Vonnegut and Slapstick

They recently started doing this new flee market in a parking lot near my house and I just couldn’t resist this last weekend. On my stroll through over-priced hipster collectibles booths, I stumbled across a box of cheap paperbacks and promptly bought 2 (after making sure I didn’t want anything else at the market, that is); Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut and Island by Aldus Huxley. I promptly sat down and read straight through Slapstick and Island is next on the list, but I wanted to share this little odd ball with you first.

It was kind of reassuring after reading Basic Training to come back to something approaching what I consider Vonnegut’s classic style of absurd science-fiction. Yes, I know you’ll say all science-fiction is absurd and unrealistic, but Vonnegut’s storytelling style is what pushes his sci-fi from standard to absurd. You can have all the hyper-realistic, nitty-gritty star adventures you want, but there is something about the simple, stripped down and straightforward delivery of Vonnegut’s crazy scenarios that makes his work simultaneously chilling, enlightening, and hilarious.

In Slapstick, The King of Candlesticks is writing his memoirs on the eve of his 100th birthday in which he recounts being born a di-zygotic neanderthaloid with a sister who, when they put their brains together, were some of the smartest people on the planet. After her death, he continues on to become the last President of the United States and through a series of unfortunate events, the United States collapses and he ends up living on the Dead Island of Manhattan along with his pregnant granddaughter. Like I said, more than a touch absurd.

The story line itself is less interesting than some of the concepts and strategies Vonnegut employed for this novel. One of which is that everyone is lonesome and in order to correct for this, as President, he institutes a policy wherein he gives everyone an artificial new middle name to group people into enormous extended families. He himself is a Daffodil-11. It really made you stop and think when all these people–as their country slides into disrepair and illness–happily turn to supporting and welcoming total strangers who they have been told by a randomizing computer that they are now to care for each other.

He talk a lot about not only this truly artificial regrouping of people but also the natural extended families that we create for ourselves on a daily basis: fraternities and career networks; bar-hopping friends and book-shopping friends; families we marry into or divorce out of. It really is amazing when you sit down and start thinking about just how many people we reach out to and connect with on a daily basis and how we tend to group them around ourselves for particular kinds of support. The President simply took it one step further and mixed everyone up so that there was the greatest representation of careers, ages, and ever other descriptor you could think of in these enormous families.

A couple of other, slightly less interesting, concepts were the fact that gravity had become a variable, and so you never really knew how heavy everything would be from day to day and from there he once intimates that the Chinese, who have shot far ahead in their science, have figured out how to arbitrarily control gravity. I’m not quite sure where he was going with the two intertwined concepts, but they kept me amused through the novel.

Stylistically, it’s about on par with Slaughterhouse 5, in that it is chapters of small snippets with interjections of a catchphrase throughout. Here, the phrase is, “Hi ho.” It slips in almost as a punctuation mark in places. He calls it a senile hiccup, but after the first few irritating interruptions, it became a soothing “So mote it be” to the sections and seemed to make way for a small breath before starting forward. When he first started using it, I questioned whether I would be able to stand it, but by the end, I found myself smiling at each “hi ho.”

I don’t mean to sound like a total fan-girl, but I have yet to read a Vonnegut that I dislike. I find him thought provoking and I’m sad it took me 24 years to actually get around to reading him, but I’m trying to make up for lost ground now, one flee-market book at a time. So, if you’re looking for a good Vonnegut or even just an easy, somewhat humorous read, Slapstick is for you.

Cover of Kurt Vonnegut's Slapstick

The New Vonnegut

I got really excited a few weeks ago when it was announced that a never before published Vonnegut novella had been discovered and was being released. Sadly, it was only in ebook format (though super cheap) because Vonnegut is one author I really do prefer to read in paper. But nevertheless, I waited until April when I had another free book to read through Amazon Prime and promptly downloaded Basic Training.

Vonnegut apparently wrote this novella fairly early in his career–as was judged by the address on the manuscript–but I think it’s as eloquent as anything he wrote. I was thrown by the utter realist nature of the piece (no time traveling aliens or Ice-9) but it was engaging and imaginative. The story focuses on a young boy who’s parents have been killed and he move in with his uncle and cousins on their farm. The uncle is a veteran called “The General” by everyone he knows and he runs his farm as though it were a military unit. The young man, Haley, is a slight boy who aspires to become a professional piano player and the rough physical life of the farm is quite a shock.

From what I know thus far of Vonnegut’s style (I’m still very much an amateur, but I’m working my way through his books) this novella is pretty representative. If you enjoy his outlandish set-ups and precise prose, you’ll definitely enjoy Basic Training. Even without aliens and world-ending scientific discoveries.

Cover of Basic Training