Slapstick is the seventh book in Rachel’s Suggested Vonnegut Reading Order.
I braced myself for Slapstick before picking it up. I was told scary things. Things like, “Kurt Vonnegut himself gave this novel a D.” Things like, “The critics totally slammed this book.” Things like, “It’s a misunderstood work of genius” (because sometimes the scariest thing you can hear about a book is how great your friend thinks it is).
Was the bracing necessary? Honestly, not really. Slapstick isn’t my favorite Vonnegut, but it wasn’t my un-favorite, either. (I’m not telling you what that one is because I’m sure someone somewhere will be out for blood, and now is not a convenient time for me to lose copious amounts of blood.) I confess to not totally understanding the book, but I don’t think it deserves a D. It’s silly and crazy and sad, and it taps into a universal desire of mankind: a family, obtained via blood, covenant, or otherwise.
At the beginning of the story, our protagonist, Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, is never alone. He has his sister, Eliza, and basically no one else. The Swain twins are so repulsive-looking – three meters tall, with twelve fingers and toes and extra nipples – that their affluent parents hide them away in an abandoned family mansion with only a few servants to attend to their needs. Wilbur and Eliza are supremely intelligent, but only when they work together. For example, Wilbur can read almost any Indo-European language, but Eliza’s the one who can interpret what he reads aloud to her. It’s also Eliza who gets the idea that the two should pretend to be dunces; after all, that’s what their parents expect of them.
But eventually, their parents realize their children’s true intellect and are disturbed by the disturbingly close relationship Wilbur and Eliza have. They separate them, sending Eliza to a mental institution and Wilbur to a school for troubled children. Wilbur’s much dumber when Eliza’s not with him, but he manages to graduate from Harvard Medical School and become a pediatrician. Later in life, he runs for President of the United States and plans to use a technique he and Eliza created long ago to give everyone in America a randomly generated middle name and, therefore, a family. His is Daffodil-11.
If you’ve been following events at KVML for a while, you may know that the theme for last year’s programming was “Common Decency.” You might also know that this year’s theme is “Lonesome No More.” Both of those quotes come from Slapstick. “Lonesome No More” is Wilbur’s campaign slogan when he runs for president. (The opposing side runs under the slogan “Lonesome Thank God.”) “Common Decency” comes from a line in the book’s autobiographical prologue: “Human beings need all the relatives they can get – as possible donors and receivers not necessarily of love, but of common decency.”
As disturbing (there is a crotch-sniffing scene) and incomprehensible as this book can be, there’s a lot to unpack in those two quotes. Wilbur knows what it’s like to be lonesome. Sure, he kind of lets Eliza and her fate drift to the back of his mind and focuses instead on his professional life, but I think that initial loneliness never really went away. He adored Eliza, but if he’d shown her some more common decency – keeping her from spending her life locked up, or something like that – life might have turned out better for both of them.
It’s really not too bad. Ignore the early reviews of it and give it a read. Here’s to you liking it even better than I did.
Emma’s Overall Reaction: Confused? Yes. Disturbed? A little. Infuriated? Heck, no. So far as Slapstick can be boiled down to a cliche, it was just fine.
To buy a copy of Slapstick, visit this link.