Kurt Vonnegut

Commentary found through Gale Database: Dictionary of Literary Biography:

Slapstick is the memoir of a one-hundred-year-old former president named Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, who earlier, with his twin sister, had written the most popular child-care book ever. His presidential program consists of giving everyone new middle names so that they will become members of elaborate extended families. Unfortunately, a plague and other disasters such as variable gravity turn the United States into an anarchic collection of balkanized nations and make the plan and his presidency meaningless. The dominant theme of the novel is implicit in its subtitle, Lonesome No More! In the introduction Vonnegut talks about the large German family in Indianapolis in which he grew up and how it gave love, comfort, and stability to all its members. Most Americans once had such families, but now the generations are separated, and the remaining nuclear family is overloaded with burdens once assumed by a larger and more versatile unit. The main problem with modern Americans, he concludes, is that they are lonely. This is an old theme for him, though it was not thus brought to the fore in his previous novels, where it was expressed mainly in characters' feelings of purposelessness and of being unwanted. In Breakfast of Champions people viewed as slaves and robots lose value for themselves and others. In Slapstick the two main characters are dehumanized because they are seen as freaks. Vonnegut posits that in a large family or clan such people are still treated with common human decency, cared for, and valued.

The two central characters, Wilbur Swain and his sister, Eliza, are hideous Neanderthaloids, fantastic creatures about whom everything is exaggerated - age, height, numbers of nipples and fingers - yet Vonnegut describes the novel as "the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography." This declaration of its autobiographical nature may be misleading, and he adds the qualification that it describes "what life feels like to me." The casting of himself and his sister (whom he acknowledges as an influence and the imaginary audience to whom he writes) in the form of Neanderthaloids may represent the kind of intimacy in separation from the rest of the world that young siblings can achieve. Other things - sharing the same jokes and discoveries, feeling brighter as a pair than alone, the inevitable separation, the sense of loss in the other's death, even perhaps the distance from parents who have trouble communicating love - may all reasonably have an autobiographical basis.

But the depiction of "how life feels" remains foremost: a sense of being continually confronted, like Laurel and Hardy, with tests of one's agility and inventiveness, "bargaining in good faith with destiny." It is a painful world, one characterized by his dying sister's saying, on hearing of the death of her husband, "Slapstick." And it is a lonely world, against which Vonnegut poses a solution drawn from his childhood and his experiences visiting Biafra - the extended family. Proclaimed on campaign buttons, "Lonesome No More!" becomes the motto of Swain's presidency, to be enacted through a system that Vonnegut had proposed to vice-presidential candidate Sargent Shriver in 1972 and recollected in an essay published in Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons: I wanted Sarge Shriver to say, "You're not happy, are you? Nobody in this country is happy but the rich people. Something is wrong. I'll tell you what's wrong: We're lonesome! We're being kept apart from our neighbors. Why? Because the rich people can go on taking our money away if we don't hang together. They can go on taking our power away. They want us lonesome; they want us huddled in our houses with just our wives and kids, watching television, because they can manipulate us then... Here's a war cry for the American people: 'Lonesome no more!'" That's the kind of demagoguery I approve of.

However, the reviewers once again charged that the energy had gone out of Vonnegut's writing and that he was repeating surface characteristics without effect. Sales of Slapstick reflected a disappointed audience, with paperback printings running at half those of Breakfast of Champions . The three novels that followed Slaughterhouse-Five focus on related aspects of contemporary American life. Breakfast of Champions reflects the spirit preceding the nation's bicentennial in pondering what America had been and has become. In characteristic Vonnegut style it reexamines with childlike simplicity national emblems, symbols, songs, and mottoes, creating hyperbolic distinctions between pretense and reality, intention and achievement. Slapstick examines the social malaise in broad terms, using a futuristic setting of a balkanized America. Vonnegut's next novel, Jailbird (1979), repeats this theme but again narrows the focus, observing a particular real presidency and the effects of the American system on two elderly people. It anticipates the 1980s world of conglomerates and mergers and arbitrageurs yet at the same time presents a world of the lonely, the dispossessed, and the homeless.

Written by: Peter J. Reed, University of Minnesota Source: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 152: American Novelists Since World War II, Fourth Series, Updated Entry. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. The Gale Group, 1995. pp. 248-272.

Review found through NoveList:

Publishing Information:
Delacorte/S. Lawrence, copyright 1976. 243p.
Subject Headings:
Black humor

Web References:
A Tribute to Kurt Vonnegut Features Vonnegut's bibliography and links to other web sites about the author
Kurt Vonnegut Corner Features Vonnegut's biography, photos, and discussions and analysis of Vonnegut's works
Hennepin County Public Library

Print Sources:
  • Vonnegut at Play - Breakfast of Champions, Slapstick, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, and Between Time and Timbuktu
Links Related Outside the Vonnegut Zone:

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