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Slapstick, or, Lonesome no more! : a novel…

Slapstick, or, Lonesome no more! : a novel (original 1976; edition 1976)

by Kurt Vonnegut

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Title:Slapstick, or, Lonesome no more! : a novel
Authors:Kurt Vonnegut
Info:New York, N.Y. : Dell, [1989], c1976.
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Slapstick: Or Lonesome No More! by Kurt Vonnegut (1976)



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Wilbur's childhood is unusual. Born in a set of physically deformed twins, he and his sister Eliza are assumed mentally retarded with short life expectations. Their very wealthy parents fix up an old mansion in Vermont and the locals and a family practitioner care for the children while the parents visit once a year and on birthdays. Wilbur and Eliza quickly educate themselves through the many books in the mansion. While Eliza never grasps reading and writing, she is a creative problem-solver, while Wilbur is very analytical and can read and write. When they are in close proximity to each other, their minds meld to create a 'genius' that becomes the author of several masterpieces of writing and invention. However, they become so consumed by the genius, that they often lose themselves in an incestuous orgy, grasping to get intellectually even closer to each other. When separate, they refer to themselves as Bobby and Betty Brown, boring and inconsequential sorts.

Wilbur and Eliza hide their intelligence, as it seems what is expected of them. However, on their fifteenth birthday they overhear their mother express her hatred for them. She thinks she could endure her role better if her children showed one glimmer of intelligence. Wilbur and Eliza expose the truth, which shocks the whole household. They are tested but after exhibiting one of their genius orgies, Wilbur is sent to a private school for mentally disturbed boys and Eliza is sent to an institution. Wilbur soon forgets his sister as he becomes accepted into medical school and leads a busy, affluent life. After their father dies, Eliza appears to claim her inheritance. She thrashes out in anger at Wilbur and their mother in the press. Eventually, she visits Wilbur and before long, their minds are reunited into the genius. This time, the orgy lasts five days and they both end up comatose. Realizing the danger of being together, Eliza moves to Machu Picchu and never physically sees Wilbur again.

Wilbur graduates from Harvard Medical School and becomes a pediatrician, using a book he and his sister wrote on parenting as a 'genius' as his main guide for patient care. At one point, he is visited by a miniature Chinese man who is interested in 'genius' writings that Eliza and Wilbur hid in the mansion. Wilbur agrees to show him the works and the Chinese man is particularly interested in their papers on gravity. Eliza gets a trip to Mars, which the Chinese have colonized, as a reward. Not long after, Wilbur receives a letter informing him about Eliza's death in an avalanche on Mars. At that moment, there is a massively oppressive gravity shift and the world is changed forever. Machinery becomes almost defunct as major cities fall to ruin. Machu Picchu falls into the ocean. That day, Wilbur takes a drug called tri-benzo-Deportamil and becomes addicted to it for almost thirty years.

Wilbur married and divorced as a doctor, unable to love his wife or son. He changes careers and runs political campaigns proclaiming he will end loneliness for all Americans. He wins the campaign for President and institutes his plan, which he and Eliza had conceived as children. Every person is assigned new middle names, and those that share a middle name are instantly related. Wilbur believes that large, extended families are the cure to loneliness. His plan indeed seems to have a good effect as crime drops and family clubs and newsletters pop up around the nation. Wilbur discovers the White House dishwasher is now his brother. Everything is going along grandly.

Wilbur marries and divorces again, but gravity shifts continue (though not to fatal degrees), and a plague strikes the nation. Most of the population is killed off. New York has its own version of the plague, known as the Green Death, and is hence nicknamed the Island of Death. All the White House staff either dies or disappears, except for Wilbur and the dishwasher. His presidency is forgotten. One day a pilot and frontiersman appear. The frontiersman has a letter inviting him to visit a widow in Indiana whose husband had discovered a way to communicate with the afterlife. The pilot agrees to take Wilbur and the Dishwasher to Indianapolis where the Daffodil family members primarily live. They are given a grand welcome and Wilbur feels good about the results of his extended family plan. The Dishwasher is left there with family while Wilbur visits the widow. Her husband had discovered he could communicate with the dead through a pipe-like device nicknamed the Hooligan. Wilbur is able to communicate to Eliza through it. She tells him that the afterlife is terribly dull and he must kill himself at once to help her figure out a way to make it better. Wilbur gives away his last remaining pills of tri-benzo-Deportamil and has sex with the widow during his arduous withdrawal period.

The pilot takes Wilbur to New York where Wilbur assumes he will die of the Green Death and join his sister. However, he is found by the Raspberry family who need a doctor and is given an antidote. He helps cure a Raspberry man of an illness and is given a candlestick as a present. After that, people always give him candlesticks. He amasses over 1000 and becomes known as the King of Candlesticks. However, there are no candles in New York. Over the years, Wilbur befriends a neighbor named Vera who has a farm with slaves and raises animals and produce. Eventually, a 12-year old girl named Melody shows up claiming to be his granddaughter. Her father was the son conceived by Wilbur and the widow many years before. She is pregnant from being raped but the child is stillborn. Melody finds a lover, Isadore, and he helps her build a pyramid over the baby in the streets of New York. She also becomes pregnant by him at the age of 16. Vera has a grand party for Wilbur's 100th birthday and he is given 1,000 candles made by the slaves. They light them all in the lobby of the Empire State Building and Wilbur feels as if he is a god in the galaxy. It is the last entry in his memoir as he dies soon after, presumably rejoining Eliza in the afterlife. ( )
  bostonwendym | Aug 26, 2016 |
Vonnegut combines a stark religious skepticism (don't recall that atheism was referenced specifically) with the loss and sometime cruelty of life, coming up with a science fiction novel about ... what? Broadly, how modern American life perverts the human animal: the illusion of such a life, what nevertheless might still be hoped for, how much is tiresomely predictable. At one point he calls it "the low comedy of living", and both story and tone fairly justify the title. Hence slapstick: that laughter which emerges when the choice is either laugh and shrug, or pull back in horror or despair. It's interesting Vonnegut treats of this theme: religion is a standard response to it, the bleakness of Vonnegut's imagined future precisely the scenario which calls so stridently for spiritual belief and religion.

The bleak outlook underpins the book's signature lines, "Hi ho!" and "and so on". These are peppered throughout, ostensibly the flip verbal tics of the narrator, delivered immediately after sharing some profoundly sad bit of news or describing some cruel behavior of another human being. They are that, but also cathartic.

I'd vaguely associated various science fiction-y settings and other trappings with Vonnegut, but this was my first of his novels and I was pleasantly surprised at the lack of farce. That is, there is plenty of farce in the book, but it's not centred on the science fiction aspects of it, particularly. His post-apocalypse U.S. does require a bit of hand-waving for the backstory involving Chinese miniaturization and gravity manipulation, but Vonnegut better predicts future political landscape than did Gibson in his Sprawl Trilogy. The premise of artificial families and cross-cutting cleavages inherent in a healthy American democracy were strong ideas, even if delivered in the guise of a Marx Brothers movie.

The remainder of the satire focuses on the interchangeable parts of the American Machine, and the resulting unhappiness of so many of its citizens. The idea of exploring this through the characters of twins provides a nice allegory: brilliant together, dull and litigious when separated. And so easy to skewer pretensions of the liberal, wealthy elite and the science literati.

It's been a long time since I read a book in one day. Curious that my first Vonnegut, picked up somewhat on a whim, would be such a quick read.


My edition includes decorations by an uncredited illustrator, apart from the A Hirschfield caricature appearing on the dedication page. ( )
1 vote elenchus | Dec 16, 2015 |
This book was my introduction to Vonnegut, and I LOVED it. I read it for the first time years and years ago, and it has remained my all time favorite book. Yip. This one. #1 on my Desert Island list. I never really understood all the praise SH5 got, I like it enough, but it was no where near as entertaining as this book. It's absurd and grotesque and makes perfect sense. If you haven't read it, you should. ( )
1 vote Joeyzaza82 | Jul 30, 2015 |
Not as funny as SH5 but still vintage KV ( )
  bob101 | May 14, 2015 |
One of the more surreal ones but an amusing piece of dystopian fiction. ( )
  ptdilloway | Nov 21, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 27 (next | show all)
A brief outline of this lesser-known novel’s plot will help the listener better understand the interview. Even as children, protagonist Wilbur Swain and his twin Eliza are monstrous in appearance: freakishly tall, awkward, sporting six fingers on each hand, possessed of “Neanderthal features.” Their distressed parents at first consider them of subnormal intelligence, and remain ashamed of them even after the twins reveal their precocious theories about gravity, evolution, and extended families. The parents soon take the advice of an obviously twisted child psychologist and separate the twins. They are of course bereft without each other, but get back together as adults to publish a book on good child rearing. (Vonnegut reveals to Miller that his model for Wilbur Swain was Vonnegut’s friend Dr. Benjamin Spock, of baby-book fame.) Long into the future in a decaying U.S.A., Wilbur runs for president under the slogan “Lonesome no more.” He wins and takes office, but his creation of artificial extended families for every American can’t stop the demise of a society under a twin assault by microscopic Chinese, who have found a way to shrink themselves so they can invisibly invade the U.S. , and by microscopic invading Martians who, when inhaled by humans, give us a disease called the “Green Death.”
added by elenchus | editWNYC, William Rodney Allen (Dec 12, 2013)
Whatever it is, one is left feeling empty by "Slapstick," Emptiness, conveyed with grace and style, still amounts to almost nothing. That is why, for all the new chic skill Mr. Vonnegut has brought to his latest novel, it still seems as if he has given up storytelling after all.
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"Call me but love, and I'll be new baptiz'd ..."
Dedicated to the memory of Arthur Stanley Jefferson and Norvell Hardy, two angels of my time.
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This is the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385334230, Paperback)

Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, centenarian, the last President of the United States, King of Manhattan, and one-half (along with his sister, Eliza) of the most powerful intelligence since Einstein, is penning his autobiography. He occupies the first floor of a ruined Empire State Building and lives like a royal scavenger with his illiterate granddaughter and her beau. Buffeted by fluctuating gravity, the U.S. has been scourged by not one, but two lethal diseases: the Green Death and the Albanian Flu. Consequently, the country has fallen into civil war. (Super-intelligent, miniaturized Chinese watch the West self-destruct from the sidelines.) Swain stayed at the White House until there were no citizens left to govern, then moved to deserted New York City, where he writes a thoughtful missive before death.

In Slapstick, Vonnegut muses on war, man's hubris, and the awful, crippling loneliness humans are freighted with--but, miraculously, the book still manages to delight and amuse. Absurd, knowing, never depressing, Slapstick kindles hope--for the possibility of wisdom, perhaps; for human resiliency, surely.

It's best to end with a quote from the prologue wherein the author discourses on The Meaning of It All, or at least This Book: "Love is where you find it. I think it is foolish to go off looking for it, and I think it can often be poisonous.
I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, 'Please--a little less love, and a little more common decency.'"

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:45 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

This hilarious, wickedly irreverent farce presents an apocalyptic vision seen through the eyes of the current King of Manhattan (and last President of the United States).

(summary from another edition)

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