Slim Paperback One: Slapstick

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.

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Doldrums.

Usually I think of winter as the time to dig into long novels. Most of the lengthiest books I’ve ever read I undertook between November and March, and though I read Dead Souls in late December (and liked it a lot) since then I’ve found that I can’t make it past the second chapter of any book longer than 400 pages. I put a lot of weight on how well or how poorly I’m reading (and writing) as a measurement of my overall mental state, so it actually does worry me when reading doesn’t come easily.

A friend of mine said to me today that she’s been failing to get through The Pickwick Papers, and she thinks this is partially due to the fact that it’s just not the kind of book one can read ten pages of at a time. There’s definitely some comforting truth to this—some books you’re meant to be immersed in, sixty-plus pages at a time. To read them in three page sips then, is to miss the immersion altogether. Even I can’t usually find time in my day to read for a steady hour and a half.

Another explanation might be that I’m just trying to read the wrong six hundred page books, but after my discard pile stacked up to my knees, I began to assume there was something more at the root of my inability to read at length than merely poor selection.

Right now, I’d say the problem is February. But if this is still going on in March, I suppose I’ll have to reassess.

The upside of not being able to read anything that weighs more than eight ounces has been that I’ve been racing through some shorter fiction, essays, and even some plays. I find that when I’m struggling to make it past the first two paragraphs of anything, I return to my favorite writers because I have faith their books will take me in—that they’ll both shelter and engross me—so over the past two weeks I’ve gone back to Vonnegut, Murdoch, Shakespeare and Calvin and Hobbes.

I’ll be writing a bit more about these books shortly—stay tuned for posts about slim paperbacks numbers one, two and three (with four and five in the offing).

Playing catch-up, part 1.

Here’s a list of lots of things I’ve seen, read and thought about over the past few weeks.

Spotted:

  • A girl reading Arthur Ransome’s Secret Water in the crêperie near my apartment. This made me really happy.
  • A Daunt’s book bag identical to the one I’ve got, slung over the shoulder of someone walking past the store where I work.
  • Multiple copies of Franzen’s Freedom being read on the T, in coffee shops and outside, when it’s sunny.

What I’ve been reading:

  • Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan, C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, Murial Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Dan Simmons’ Hyperion (in the middle of this one), Shakespeare’s Henry IV part I, Nicole Krauss’ Great House, Bernd Brunner’s Moon: A Brief History (in the midst of this as well), Best American Essays 2010 edited by Christopher Hitchens, and some dabbling about in different collections by David Sedaris.
  • J.K. Rowling on “The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination,” poet Don Paterson (whose new book, Rain, contains some really beautiful poems, especially the title piece) on Shakespeare’s sonnets, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on metaphysics, and various pieces from recent New Yorkers.

Posts I’ve thought about writing but haven’t:

  • A post about dialogue and conversation, spurred by the fact that I think Shirley Jackson writes conversations really, really well, capturing the way speaking to other people can really be just a part of a full-scale psychological guessing game.
  • A post about characters in mystery series, spurred by reading Margery Allingham, who seems really gifted at creating characters in a line or two. In mysteries, character is often subservient to plot. There is usually only one fully developed character: the detective. And the detective’s character development is usually arched not just through a single book, but through the series as a whole. The other personages in a single book all function as parts of the game the detective is trying to solve, as suspects, red herrings, and distractions. So they get to be 2-dimensional, but often in flamboyant, deeply suspicious ways, and I thought this was interesting. Maybe I’ll come back to it.
  • Forthcoming: some thoughts on Nicole Krauss’ Great House and other contemporary fiction.
  • Multiple posts apologizing for the general lack of posts…

Top Ten Books that Shouldn’t Be Made Into Movies

Modlife, the Modcloth blog, recently posted a list of the Top 10 Books that Should Be Made Into Movies. Their list includes Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (#9), books by Dave Eggers and David Sedaris, Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (#3), Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (#2), the perennial favorite by Orson Scott Card (one of the books I “spot” most often), Ender’s Game.

I am not a huge fan of the books turned into movies genre, but I’ve certainly seen (and enjoyed) my fair share of films based on books. I’ve seen multiple versions of Alcott’s Little Women and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Persuasion;  I love the Anne of Green Gables series starring Megan Follows, and About a Boy, based on the Nick Hornby novel of the same name. And yes, I’ve seen all the Harry Potter movies (enjoyed most of them, though nowhere near as much as I did the books), and The Lord of the Rings films. I’ve seen multiple Ms. Marples and many, many James Bonds.

Still, I’m glad many of my favorite books haven’t been made into films. Mostly I enjoy book-based movies, but only rarely do I feel like the films really live up to their written counterparts. And the more I love the book, the more difficult it is for the film to meet my expectations. My mother staunchly refuses to see most films based on books, at least books she’s read. For instance, she’s never seen any of the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings films, but she liked Julie and Julia, and last week she saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, neither of which she’s read. And I’m pretty sympathetic to her viewpoint…my problem is that when books turn into movies, curiosity gets the better of me, and I can hardly resist going to see them.

One unhappy fan's reaction to the film version of Philip Pullman's "The Golden Compass." I'm fairly in accord with him. Photo: Cayusa

But there are some books that I hope won’t ever be made into films, so I won’t even be tempted to see them. Of course, if someone made an epically beautiful, masterpiece-in-it’s-own-right kind of film, that’d be great. But that type of book-to-movie transition is rare (To Kill a Mockingbird, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this month, does come to mind) and, I think, getting rarer. Luckily, a lot of my favorite books will likely never be made into films, because they’re books of poetry. Lives of poets are often turned into films (Bright Star, Sylvia, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle and—forthcoming—Howl) but poetry collections themselves are rarely snapped up for their cinematic potential.

But I’m also a lover of novels, and there a great many that I see so clearly in my mind as they are that I hope I’ll never be tempted to see them in the cinema. So without further ado, here’s my Top Ten Books that Shouldn’t Be Made Into Movies.

1. A Wrinkle in Time. No movie, no matter how great, could beat Madeleine L’Engle reading this book aloud.

2. Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions or any of my other favorite Kurt Vonnegut books. I didn’t really like the movie version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (my dad did, though), and I can’t see Vonnegut’s work faring much better.

3. The Bell Jar. I can just see one of my favorite opening lines in literature (“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”) being done in a voice over as a camera pans down over Manhattan. Ugh.

4. To the Lighthouse. I watched Vanessa Redgrave’s Mrs. Dalloway in high school, and lines from it instantly because class jokes. I think (more so today than I did then) that the film has its merits. But the book is so much better…and To the Lighthouse is far more important to me than Mrs. Dalloway. I hope the film industry leaves well enough alone, and sticks to movies like The Hours (also based on a book, of course, by Michael Cunningham), which I enjoyed well enough, fake nose and all.

5. Catcher in the Rye. Salinger didn’t want it to be made into a film, and neither do I.

6. Ender’s Game. I understand why people might want this book to be a movie. But I don’t agree with them.

7. From the Mixed Up of Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Another book from my youth, (I seem particularly attached to these!) From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler has given me a lifelong love of the Met. This is another book with an absolutely stellar audio version. And yes, I know there are several film versions made already (one starring Ingrid Bergman, another Lauren Bacall, who’d have guessed). I haven’t seen them. Apparently even I can resist some temptations.

8. The Sound and the Fury. The only book-to-film transition I can think of that would be similar to bringing Faulkner’s masterpiece to the silver screen is Oprah Winfrey’s film of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. I actually think the film version Beloved has its merits (mostly related to Thandie Newton’s epically creepy, mesmerizing performance in the title role) but I’d like Hollywood to stay away from The Sound and the Fury. They can keep making movies of Macbeth though, if they’d like.

9. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I don’t know why I even care, but please, just no.

10. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Another book that I absolutely adore, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter also already has a movie version, starring Alan Arkin, which was nominated for several Academy and Golden Globe Awards in 1968. I’ll never see it. Even if I’m stuck on a 16 hour flight and it’s the only film showing.

Of my Top Ten, at least four already have film versions (making them slightly redundant entries, but I wanted to file my objections nonetheless) and at least three are slated for production (yes, it’s #9, and also #1 and #3). So clearly my opinion doesn’t hold much sway.

Which books would be on your list?