1976 novel Slapstick had I read it when it came out? I had read his 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions, but some time in the interval I had moved on to other interests until 2006, when I was given Timequake. Vonnegut died in 2007, and I know around this time I had read some of his later nonfiction and began to re-read a couple of novels. I rediscovered Vonnegut as I had rediscovered other people I had drifted away from in the mid-’70s. I don’t recall even being aware of the publication of further novels in the ‘70s, and I think I might have thought that Vonnegut was done with them in 1973. But I must have thought I absorbed everything I had to gain from him. So what would I have thought of Slapstick, his next novel after 1973? And what do I think of it now that I have finally read it?

My reaction was one of both familiarity and bewilderment. One familiar element was Vonnegut’s constant repetition of catch-phrases, this time “Hi ho.” This adds caustic irony to the narrative as did Vonnegut’s catch-phrases in his earlier novels, although for me his catch-phrase wore thin after a while this time around. Also characteristic is the deceptive simplicity, easily readability, and often cartoonish character of Vonnegut’s style, which looks easy but just try and write that way yourself. There is the prominence of Indiana, Vonnegut’s homeland, though the story is initially set in New York City (now known as the Island of Death). And then there is Vonnegut’s outrageous imagination. But this time I couldn’t place it in making sense out of it, especially in relating it to the state of American society of the mid-’70s. Even the title, indicating Vonnegut’s dedication of the work to Laurel and Hardy, struck me as puzzling. Woody Allen’s dystopian film comedy Sleeper made sense to me and was much funnier, and the slapstick in that film was real slapstick.

Vonnegut begins his Prologue by stating that it is the closest thing to an autobiography he is ever going to write. The bizarre symbiotic relationship between the novel’s narrator and his sister is in some way an imaginative projection of Vonnegut’s feelings about his own sister and himself. He also states that the novel represents what life feels like to him, and that he loves the personifications of Laurel and Hardy because they did the best they could with their destinies.

Note that the novel’s subtitle is “Or, Lonesome No More!”—which, as we learn much later, is the narrator’s campaign slogan on which he wins the presidency of the United States. Vonnegut recycles an earlier idea of his of arbitrarily creating extended families to create a novel form of support system. The condition this is meant to address was a concern of American sociologists, notably Philip Slater’s 1970 The Pursuit of Loneliness. I remember, accurately I hope, that Slater had written that the revolutionary political slogan for the American (white) middle class should be ‘no more loneliness’.

What then, was contemporary about Slapstick? I could discern only the mention of Richard Nixon and the curious use of mainland China as the inscrutable world power sciencefiction-ly pulling the strings as the USA declines—which could easily be applicable to the present though a haphazard ‘prediction’ in the mid-’70s, after which Nixon had visited China and around the time of Mao’s death.

By Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut’s social criticism had progressed to the trashing of American society, or, somewhat more specifically, of ‘Middle America’. What comes next?—is a question I have only now posed. It seems to me that Slapstick represents not the objective state of the USA as a whole in the mid-’70s but rather the disintegration of Vonnegut’s own midwestern universe.

There are familiar elements of post-apocalyptic utopias here—plagues that wipe out millions, social breakdown . . . and even rendering this in a comedic farcical mode is not jarring (remember Sleeper), but the specific mode in which the social transformation occurs strikes me as rather conceptually anemic. The narrator, known eventually as Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, becomes president on the basis of his ‘loneliness no more!’ slogan, in which extended families are arbitrarily established and networked on the basis of his middle-naming system. As the existing governmental organization of the United States disintegrates, the new extended family system results in fiefdoms of warring clans. (And the Hatfield-McCoy feud is not forgotten.) Well, this latter development has a certain logic to it, but, while the totality of the developments described may well be characterized as slapstick—and now we are surely living in a political state of outrageousness oblivious to consequences, they are in my view not effective in characterizing the forces of social breakdown. Social isolation and individual helplessness are indeed the breeding ground of fascism—which isn’t exactly the social order depicted here either—but this cute Vonnegut notion of the artificial extended family cannot carry the weight ascribed to it. It really represents the limit of the midwestern sensibility of his generation that Vonnegut injected into his ouevre. The Vonnegut imagination persists, and I suppose in some way it reflects the social decline perceptible in the 1970s, but only dimly through Vonnegut’s personal lens.

I have not read the intervening novels, but Hocus Pocus in 1990 is on point with respect to American dystopia. By 1973 Vonnegut’s social critique had traveled a long way from 1952’s Player Piano, and apparently sometime in the 1980s he was prepared to confront America’s irreversible social decline imaginatively with greater exactitude.

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