Reviews of Nobel Prize winner | Comments on all Shakespeare's plays | Poetry reviews | Multiple reviews of same author | Haiti books |


By Kurt Vonnegut
New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1976
ISBN: 0-440-68009-9 243 pages

Bob Corbett
June 2016

Despite the fact that this is a novel, the opening section is a note from Kurt Vonnegut to the reader about the novel. He tells us that the novel is close to autobiography, which turns out to be a simply astonishing claim. He also tells us that he has been greatly influenced by the early 20th century comedians Laurel and Hardy and deals not so much with life as it is, but life like what it “feels” like.

He does assure us that in life love isn’t important. Rather: “Bargaining in good faith with destiny”

is very important.

His sister Alice was four years older than Kurt. She died at age 41. Kurt and his wife Jane Cox Vonnegut raised their own three sons plus Alice’s 3 sons, and did so while living on Cape Cod.

Alice was very important to his life. He often wrote FOR her, believing that a writer needed a real person to write for. He sees this novel, “Slapstick” as much about himself but “It is about desolated cities and spiritual cannibalism and incest and loneliness and lovelessness and death and so on.”

After this seemingly very frank introduction the reader is immediately plunged into an incredible science fiction novel. The “narrator” is the 100 year old Dr. Wilbur Daffodil, also called 11 Swain. It is a futuristic tale after a cataclysm of some sort. There are only three of people alone in the Empire State Building: he and two young women, one of whom is his granddaughter.

Few other people live on Manhattan now. There are no bridges or tunnels so it is hard to get to. None of the young can read or write and all unlearned. He asked the younger people who were the three most important people on Earth and they told him it was he, himself, Jesus Christ and Santa Claus!

He and his sister had been born Neanderthaloids. She had been killed on the planet Mars. His parents had been very rich but wrecked the planet with what he called an “Idiot’s Delight” (“obsessively turning money into power, then the power back into money, etc. . . .”) this was ultimately shattered by their freaky twins.

And thus this novel proceeds as a very strange world with seemingly few people on Earth, and travel to other places in the cosmos rather routine.

As part of this future world this brother and sister team are so constructed that when they are united, that is, together and closely together, they are virtual geniuses. When separated they are rather slow and even dysfunctional humans.

When their parents discover the trait that their intelligence is dependent upon the two being physically together they were horrified:

“He (father) was horrified to discover what our mother knew she would discover if she came downstairs: That intelligence and sensitivity in monstrous bodies like Eliza’s and mine merely made us more repulsive.”

They are surprised to discover that now they “ . . . were somehow more tragic than ever.”

When they are separated then each loses his or her intelligence. The two of them are eventually separated.

The “story,” to whatever extent a story exists at all is simply too bizarre and even crazy to give it any credence. One reviewer says:

“Whatever it is, one is left feeling empty by "Slapstick," Emptiness, conveyed with grace and style, still amounts to almost nothing. That is why, for all the new chic skill Mr. Vonnegut has brought to his latest novel, it still seems as if he hasn’t given up storytelling after all.”

I’m sympathetic to this view. While I was fascinated by this crazy narrative, I had no idea where it was going and was just along for the ride. Yet in the end I felt a bit cheated. I’m not sure I really got “a story.” On the other hand, I also simply could not stop reading or put the novel aside as “not for me.” It gripped me, but was just such a trip into an unimaginable future that I could only read along, astonished and wondering at every page.

Bob Corbett


Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett