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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.

Kathi Badertscher, PhD

Director of Graduate Programs at the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy
Kathi Badertscher, PhD, is Director of Graduate Programs at the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Dr. Badertscher teaches a variety of BA, MA, and doctoral courses, including Applying Ethics in Philanthropy and History of Philanthropy. She has participated in several Teaching Vonnegut workshops and is a member of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library. Dr. Badertscher has been a guest speaker on ethics in philanthropy, including at the National Association of Charitable Gift Planners – Indianapolis Council; Association of Fundraising Professionals – Indiana Chapter; and Zhou Enlai School of Government, Nankai University, Tianjin, China. In 2019 she received IUPUI Office for Women, Women’s Leadership Award for Newcomer Faculty. In 2019 and 2020 she received the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Graduate Teaching Award.
Dr. Badertscher’s publications include “Fundraising for Advocacy and Social Change,” co-authored with Shariq Siddiqui in Achieving Excellence in Fundraising, 5th ed., 2022; “Insulin at 100: Indianapolis, Toronto, Woods Hole, and the ‘Insulin Road,’ co-authored with Christopher Rutty, Pharmacy in History (2020); and three articles in the Indiana Magazine of History: “A New Wishard Is on the Way,” “Evaline Holliday and the Work of Community Service,” and “Social Networks in Indianapolis during the Progressive Era.” Her chapters on social welfare history will appear in three upcoming edited volumes on the history of philanthropy, including “The Legacy of Edna Henry and Her Contributions to the IU School of Social Work,” Women at Indiana University: Views of the Past and the Future, edited by Andrea Walton, Indiana University Press, 2022 (forthcoming). Dr. Badertscher is also the Philanthropy and Nonprofits Consulting Editor for the forthcoming Digital Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, edited by David J. Bodenhamer and Elizabeth Van Allen, Indiana University Press, 2021. Dr. Badertscher is an active volunteer in the Indianapolis community. At present, she is a Coburn Place Safe Haven Board Member and a Children’s Bureau/Families First Brand and Marketing Advisor. Dr. Badertscher holds the MA in History from Indiana University and the MA and PhD in philanthropic studies from the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

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