After 30 years: Kurt Vonnegut and Slapstick

This is an anniversary year. Mind you, every year is an anniversary year of something. Every day could be used to celebrate an event — public or private, births, deaths, weddings and so on. (Today, for example, The History Channel tells us, “The great Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn is born in Leiden on July 15, 1606, the son of a miller.” Happy birthday Rembrandt!)

Thirty years ago, I bought Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slapstick: or Lonesome no more! I couldn’t tell you the day I bought it, but I do know I bought it when it came out in hardcover and the copyright is 1976 so I’m assuming I bought it three decades back.

Why bring this up? Well, I’ve always liked reading Vonnegut — possibly because he’s so easy to read. One thing you can say about Vonnegut is that he has a very distinct, breezy style.

It has never made sense to me to speak of his books in terms of “the best,” or to compare them to the novels of others. Kurt Vonnegut’s books seem to inhabit their own universe. Or so it has always seemed to me.

I can, however, say this about Slapstick: it is easily my favourite book by Kurt Vonnegut. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read it. (I read it again just about a week ago.) It’s a quick, easy read, as most of his writings are — perhaps deceptively so. I suspect more work went into the writing of his books than their simple, casual and somewhat meandering style suggest.

Why do I like Slapstick so much? I don’t know. Apart from the fact it is funny, which I always like, I suspect I connect with the book’s fundamental idea of relationships and the need people have for them. And I love the fact the brother and sister, when separated, call themselves, sarcastically, “Betty and Bobby Brown.” The idea is that together they are something special; apart they are common, unremarkable (and lonely) people.

In the prologue, Vonnegut says of the book, “It is about what life feels like to me.”

He also says he calls it Slapstick because it is “grotesque, situational poetry,” much like the movies of Laurel and Hardy. Of them, he says:

“The fundamental joke with Laurel and Hardy, it seems to me, was that they did their best with every test.

“They never failed to bargain in good faith with their destinies, and were screamingly adorable and funny on that account.”

Yes. Indeed they were.

In our house, when I was young, I was the family member with the books. I had tons of them. When someone else in our family was looking for something to read, they would go to my room and borrow one. (I remember once my mother borrowed D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. She read it and hated it. Her comment? “Who talks like that? Real people don’t talk like that.” I think that may have been some of the best literary criticism of Lawrence I ever encountered.)

Anyway … One day my father stayed home from work with a bad cold. I came home from school late in the day and found Dad in his favourite chair, wearing pajamas and robe, his hair stilled mussed with bed-head, laughing his head off. He was reading Slapstick. He had tears in his eyes, he was laughing so hard. He looked up at me, shook the book in my direction, and said, “This is the craziest damn thing I’ve ever read!”

More great literary criticism from one of my parents.

Hi ho.