Kurt Vonnegut apparently thought very little of this particular book. In “Palm Sunday,” a collection of essays he published, he grades all the books he had written up to that point. “Slapstick,” alone, received the lowest grade: a “D.” (incidentally, “Palm Sunday” itself received a “C”)
Reading it, I honestly can’t imagine why. Slapstick brings the reader into a richly imagined world, simultaneously familiar and unrecognizable, an absurd mirror of America transformed by tragedy. World-building has never been a strength of Vonnegut’s, nor apparently of any interest to him, with the exception of this book. I found myself wanting to explore this world of artificial extended families, budding warlords and miraculous super-science more than Vonnegut had room to allow (although the world is perfectly well-realized within the pages of the book). It’s the sort of world I’d like to try a tabletop RPG adventure in if I ever had the time.
Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain is probably the most memorable protagonist I’ve read in Vonnegut so far (and I’m more than halfway done with his work.) A self-deprecating, devil-may-care wisecracker on the outside, Vonnegut’s (partially autobiographical) protagonist recounts his long past, now that the old painful memories have become more distant. He is acutely aware that he has little time left, and that the world belongs to young people. Young people who have their own ideas about how to live.
Despite the sci-fi elements, large parts of this book are borrowed wholesale from Vonnegut’s life. You can feel how terribly Vonnegut misses his own sister (who passed away years before he wrote this) in the character of Eliza. As far as honoring the dead goes, this is one of the most heartfelt examples I know.
Thematically, “Slapstick” lacks the complexity and elegance of Vonnegut’s best work. I’m guessing this is why it was disliked by critics and overlooked by Vonnegut himself. You can tell from his other work what the man valued in his writing, and unfortunately, it made him blind to the more simple value in this book. In the end, in spite of the sheer quantity of peculiar story elements, such as crazy middle-names like “Daffodil-11” (read the book to find out the deal with them), the psychic powers and the Martian colonies, “Slapstick” is actually Vonnegut’s most conventional work. The story is framed as an autobiography by an old man. He recounts a number of extraordinary events in his life, and breaks these accounts up with occasional anecdotes from the present day. He lived a long and full life, made a number of important decisions (a rare element in Vonnegut) and now lives with more regret than he’d like to admit. For Vonnegut, this is a remarkably unremarkable structure.
Anyway, pretty cool, as well as highly underrated.
Final Grade: B+ (How you like that, Vonnegut?)
PS: Vonnegut’s treatment of the Chinese in this book seems…kinda racist. Probably? It’s weird. If you can get past your discomfort (a skill that all readers should aspire to), it’s kind of fascinating.