Of Man’s Rude Slapstick, Yes, And God’s

“And how did we then face the odds,
of man’s rude slapstick, yes, and God’s?
Quite at home and unafraid,
in a game our dreams re-made.”

 - Kurt Vonnegut, Slapstick, 1976

American Pastoral

Kurt Vonnegut identifies his eighth novel, Slapstick, or Lonesome No More!, as “the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography.” Indeed, Slapstick is a highly personal novel, one that, like his others, confronts the ultimate absurdity of the human condition and responds with a subversive love. It is also presented as the autobiography of Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain (born as Wilbur Rockefeller Swain), the former President of the United States and current King of Manhattan. The novel is ostensibly “about desolated cities and spiritual cannibalism and incest and loneliness and lovelessness and death, and so on. It depicts myself and my beautiful sisters as monsters, and so on.” And this is true — the core of the novel is a meditation on alienation and loneliness. But the beating heart of Slapstick is Vonnegut’s honest and painful appraisal of his relationship with his sister and himself, and, with characteristic hope and humanism, the transformative power of love and art.

In the “Prologue,” Vonnegut reflects on his difficulty in dealing with his sister’s death, and his desire to keep her alive in memory. He even suggests that his sister “was the secret of whatever artistic unity I had ever achieved.” Vonnegut’s discussion of “unity” is highly significant, for the novel is an attempt to overcome alienation and achieve some singularity of identity. Furthermore, Vonnegut’s worries that memories of his sister have “begun to fade away,” rendering Slapstick in part a lamentation for Vonnegut’s loss of creative and stylistic unity. Vonnegut’s eighth novel is very much a meditation on the importance of art and the artistic process. However, Vonnegut, imagining himself as a semi-literate “monster,” worries that, perhaps, pain has subsumed his imagination, that schism has torn his identity. Swain quotes Dostoevsky — “One sacred memory from childhood is perhaps the best education.” One is reminded of Eliot Rosewater in Slaughterhouse Five, wondering if that is “enough anymore.” Nevertheless, Slapstick is an attempt, through art, to transmute the sacred memory of childhood in order to still the heartsick cry of lonely and lost adults.

Hauntingly, Vonnegut’s discussion of his sister’s death achieves catastrophic implications in the novel. Her death and the destruction of the world coincide — Vonnegut’s emotions destabilize the world. Despite this bleak apocalypticismSlapstick mounts a defense of love and fantasy as the only bulwark against absurdity. As alluded to in the title, Slapstick is fundamentally an absurdist discussion of contemporary America. Slapstick, published at the nation’s bicentennial, mounts a few prescient critiques of contemporary America. Vonnegut presents a disintegrating America after the squandering of natural resources and paranoia over an increasingly powerful China, and he presents an absurdist scheme to forge social bonds in an increasingly lonely nation. Despite this absurdity, however, Vonnegut mounts trenchant critiques against the increasingly unstable foundations of the modern self and modern world. Slapstick’s subtitle is “Lonesome No More!” and Vonnegut’s chief concern in the novel is the alleviation of lonesomeness, which he identifies as the greatest disease of modernity.

In Slapstick, Vonnegut explores through allegory two forms of alienation that lead to lonesomeness, which Vonnegut sees as a distinctive quality of modern America. Vonnegut suffers both from the rootlessness of late capitalism and separation from his sister. In Vonnegut’s novelistic conceit, moreover, his separation from his sister results in a schizophrenia of self — the two together create a complete whole. The schism in Vonnegut’s family and self adopts cosmic importance. Both of these forms of alienation suggest deep anxieties of modernity, which Vonnegut attempts to alleviate through the transformative power of art and through a subversive love. At the heart of the novel, Vonnegut seems to consider the question that haunts T.S. Eliot in The Wasteland — “Where are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / out of this stony rubbish?” 

Epistemology of the Closet

Slapstick presents itself as the autobiography of Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, who writes his memoir as a meditation on apocalypse. He writes as the last President of the United States, elected before the nation crumbled due to peak oil, plague, and variable gravity. The novel oscillates between Swain’s discussion of his life on a dystopian Manhattan (called “The Island of Death,” or even “Skyscraper National Park”) and his memory of his prior life, mainly focused on his childhood with Eliza. Wilbur and Eliza are “dizygotic twins,” described as “neanderthaloids” and “monsters.” Due to the shame of their aristocratic parents, Wilbur and Eliza are quarantined in an old mansion in Galen, Vermont. Their lives in this mansion are schizophrenic — they perform the role of the idiots they are expected to be, but privately pursue a creative life of the mind. While both Wilbur and Eliza are severely handicapped when alone, when they combine their intelligences they achieve an intellectual acuity on par with Einstein. Together, the two can speak several languages, synthesize complex scientific theories (such as that of variable gravity, which allowed the Egyptians to build the pyramids and which is later controlled by the Chinese), and conceive utopian schemes. One such scheme, “Lonesome No More,” offers each American a new middle name, insinuating each individual into sprawling, artificial families. “Lonesome No More” assumes major importance in the imagination of the novel.

Vonnegut continues to explore his own Edenic imagination in Slapstick. Wilbur’s relationship with Eliza — which parallels Vonnegut’s own relationship with his sister — is explicitly framed as a pre-lapsarian love. Their mansion is continually referred to as a “Paradise,” their fall from which is to be a major defining trauma of their lives. In the mansion, the two can slip into an “alternate universe,” a clandestine network of passageways and chambers hidden within the mansion. The siblings pursue a bicameral existence, split between inwardness and outwardness, in a microcosm of the schizophrenia of the American consciousness and experience. (Indeed, the mansion is partially a metaphor for identity — Vonnegut celebrates interiority, but is concerned about the homogenizing effects of societal expectation.) Inside these interior spaces, the two pursue true collaborate scholarship and achieve un-alienated and unmediated love. Tellingly, they access this interiority, this “alternate universe,” through slipping through a secret passageway hidden inside a grandfather clock. Again, Vonnegut’s revolutionary use of time opens new modes of being for the protagonists. Wilbur and Eliza subvert historical time by dwelling outside of it. They retreat, slipping through gaps in time, into an a-temporal Eden. They cultivate a sublime happiness — “they were innocent great apes, with limited means for doing mischief, which...is all that human beings were ever meant to be.”

Wilbur and Eliza’s traumatic fall from Paradise impels an existential crisis for both siblings. They are separated from each other, thereby reduced to “idiocy.” Upon their expulsion from Eden, the two adopt alternate identities to communicate their fallen-ness — Bobby and Betty Brown. Because he can read and write, Wilbur is thrust into a position of privilege, while Eliza is hidden in remedial programs. Wilbur more or less forgets about Eliza, drowning himself in narcotics and practicing medicine before running for President. As she reminds him periodically, the Platonic love the two shareis integral to their identities, and their infrequent reunions result in “orgies” of unrestrained creativity. In one poignant discourse, Eliza — described, in her helicopter, as a “terrible mechanical angel” — quotes Shakespeare’s Sonnet 39, speaking “from Heaven of separation and love.” Crucially, the separation of the twins strikes Vonnegut as creating a schism in subjectivity. Wilbur, without Eliza, is not complete. His existence is alienated, and his desire to restore his love with his sister is also a desire to heal himself.

In imagining of the singular mind of these dizygotic twins, Vonnegut draws on classical conceptions of love and alienation first voiced by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium. In theorizing on the creation of humankind, Aristophanes posits that humans were first created as “round wholes.” These complete beings led a war against heaven, and Zeus, in his wrath, split the whole into two beings who could incompletely overcome their punitive alienation through human love. The individual, he suggests, is fundamentally alienated, and seeks wholeness in community. Jacques Lacan also read the Garden of Eden and the subsequent Fall as a narrative of wholeness and alienation, a narrative which is mapped onto childhood and which Vonnegut employs in Slapstick. Crucially, the Edenic relationship between Wilbur and Eliza cultivates both love and creativity — two of Vonnegut’s essential components for a meaningful life. 

Eliza’s death in a Martian landslide inspires a beautiful passage of destruction, as Vonnegut describes the overlap between the melancholy of Wilbur and the weight of the world falling upon him. “An extraordinary feeling came over me, which I first thought to be psychological in origin, the first rush of grief... I could not pick up my feet.” Vonnegut continues to narrate apocalypse, as a sudden increase in gravity brought down church bells, airplanes, bridges, and so on. “It was terrible.” These variations of gravity — wrought by the Chinese — dissolve Western Civilization. The United States is carved into fiefdoms (but Vonnegut does clarify that, despite the occasional wars between — for instance, the King of Michigan, the Hoosiers of Indiana, or the Sooners of Oklahoma — these wars are “no massacres,” and that the familial connections between groups has tempered violence.)

After Eliza’s death, Wilbur attempts to sublimate his grief into an elaborate and absurd scheme to overcome lonesomeness. He runs for President on the successful platform, “Lonesome No More,” intending to establish artificial families for all Americans. Instead of a nation of disconnected and alienated individuals, Vonnegut conceives of a true community, connected by complex familial bonds, where everyone “belongs.” In a 1973 interview with Playboy, Vonnegut claims, “human beings will be happier — not when they cure cancer or get to Mars or eliminate racial prejudice or flush Lake Erie — but when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again. That’s my utopia.” Indeed, Wilbur’s proposal does alleviate loneliness. The nation, even as it crumbles due to lack of resources and variable gravity, finally finds happiness and community. Swain is able to create a home in the lobby in the ruins of the Empire State Building. After empire, all that remains is the individual, yearning for completeness. He surrounds himself with candlesticks and dreams of his lost love.

This American Life

Slapstick articulates Vonnegut’s desire firmly to root the human. If the modern self suffers from rootlessness and meaninglessness, Vonnegut attempts to alleviate this anxiety through planting the human in history, place, and, most importantly, imagination. The human must belong, and the schizophrenia of postwar America primarily results from this lack of belonging. He laments in the “Prologue” of the de-centering effect of anti-German sentiment in World War I inflicted upon his family. Vonnegut’s had been a leading German family in Indianapolis, but, he remarks, “my brother and sister and I were raised as though Germany were as foreign to us as Portugal... We lost thousands of years in a very short time.” History, a shared narrative, is necessary to alleviate the Cartesian terror of modern selfhood. When the Vonneguts lost their ontological anchor in historical narrative, they “became a lot less interesting, especially to itself.” As a result, Vonnegut remarks bitterly, “we were interchangeable parts in the American machine.”

This radical uprootedness and existential alienation is an essential component of capitalism. As Marx suggests beautifully in The Communist Manifesto, in a passage that resonates with Vonnegut’s discussion of modern alienation in Slapstick, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is made profane, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life.” This dissolving of human bonds radically unmoors the self, and the sublimation of identity into the “American machine” portends a deep existential dread for Vonnegut. “Where are the roots that clutch?”

Hannah Arendt famously identifies the “atomization” of communities as a distinctively violent characteristic of modernity. This atomizing process tears asudnder the social world, destroying communities and families and establishing a cult of the individual. The atomized individual is reduced to the self alone, and the self is both the foundation and ideal of modern capitalism. Vonnegut digs underneath this Thatcher-ian construct and uncovers a deeper existential crisis. He lampoons this dangerous ideal through the insufferable Dr. Cordiner, who separates Wilbur and Eliza, demanding they each learn to “paddle [their] own canoe.” She explains, in a rant suffused with irony, “this is the United States of America, where nobody has the right to rely on anybody else — where everybody learns to make his or her own way.”

The consequences, however, of paddling one’s own canoe, as it were, radically de-stabilize Vonnegut’s protagonists. Indeed, the conception of artificial families should be read as an allegory for Wilbur’s impossible desire to re-commune with his sister and achieve an un-alienated existence. Vonnegut does open this possibility of reunion after death (although Vonnegut repeatedly mentions the monotony of the afterlife), and Wilbur and Eliza seek to overcome their alienation and find a lost wholeness in the afterlife, referred to as the Turkey Farm. American life is one of radical loneliness and alienation, both from others and within the existential self. American life is also one of total disenchantment. Vonnegut yearns to re-enchant the world and to make himself whole again.

Indeed, the successes and virtues of Swain’s plan restore to the legions of interchangeable selves a firm sense of identity and place. “We need all the relatives we can get in a country as big and clumsy as ours,” Swain suggests, and it is easy to read both Vonnegut’s existential anxieties and disdain for modern capitalism through such statements. Today, when the nebulous cult of “family values” consists mainly of reactionary capitulations of patriarchy and late capitalism, Vonnegut’s construction of these families cultivates truly subversive communities. These flourishing sites of imagination and meaning connect disaffected Americans throughout the nation, paying no heed to race, gender, class, and so on. In so doing, Vonnegut imagines a truly benevolent and beloved community, a de-centralized utopia of familial bonds of love and fellowship. “Life was but a dream,” he sings.

Slapstick, or Lonesome No More!

At the heart of Slapstick is a meditation on the absurdity of human life, and the overwhelming imperative to make life meaningful. The name of the novel actually derives from Vonnegut’s sister — “slapstick” was among her dying words. In the recognition of the ultimate meaninglessness of life, Vonnegut wants merely to “bargain in good faith with [his] destiny.” Life is meaningless, but it is for that reason that the human must be celebrated. To become merely an “interchangeable part in the American machine” is to dissolve the human into the vast mediating structures of the state and economy, leaving little room for celebration. In response, Vonnegut yearns for unmediated human communion, but doubts if such recourse is possible. He wants to restore his Edenic love with this sister, and through that love restore himself. As Frank O’Hara laments in “Meditations in an Emergency,” “I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love.”   

Swain dies, “proud of what he and his sister had done to reform their society.” Indeed, Swain’s autobiography is a celebration of his relationship with his sister, and it functions in the same way for Vonnegut. In addition to his autobiography, Swain leaves a small poem, intended as an epitaph:

“And how did we then face the odds,
of man’s rude slapstick, yes, and God’s?
Quite at home and unafraid,
in a game our dreams re-made.”

Swain’s intended epitaph reinforces Vonnegut’s themes of forging meaning through art, imagination, and community. Life is meaningless, but through imagination the human can and must re-make the world.

At the conclusion of Swain’s biography, he describes his birthday party. Friends had brought him candles for his innumerable candlesticks (he is known as the King of Candlesticks), and they lit them all. “Standing among all those tiny, wavering lights, I felt as though I were God, up to my knees in the Milky Way.” This sacralizing move is essential for Vonnegut. Despite the absurdity of the human condition, art must insist on the sacredness of the human. Swain, imagining himself divine, meditates on the cosmic centrality of the human, despite overwhelming meaninglessness. Slapstick is superseded by the sacred.