by Kurt Vonnegut
Vintage Classics

(ISBN 978-0099842705)

I picked up Slapstick or Lonesome No More in a second-hand book shop (Troutmark Books in Cardiff) after being stunned by Slaughterhouse 5 not so long ago. Vonnegut was my first foray in to reading science fiction; I don’t avoid the far-fetched, it is just a genre I always imagined I would find tedious. Saying that, Slaughterhouse 5 only gently employs sci-fi, and even then it is only really used as a device; it was so far removed from the geek’s-wet-dream-fantasy Farscape-esque stories that I had idiotically assumed all sci-fi was like. So much so in fact, that it tenderly removed my blinkers, and my disbelief in the genre has been well and truly hoisted and suspended, for now. Thankfully.

Thankfully; because Slapstick is a deranged dose of the absurd. An ex- Mr President, the ‘King of Candlesticks’, or Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, if you will, narrated me through an apocalyptic world, literally plagued by an ultra-advanced and miniature Chinese population, whilst also delivering his autobiography as the “dumber” half of the most superior combined-sibling intelligence the universe has ever created. This is very much just a taste of the story, and frankly a terrible description. To be honest, it is impossible to articulate the absurdity and the comedy without plagiarising Vonnegut’s words and drawings, yes, drawings too! The next best I can do is to consider the book and urge you to read it yourself.

Without really reading the entire novel it is hard to grasp the skill in such a style of writing – my imagination conjours people’s naive reactions to my description of the story: “hehehe that is so random”. But to write sensical nonsense, to coherently spout shit, to confuse and amuse, is more than “so random” – it is a noteworthy skill*.

Underneath the sillines is Vonnegut’s real talent, the same unique approach seen in Slaughterhouse 5, and that is the paradoxical use of fantasy to tell truth. For throughout the book every object, character, event and situation weighs heavy with the truth that can be drawn from it. There are some revelatory metaphors throughout – the advancement of the Chinese, the undoing of US community and then country, climate change etc. –  but one feels that this is posturing rather than prophesy. That Vonnegut fails here is not so bad, for it is not the reason he wrote Slapstick.

By his admission, Slapstick was written as “the closest [Vonnegut] will ever come to writing an autobiography”, but primarily it feels like a celebration of his relationship to his sister. The prologue provides the reader with the necessary clues to assume that Vonnegut is writing about himself and his sister; in particular, he describes his sister’s death, which would be wholly unconnected otherwise. The prologue contains the facts of his life, the main body contains the emotion of his life. The importance of his sister to him resonates throughout the book, something that is touchingly corroborated in a wonderful interview compiled at The Paris Review.

Reading Slaughterhouse 5 I was under the impression that Vonnegut used science fiction to write about an experience – the bombing of Dresden – that would be otherwise too raw and traumatic to write about directly. So, is this the reason he uses the same methods in Slapstick? It is a question that hovered in the periphery all the time I was reading it, and one I can not answer. It may just be a style he has settled on by his seventh novel, or it may be his own way of expressing love – he confesses in the prologue to holding an unusual (but very wise) interpretation of ‘love’. For me, this question lays the possibility of words unspoken, of emotion unexpressed, yielding an atmosphere of melancholy that is difficult to shake after reading.

I doubt it will ever be a favourite for anybody, but when you consider it for what it really is – ultimately a book brimming with brotherly love – it is not written for us, and therefore I am judging it from the wrong perspective, and so too did Vonnegut himself when he graded it ‘D’. For what I think it was meant to be, and should have been, it deserves nothing but praise.

As a book for us to read, it is not so strong as Vonnegut’s other work. But worth a foray in to sci-fi.

Star Rating: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆


*A bit of a side-note: the recent on-line buzz around Broken Piano for President by Patrick Wensink introduced me to the Bizarro Fiction genre. Though I am yet to read anything calssified as Bizarro, it sounds as thought it really embraces and celebrates a style of writing akin to Vonnegut’s. Maybe Bizarro can trace its roots back to 1976? Do correct me if I am wrong or have misunderstood the genre. Hi ho.