In his essay collection Palm Sunday, Kurt Vonnegut assigns grades to all of his works thus far. Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle get A-pluses while Mother Night, Sirens of Titan and Jailbird get As. And as for Slapstick, this novel gets a D. I first read Slapstick in the week after Vonnegut’s death, because after hearing the news I had run to the campus library and checked out every one of his books that I hadn’t yet read.
Both then and now Vonnegut’s harsh appraisal of the novel has been understandable but also easy to dispute. There’s no doubt it is a very strange work, even for an inventive mind like Vonnegut’s. Told from the perspective of the last President of the United States, living out his life in the ruins of the Empire State Building in a Manhattan devastated by plagues, Slapstick tells a story of loneliness, connection, and society that is masked at every opportunity by grotesqueness and inanity.
As children, Wilbur Swain and his sister Eliza are considered monstrous and abandoned by their wealthy parents. In their isolation they discover that despite their ugliness and limitations, when in close contact with each other they form a genius unmatched on the planet. When their parents discover what they are up to, they turn away in fear and separate the children.
Eventually Wilbur overcomes his limitations to become a doctor, a senator, and the President, all on a campaign to rid the country of what he considers its greatest illness: loneliness. Wearing buttons proclaiming “Lonesome No More!” he proposes creating massive families for each citizen through the introduction of new middle names. When he himself becomes Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, he becomes a sibling to every Daffodil-11 and a cousin to all Daffodils everywhere.
Oddities and absurdities abound in Slapstick. The Chinese have ceased diplomatic relations with the U.S. because they no longer find us interesting. They also taken to shrinking their citizens so they won’t use as many resources. Then of course there is the fact that gravity has become variable.
It’s easy to see why all this would be too much for many readers and critics, but as someone with an abiding love for Vonnegut’s work I will take it wherever and however I can get it. If you’re as much of a fan of Vonnegut as I am, I urge you to ignore Vonnegut’s own grading and give it a chance.