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

After Alice: Beyond the Rabbit Hole

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How many characters from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland can you name off the top of your head? It’s alright if you can’t name them all, but you’ll surely get the main ones, like Alice, the Mad Hatter, and the Queen of Hearts—possibly even the Dormouse, if you ponder long enough. But how many of you remember Ada Boyce, Alice’s best friend in the real world, who is mentioned only briefly in the original novel, or Alice’s older sister, whose name has been the source of much speculation? Chances are you either didn’t notice them or they sit in a dusty back corner of your mind.

This is exactly what Gregory Maguire set out to change with his new novel.

After Alice is not your typical retelling of a beloved classic. It doesn’t focus on Alice—her only dialogue consists of no more than five lines near the end of the book—and it doesn’t simply transpose the ‘Wonderland formula’ onto a different time period.

Instead, the focus is primarily on Ada Boyce and her journey of self-discovery while going after her friend Alice. Ada’s journey through Wonderland is a much calmer one, with quirkier run-ins with familiar characters like the White Knight and the Cheshire Cat, whose wisdom—while as timeless as ever—is articulated with a more sarcastic tone that’ll surely make you chuckle. However, not all of the beloved stars from the original make it into this adaptation, with characters such as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum only being indirectly mentioned.

For loyal fans of Carroll these absences might be a shock—how does one fare without such vital characters? That, however, is the beauty of the novel. Maguire isn’t proposing a mere head-first dive back down the rabbit hole with all the same tricks. Instead the reader is greeted with well-crafted additions and a ‘behind the scenes’ atmosphere. What did the Wonderlanders do once Alice’s spotlight moved on? Such are the angles on which the novel shines some light.

While Ada is off on her own adventure, the often-overlooked aspects of the original story are touched upon: what was happening in the world above? Surely the adults noticed the absence of a child, or—in this case—three children!

The novel’s depictions of Lydia, Alice’s older sister as named by Maguire, and Miss Armstrong, the governess of the Boyce household, introduce the reader to the world of adult worries. Their stories are interwoven to fill in the time-frame during Ada’s journey through Wonderland, giving the writing a cinematic quality.

By far the most intriguing addition to the novel is the character of Siam. He is a dark-skinned boy who is rescued from the slave society of America and accompanies Josiah Winter, another new character, on his journey to England. Siam was the answer to the one frustration I always had as a child: who the heck in their right mind would want to leave Wonderland? He is particularly worth paying attention to; from his complex past to his unusual actions in the present. His decision at the end of the novel spoke to the child in me and appeased her, as this question will forever be the greatest issue I have with Carroll.

After Alice is a great new take on the classic, although not quite the sequel it was marketed to be. The number of characters and stories are often overwhelming, and some chapters that attempt to add a philosophical layer to the story fail to come across as such. But ultimately, that isn’t the point of this novel. Rather, it offers you another visit into a beloved literary world from a new angle, one that does not sacrifice the familiar, witty humour and confusing wisdom that defines the original.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko