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“Slapstick” by Kurt Vonnegut

Malcolm Streitfeld

Anchor Staff Writer

Image via Pixabay/Pexels

How do you write a book review about a Kurt Vonnegut novel? This question plagued my mind for days like the incomprehensible whispers of one of Lovecraft’s “Great Old Ones.” The answer, which eventually sprang into being akin to Athena erupting from Zeus’s cranium, is one I’ll save for further on in the review. For now, let’s talk about “Slapstick.”


“Slapstick” is the life story of one Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, the final president of the now-ruined United States of America. From the back of a taxicab in a Manhattan devastated by the “Green Death” epidemic, Wilbur recounts to the reader the harrowing tale of his time on good old Planet Earth. He recounts the story from his childhood spent with a twin with whom he shared a mind, to his tenure as the most powerful man in the world. Of course, in the process he utters more than his fair share of “hi-ho’s!”


Last year, I picked up “While Mortals Sleep,” a collection of short stories by Vonnegut that went unpublished during his lifetime, from the Rochambeau Library. Having never read any of Vonnegut’s books before, I went into reading the anthology completely blind. I really didn’t know what to expect. I had only heard very brief mentions of him and his work beforehand. But none of those summations adequately prepared me for what I experienced next.


Flash! Bang! Boom! Zang! The rush of reading such wonderful and stupendous writing hit my consciousness like a synaptic symphony of secretions as I devoured “While Mortals Sleep,” moved on to “Timequake” and then “The Sirens of Titan.” Before long, I had reached “Slapstick.” It is this novel that made me really fall in love with Vonnegut. It made me want to sit down and have a long chat with this amazing human being. “Slapstick” is a story that speaks to what really lies at the heart of the human condition: A passionate desire to help one’s fellow man.


And that is why I love “Slapstick.” In the story, Vonnegut crafts a decrepit world where it is easy to lose all hope, to grow to despise everyone around you. Yet in the midst of such toil and strife, there blossoms a tiny seed of hope and renewal. At a point when things are at their worst, when the clock has struck the darkest hour, one human being will grab the hand of another and pull them to their feet.


Vonnegut may use a lot of gallows humor in his writing, but ultimately all of his novels carry optimistic messages of persevering against all odds, of how when the chips are down, humans will instinctively demonstrate compassion and empathy towards each other instead of fear and rejection. Much like a pie to the face, “Slapstick” is a story that will shock and stagger the reader, only for them to fall over laughing at the absurdity of it all a few moments later. It is both humorous and impactful in that sense.


Vonnegut came up with the idea for “Slapstick” when he was daydreaming on the way to a funeral. He was inspired by Laurel and Hardy skits that he watched growing up. A funeral and Laurel and Hardy being the main inspirations for this novel, speaks to the wisdom of Vonnegut. He understood that we as a species are paradoxical. Bizarrely, we sometimes laugh when we are sad. Yet some of the greatest comedy comes from tragedy. Vonnegut portrays human beings as weird, strange and irrational because, well, it’s true. It’s what makes us special.


“Slapstick” is an excellent introduction to Vonnegut’s writing. Go pick it up for yourself and discover what makes him so special. I guarantee you the guffawing goofball never disappoints. Oh, and as for the answer to the question I asked at the beginning? Well – I think it’s been answered by this point.


And there’s the punchline.


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