Kurt Vonnegut is our weirdest great American comic writer, and if you’re looking for a laugh, you will marvel at his wit and acumen even as he chronicles the most horrific events of the twentieth century. His most famous novel is Slaughterhouse-Five, which describes Billy Pilgrim’s survival of the fire-bombing of Dresden (based on Vonnegut’s own experience) and Billy’s subsequently coming unstuck in time. But Cat’s Cradle and Timequake are funnier and lighter, and I much prefer them.
I recently read and enjoyed Kurt Vonnegut’s best-selling post-apocalyptic comedy, Slapstick (1976), which received the worst reviews of any of Vonnegut’s novels. Vonnegut wrote, “The reviewers…actually asked critics who had praised me in the past to now admit in public how wrong they’d been. I felt as though I were sleeping upright in a German box car again.”
In Slapstick, Vonnegut apparently went too far for the critics, though not too far for me: I do appreciate satire. Vonnegut’s description of American society in the post-apocalyptic future – which occurs a bit later, but not much later, than now, or perhaps in a parallel time – satirizes American politics, the National Archives, American loneliness, the nuclear family, the fossil fuel shortage, and The Green Death, a pandemic.
The energy crisis is acute when the narrator, Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, is elected President of the United States. He has run on the platform of the eradication of American loneliness. His political slogan was, LONESOME NO MORE! Everybody could relate to that.
But how do you obliterate loneliness? Swain plans to assign new middle names to each citizen. These computer-generated middle names will automatically align them with a new extended family – tens of thousands of people who will be committed to caring for its members – as opposed to the too-often neglectful nuclear family.
But when Swain is elected, he has to figure out first how to generate electricity.
The fuel shortage was so severe when I was elected, that the first stiff problem I faced after my inauguration was where to get enough electricity to power the computers which would issue the new middle names.
I ordered horses and soldiers and wagons of the ramshackle army I had inherited from my predecessor to haul tons of papers from the National Archives to the powerhouse. These documents were all from the administration of Richard M. Nixon, the only President who was ever forced to resign.
Vonnegut is very funny about Nixon: he says that Nixon and his cronies weren’t really criminals, they were just lonely. And so they wanted to commit crimes so they could belong to a crime family. Vonnegut adds, The National Archives are full of papers about political crimes committed by lonely politicians.
The structure of Slapstick is odd, as so much of Vonnegut’s work is. Vonnegut says this novel is as close as he’s ever come to writing an autobiography. It’s what life feels like to him. In his autobiographical prologue, he says he prefers “common decency” to love, and examines the importance of the extended family in his own life and that of his brother.
Chapter 1 begins not in medias res (in the middle of things), but in ultimas res (the end of things). Swain, now very old and long retired from office, is living on the first floor of the Empire State building with his teenage granddaughter and her lover. The Green Death has wiped out much of the populsyion. Sickness and disasters are widespread and living conditions are primitive. The King of Michigan is at war. Swain’s granddaughter was lucky that people helped her reach New York safely.
Swain is writing his memoirs, though he doesn’t know for whom: the young can no longer read or write. Born in New York City, Swain and his twin sister, Eliza Mellon Swain, were “monsters” from birth, black-haired giants with the features of adults, not Mongoloids, but born with out-of-the-ball-park high intelligence. He explains, “We were something new. We were Neanderthaloids.”
Their beautiful, rich parents were repulsed by their children, and for years hid them away in an isolated house. The twins could literally put their heads together and solve any problem: math, science, linguistic, psychological, creative, you name it. And so a cruel psychologist evaluated the twins and decided to separate them: their IQs dropped considerably when they were apart, and thus the psychologist felt secure and brilliant again.
Meanwhile, the Chinese had learned to miniaturize themselves to solve the food shortage. Part of the formula came from a paper written by the twins when they were children.
Swain has the humor and intelligence to know he cannot control the future. That is for his granddaughter, Melody, and her generation to figure out.
Genius has had its day.
Perhaps my favorite part of the book is the prologue. Here is an excerpt.