Sunday, 28 September 2014

Slapstick

You begin to sense a bit of a theme in Kurt Vonnegut books, or rather a selection of themes, that are mixed and matched. In 'Slapstick' we return to the idea of the human population being wiped out, leaving a few random characters eking out an existence in the remains of a broken culture. He claims in the prologue that it is a sort-of autobiography, if so you really are left wondering about what went on in this man's head. 

Wilbur Daffodil-II Swain is the former President, a huge ugly man who now lives in the ruined Empire State Building with his granddaughter and her lover. He recounts for us his strange secluded upbringing with his twin Eliza and their ultimate separation. At the behest of a child psychologist she is sent off to an institution for the feeble minded and he is nurtured by his parents and then goes off to Harvard. Stuff happens and then the world falls apart.

Like all Vonnegut stories it is packed with surreal invention: the gravity varies from day to day, so sometimes people are pinned to the floor unable to move; the Chinese invent a way to make themselves smaller until they are microscopic and (apparently) are the virus that kills everyone; the Church of Jesus Christ the Kidnapped, where members must go around searching for him in the most unlikely of places; and as President Wilbur allocates everyone new middle names in an attempt to alleviate social isolation and to provide them with a new family:

"Yes, after the government provided the directories, Free Enterprise producted family newspapers. Mine was The Daffy-nition. Sophie's, which continued to arrive at the White House long after she had left me, was The Goober Gossip. Vera told me the other day that the Chipmunk paper used to be The Woodpile.
Relatives asked for work or investment capital, or offered things for sale in the classified ads. The new columns told of triumphs by various relatives, and warned against others who were child molesters or swindlers and so on. There were lists of relatives who could be visited in various hospitals and jails.
There were editorials calling for family health insurance programmes and sports teams and so on. There was one interesting essay, I remember, either in The Daffy-nition or The Goober Gossip, which said that families with high moral standards were the best maintainers of law and order, and that police departments could be expected to fade away.
'If you know of a relative who is engaging in criminal acts,' it concluded, 'don't call the police. Call ten more relatives.'
And so on." (p.125)

Reviews describe his writing as funny, but I don't laugh. It leaves me bemused by the way he ridicules everything about society. What I find interesting is that in creating these weird scenarios and having people enact strange new rituals he is mocking our everyday activities that we take so seriously and think so important. Nothing that we do in life is either normal or logical, it is just the way we have come to do things. I am always left with the message that he considered life to be ridiculous, and why pretend otherwise. It is only by accepting this idea that life begins to make a strange sort of sense.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed reading Slaughterhouse Five. I'll have to give Slapstick a try next. I really like his writing style. :)

    ReplyDelete

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