Lonesome no More!

Different writers speak to different people. There can be lots of writers that you like, and lots that you don’t. But I think for each of us, there are a few writers who speak to us in a way that most do not.

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Image from isfdb.org

For me, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is one of those writers. Slapstick, or Lonesome no More! (1976) is not the most famous or celebrated of Vonnegut’s work—in fact, it was poorly reviewed upon release. Nor do I think it is necessarily his greatest book. It might be more fitting for me to be writing on Slaughterhouse Five (except I’ve already done that), or The Sirens of Titan, due to my love of stories concerning interplanetary travel and aliens.

Instead I’m going to talk about Vonnegut and my affection for him through the lens of Slapstick, because in a very personal way, I think it’s beautiful. Because this book is very much about being personal, and about finding a connection with other human beings, whether it is rational or not.

Hi-ho.

That’s the storytelling hiccup of Vonnegut’s narrator. Whenever the story has to change pace, or jump to a different part of the narrative, that is how he signals it.

When reading someone like Vonnegut it’s important to read the foreword, a tiny, honest slice of the author’s mind as it was when the strings of the book were all pulled together.

So I will preface what the story is about with what Vonnegut says on the very first page of my copy.

This is what life feels like to me.”

Hi-ho.

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Image from wychwords.wordpress.com

Slapstick is the autobiography of Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11, the last president of the United States of America, who tries to solve the problem of American loneliness before Western civilization is destroyed by a plague unleashed by China.

Like so many of Vonnegut’s works, the narrative is wonky, anecdotal, and often non-linear. He explains much of Wilbur Daffodil-11’s life story right from the get-go, because the slow reveal of information has never been Vonnegut’s style. His storytelling is more about his desire to share an idea, or to bring himself closer to his reader in some way.

Wilbur and his twin sister Eliza are born looking like ugly, Neanderthal-like creatures. When separated, neither twin is very smart. Believing that they are brain damaged, Wilbur and Eliza’s rich parents lock them away in a mansion in Vermont, where they are expected to live out short half-lives and then die.

But Wilbur and Eliza survive. Slowly, they discover that while apart, each of them operates as half a brain. Wilbur is the left brain: logical, rational, and able to communicate. Eliza is the right brain: vastly creative and with high emotional intelligence, but unable to communicate herself properly.

All throughout the novel, Wilbur repeatedly claims that Eliza is the smarter of the two, but nobody ever knows this, because she cannot read or write.

Through a strange telepathic power, Wilbur and Eliza become a single great intelligence while in physical contact with each other, far beyond that of an ordinary being. Together, Wilbur and Eliza realize that it is their bond that has allowed them to survive their childhood. It was their togetherness. While hidden in the mansion where their parents kept them locked away from the world, Wilbur and Eliza devise a plan to save all of America from the loneliness that they have saved each other from.

Their plan is to give every American a new middle name based on random objects and a number from 1-20. Everyone with the same name is to be cousins, and everyone with the same name and number are to be siblings.

This is how Wilbur Rockefeller Swain became Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11.

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Image from goodreads.com

But then Wilbur and Eliza are separated for revealing their intelligence. Because he can communicate, it is deemed fit for Wilbur to enter society, while Eliza is condemned to an asylum. Once apart, neither of them is a whole person, and they become unable to think of themselves as the special geniuses of Wilbur and Eliza, but as two dull entities, which they nickname Bobby and Betty Brown. Eventually Eliza leaves the asylum and emigrates to the planet Mars. She would die there. Her tombstone reads like this:

Here lies Betty Brown.

As for Wilbur, living the life of Bobby Brown without his sister, he runs for President of the United States and wins. He runs the campaign that his sister had created when the two of them were children, with the slogan that became the subtitle of the book itself.

Lonesome No More!

And even as western civilization crumbles around him, at the very least, nobody is alone. Everybody in America has a great wealth of brothers and sisters and cousins. Nobody is left alone.

Hi-ho.

There is more that I could say about the novel itself. I could get into what happens with Wilbur’s parents, his grandchildren, and his doctors. I could get into his interactions with life after the fall of western civilization. But I won’t. I don’t want to spoil it. If the tidbits that I’ve given you are enticing, then go read the book. But what I have laid out, that desperate need to be close to another person, is the point of Vonnegut’s novel.

Instead, I’m rolling all the way back around to the preface of the book. Vonnegut gave this story the title Slapstick because that is how he sees it. He sees this story as something grotesque and horrible but also somehow gut-wrenchingly funny, like watching someone fall down the stairs in a Laurel and Hardy movie. Situational poetry, he calls it.

On the third page of the preface, Vonnegut sums up his thinking with a small anecdote. When about to go away, one of his three adopted sons said to Kurt: “You know—you’ve never hugged me,” So I hugged him. We hugged each other.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote this book because of his sister Alice. Three days before Alice Vonnegut died of cancer, her husband died in a train accident. Kurt was with her when she died. After, he adopted her three children. One of them is the adopted son he hugs in the preface to Slapstick.

So this is a novel about closeness. It is about the closeness one can have to family, or simply to other people in general. It is an examination of the sense of closeness that Kurt Vonnegut felt with his sister Alice. It is very funny, and secretly very brutally sad. It’s slapstick comedy.

Hi-ho.

I wanted to write a post on here about the strange closeness one can feel to a person they have never met. I wanted to write about the way a book can speak to you, even though you never have and never will enter the author’s thoughts. I wanted to write about Kurt Vonnegut, because his many novels, short stories, and lectures speak to me in an alien and personal way. These are novels that have had an unnaturally large effect on my life, and the way I live my life.

So I picked Slapstick, a meditation on the strange and alien closeness human beings can have for one another. Perhaps Vonnegut doesn’t speak to you the way he speaks to me. That’s okay. There are many, many other books and other writers out there, perhaps waiting to speak to you in the same or similar way. I pick up one of his books, and I read it as if the author is speaking to me in that strange and personal way, a small stab to attempt the premise of the book, to be lonesome no more.

Thank you, Kurt.

Hi-ho.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Reach for the Stars! Or in Defence of Science Fiction Literature

“I rejoice in accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who’ve been excluded from literature for so long—my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination, who for fifty years have watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

These were a few of the words spoken by long-time science fiction and fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin upon accepting the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

It was a throwaway opening to an acceptance speech that was ultimately about the battle of art and literature against consumerism and capitalism. It was an admirable, moving speech. But what truly struck me was this opening line.

I saw it as a rallying cry, a summons to battle against those who would deny the importance of science fiction as literature. Because the sad truth is, those people are numerous. Science fiction is often discounted as literature, and the awards and prestige are passed on to the realists again and again. If a work of science fiction is found in a university course on general literature, then it is indeed the proverbial diamond in a haystack.

I grew up in a household that takes science fiction seriously. My father has dressed as Decard from Blade Runner for Halloween, and I believe one of my mother’s first prerogatives as a parent was to make sure I loved Back to the Future before I could spell. To my family, knowledge of Star Trek was up there with knowledge of how to wear pants. As soon as I learned to read, I was fed hundreds of brilliant science fiction novels from Larry Niven’s Ringworld and Frank Herbert’s Dune to Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

So when I reached university, and applied for as many English courses as I could, I found myself bemused by the apparent lack of science fiction on my syllabus, until eventually, I came to the realization that there are people who discredit science fiction as a form of high literature.

But I am here to proclaim that, yes, science fiction is literature! If science fiction is well written, if it is a good story, then it is literature. But more than any other form of literature, science fiction is about imagination, and the sharing of broader ideas about the world we live in, the world we could have lived in, and the world we could live in tomorrow.

Science fiction can be deployed as a metaphor for today’s society, as a way to protest, or to critique the world we live in. This is common, and we can see it used in popular books like The Hunger Games by Suzanna Collins.

But novels that have taken a more direct interest in using science fiction as a protest on different societies go back famously throughout the last century. George Orwell’s 1984 is a protest against fascism, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a warning against the dangers of censorship. And nearly the entire works of Kurt Vonnegut, including his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse 5, use science fiction to speak about his experience of the firebombing of Dresden from World War II. These are all science fiction classics.

But not all science fiction is so grim! Science fiction is about ideas! Science fiction is about imagination and pondering the future of humanity. Jules Vern wrote about Americans traveling to the moon in a rocket in the book From the Earth to the Moon in 1865, and 104 years later they did just that. Isaac Asimov imagined the place of robots in the future of our society in his novel I, Robot, and years later, the three laws of robotics that he put forward in his stories are commonly thought of as the actual laws of robotics!

Science fiction is the home of futurism, the art of predicting what comes next, sometimes with almost frightening accuracy. Arthur C. Clark’s ideas ranged from predicting the internet to global satellite systems and the cell phone!

As literature  and as a medium, science fiction has had possibly more impact on modern society and pop culture than any other form of storytelling. H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine brought about the advent of stories and dreams about time travel. There are hundreds of works reminding us that the unexplored universe is out there, and that aliens are most likely actually floating around. And Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is responsible for me shouting, “So long and thanks for all the fish”, every other time I leave the room.

Science fiction is as much a part of our world today as air. If you ever imagined what tomorrow might look like, or looked up at the stars and reached out and wondered about whether we might one day get there, then you have in your own way contributed to science fiction, the literature of imagining what humanity might be capable of, for better or worse.

Science fiction is an important part of literature, and of society as a whole, and I will keep on repeating myself until I see it taught along with the rest of the classics.

-contributed by Ben Ghan