Have you ever read this book? I’ve not read any of Kurt Vonnegut’s more well-known novels, Slaughterhouse-Five for instance, but a second-hand copy of Slapstick (published in 1976) wound up on my bookshelf. It’s short and very fast easy reading – I zipped through it in just a few hours. And although I finished it a couple of months ago now, parts of it have lingered in my mind.
The imagination of the author is mind-bogglingly inventive. He managed to include the incredible detail of an entire life-span and planetary apocalypse, while encompassing themes such as the nature of love, loneliness, family, time, memory, evolution, intelligence, the depletion of the environment and more. All contained in a mere 170 pages.
As a rule, I am not a fan of slapstick comedy – the ‘staged’ aspect of it is a turn-off for me. And yet, life itself does have a slapstick element, and Vonnegut captures that skilfully in this novel. Sometimes when life seems grotesque and misfortune heaps upon misfortune, it is all you can do to laugh… if you are to remain sane.
Still, the book was a little too on the cynical side for me. It conjured one of Dali’s bleak landscapes* where objects are juxta-positioned in apparently random formations and it is up to us the viewer to find any meaning there. The main protagonist Swain himself, on seeing the crumbling landscape around him says…
“‘if you think this is bad’…’you should see what it looks like in here’ (tapping his forehead with his fingertips).”
This cynicism pervades the novel like an unpleasant smell. Life according to Vonnegut seems to be a never-ending series of tests… and if we are to look at our Earth right now with this cynical viewpoint, we would likely agree. And it is apparent we are fighting a losing battle.
I’ve been there, that place of no hope. There, nothing changes and nothing gets done.
Life, love, family and loneliness – commonalities of humankind – these are not grains of sand which trickle through our fingers. They are the raw materials of which meaning is made. Singular we may just be Vonnegut’s Betty and Bobby Browns leading ordinary empty lives, but perhaps working together, that is where our value lies.