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.

isfdb.org
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.

wychwords.wordpress
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

God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

slaughterhouse cover (2)
Image from amazon.com

“Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.”

These are the words that begin Kurt Vonnegut’s great 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, also known as The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death. This is not Vonnegut’s only work of science fiction; indeed, it is not even his only good one. But of all his novels, Slaughterhouse-Five has perhaps best stood the test of time.

This is a book about a man named Billy Pilgrim, a soldier in World War II, who is time-traveling up and down his own personal timeline, from his childhood to his old age and his time as an optometrist; from being a soldier in the Second World War to his kidnapping by aliens. But even with all this mayhem of time travel and aliens, Slaughterhouse-Five never loses sight of what it is truly about: the firebombing of the city of Dresden in WWII.

Vonnegut has no concerns for linear storytelling. He tells you exactly what the book is about, what happens, and how it ends, all in the opening pages. He explains openly and almost callously the entire life story of Billy Pilgrim before actually telling that story. There are no surprises to the plot, and when Billy climbs out of the wreckage of the destroyed city on the last page, it’s something you always knew was coming.

One of the many things that are truly miraculous about this book is how science fiction ideas are used to sell the emotional story of a historical event. Vonnegut cares very little about the plausibility of his story. He doesn’t bother with scientific explanations for any of the things that happen. When he says that Billy Pilgrim is now time-traveling, that is that. Billy is time-traveling, and Vonnegut doesn’t give a single hoot if you want an explanation as to how.

When Billy is kidnapped by the extraterrestrial Tralfamadorians who put him in an alien zoo and teach him about fate and time as the fourth dimension, and who tell him that one day a Tralfamadorian test pilot will accidently destroy the universe, that is that. Vonnegut is not concerned with whether the Tralfamadorians are plausible or even remotely believable.

Illustration
Illustration by Iris Benedikt.

 

Vonnegut instead is completely unabashedly unashamed of his use of using science fiction as the vessel for his tale. The aliens are there because he wants them to be there; they translate Vonnegut’s own strange ideas onto the page and add to the chaos and inhumanity of the story.

Vonnegut does not insult you with expository jargon on pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo, and instead invites you to revel in the lunacy of what is almost secretly a very sad story. Vonnegut uses aliens and time travel to speak about the horrors of the Second World War. But he isn’t speaking about the war generally; he’s speaking about something that actually happened to him.

Billy is not only captured on earth and taken to the alien planet of Tralfamadore, but he is also captured at the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, and is held as a prisoner of war in the German city of Dresden, just as Vonnegut himself was. He is held in a building called Schlachthof-fünf: Slaughterhouse-five.

And, just like Vonnegut, Billy Pilgrim and his fellow inmates are some of the very few survivors of the allied firebombing of Dresden that took place between February 13 and 15, 1945, which destroyed most of the city and killed close to 25 000 people.

This was a major event both in the history of the war and in the life of Vonnegut himself, and part of the novel’s brilliance is Vonnegut’s own apparent struggle with the fact that yes, Dresden was a German city controlled by the Nazis, and yes, the Nazis were evil, but the firebombing of Dresden was also a horrifying event. Vonnegut is writing about his inability to comprehend how human beings, on both sides of the war, were capable of doing such things to one another.

This is a dark subject. This novel is about war and depression and massacres. So it stands to reason that a book about these things should be as dark, grim, and serious as its material. And yet it is not. Vonnegut finds humor in how, after all this carnage, an American soldier is tried for pillaging and shot amongst the wreckage. He finds humor, and thoughtfulness, in the idea that somewhere out there in the stars is an alien race that sees our world the same way we do.

To the Tralfamadorians, a person’s death is not sad because they are still alive in the time period in which they lived. To them, time is lucid and eternal, not linear: It is just like the pages of a book, and can be flipped back and forth. And no matter what, when you read that book, those events are still happening. All of us—everyone who has ever lived and everyone who will ever live—are still alive in those moments, and those moments are happening right now.

This is the beauty of Vonnegut’s book. He has taken a horrific event and wrapped it in the musing of science fiction in the way only he could. For Vonnegut, science fiction was about the conveying of ideas; it was about making it possible to tell a story that would otherwise be impossible to tell.

He used science fiction so that when Billy Pilgrim climbs out to survey the wreckage of Dresden, it is sad, yes—but it is also beautiful in the way that the story has been told, right down to a little bird hopping up to speak to Billy in that mass grave:

“Poo-Tee-Weet?”

-contributed by Ben Ghan