It’s been a month since I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick, and several weeks since I first started trying to write about it. This was the first book in quite a while that I’d read and absolutely loved, and so when I found myself back in that beautiful place where I really want to talk about what I’m reading, I had to check my tendency toward endless gushing. I’m not sure I’ve succeeded.
Slapstick is the fictional autobiography of one Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, an old man living in the ruins of New York City (now known as Skyscraper National Park) with his pregnant daughter and her lover Isadore. Slapstick’s world has been ravaged by plagues, wars, and sudden, unpredictable gravitational shifts: on some days, gravity is so heavy that everyone must crawl; on others, it’s so light that all males have erections.
Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain is writing even though no one around him knows, any longer, how to read. He writes mostly about his twin sister Eliza. Born to wealthy and attractive New York parents, Wilbur and Eliza are such hideous creatures that their parents send them to to live out their (hoped-to-be) short lives in a Vermont mansion surrounded by 200 acres of apple trees and several very tall fences. Terrified and ashamed of their ugly offspring, the Swains visit once a year on Wilbur and Eliza’s birthday. And each year, Mr. and Mrs. Swain hope that Wilbur and Eliza will die.
But Wilbur and Eliza don’t die. Instead, they grow larger and larger and ever more monstrous. In an attempt to meet the expectations of those around them, Wilbur and Eliza pretend to be idiots. In public they fart and grunt and throw food at one another, while secretly they explore the mansion’s network of hidden passage ways, poring over the books in its library, learning dozens of languages, and writing down brilliant ideas about things like child-rearing, gravity, and how to foster a global feeling of connectedness through creating extended family relationships by assigning everyone new middle names (e.g, Daffodil).
Eliza and Wilbur’s brilliance is a function of proximity: when they’re near one another, their minds work as one, and the closer they get, the more brilliant they are. Unfortunately, the incestuous grappling they engage in at the heights of their mind-melds horrifies everyone around them. Once their false idiocy is discovered, Eliza, who never learned to read or write (but who, Wilbur writes, was the more brilliant of the two) is sent away to an asylum, while Wilbur, with the help of an anti-Tourette’s drug called tri-benzo-Deportamil, goes on to Harvard, then into politics, and eventually becomes president of the United States.
After they are separated, Wilbur and Eliza only see each other one final time, just after she escapes from the asylum. Then she leaves for South America, and ultimately for Mars, where she is killed in a sudden avalanche of fool’s gold. In many ways, the whole book is about Wilbur missing Eliza and what I love in particular about Slapstick is how deeply personal it feels. In the preface to the novel, Vonnegut writes that Slapstick is the most autobiographical of his books, written largely about his relationship with his sister, who died of cancer in her early forties.
Over the past few months I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of writing to someone, something that came up in relation to Nicole Krauss’s new novel Great House, which I read back in November, and that has stayed with me throughout a flurry of letter-writing and reading. There’s something absurd about Swain writing his autobiography in a world where no one knows how to read, except that one feels the whole time that he is writing to Eliza. And writing to the dead may be absurd in its own right (though I don’t really think so), but what Slapstick makes palpable is that writing is Wilbur’s attempt at preserving memory, his clutching at that proximity to Eliza he had as a child, a proximity lost to all kinds of distance—years apart, all the miles between earth and mars, death itself.
And Vonnegut seems to be writing to his own sister as well, creating a weird and touching fictional monument to their relationship. Slapstick is titled in honor of Laurel and Hardy, and Vonnegut writes in the preface that life feels like “all these tests of my limited agility and intelligence,” and that the “fundamental joke with Laurel and Hardy…was that they did their best with every test.” Days before Vonnegut’s sister’s death from cancer, her husband was killed in a commuter rail accident, when the train he was on hurtled off an open drawbridge. Her family tried to keep this from her, but she found out anyways, when another patient gave her a newspaper that contained an article about the accident, as well as a list of the missing and the dead. In Vonnegut’s books, enormous tragedies do happen, and while they may just be “accidents in a very busy place,” there is a certain just and surreal symmetry to the universes he creates. Maybe, when the people we care the most about leave us, or when everything we believe in tumbles into oblivion, we should be more surprised that gravity doesn’t change.
Vonnegut is one of my favorite writers, and his books comprise some of my mind’s favorite spaces. When I talk to people about Vonnegut, either they love him like I do, or they think he’s too weird, too episodic, too sad. I guess you know you love someone when all of their weaknesses play to you as strengths (in fact, my mother wrote me an email this morning in which she quoted a wise old friend who “used to say our love for the idiosyncrasies and unloveliness of our beloved ones is the surest sign of the truth of our love”).
I love Vonnegut’s bizarre, loosely plotted, heartbreaking creations. This book was so tender and intimate, funny and sad, so astute in its observations both personal and political (I often forget that Vonnegut had a degree in anthropology, but there is a subplot in Slapstick having to do with the Chinese that was kind of remarkable to read, given the current state of US-Chinese relations and President Hu’s recent visit to the US). In the preface to Slapstick Vonnegut writes that he cannot distinguish the love he feels for human beings from the love he feels for dogs. I’ve wondered before if this isn’t a good thing—there’s a lot to be said for the way we love dogs. Vonnegut’s books—however sad they are, however openly they question or condemn the ways that human beings treat one another—always feel to me as if they’re filled with love: ugly, incestuous, twisted, steady, gravity-bending, heartbreaking love. And reading Slapstick made me feel like this is a pretty good kind of love to have around.