I was prompted to re-read this Vonnegut novel by a non-fiction work that I read recently. The Juggler’s Children was about the use of genetic research in relation to genealogical research and about the search of the modern North American to make some connections with people around them. People are lonely and looking for distant relatives assuages the loneliness somewhat.
I was put in mind of this novel and its alternate title, Lonesome No More! I’m not sure why that slogan and the new middle-name scheme espoused by the main character stuck in my mind when all the other details had faded to a hazy blur, but they did. [Each American was assigned a new middle name, a natural object noun and a number—those with the same word are cousins, those with matching word and number are siblings. Voila, instant family!] Like Vonnegut himself, I am lucky to have a large extended family, most of whom seem to enjoy spending time with me as much as I love visiting with them. Also, as a certified introvert, I am perfectly comfortable spending long stretches of time alone--alone but only very rarely lonesome. I do realize, however, that not everyone is so fortunate.
KV calls this book semi-autobiographical. It seems to me to be a paen to his relationship with his deceased sister Alice, who he declares he has always secretly written for. I guess we all have an audience in mind when we write and he lost his dearest audience. In Slapstick, Wilbur and Eliza, the freakish twins, who do their best thinking together, are the fictional counterparts of Kurt and Alice. Wilbur is the writer and reader of the two, Eliza is the one who can figure out what is actually going on. Separately, they are much less intelligent, calling their alter-egos Bobby and Betty Brown. If I remember correctly, KV claimed in another work that Alice was actually a much better writer than he was, but did not feel compelled to do something with that talent, as he did.
I know what it is like to lose family and how that can affect one’s life. After the death of my mother, I quit reading fiction for many years. Fiction was something that I had shared with her and without being able to talk to her about such books, I just didn’t have the heart to continue reading them. Non-fiction became my go-to reading. So I believe I have some idea how crippling it must have felt to Vonnegut to lose his sister and how he could end up feeling like a much duller Bobby Brown without her. When I read this book in my twenties, prior to losing my parents, I had no proper appreciation of all of this—re-reading the book now, I have much more sympathy.
Slapstick contains many of the same themes that make Vonnegut’s writing dear to me: his insistence that common human decency is worth its weight in gold, that kindness is always a good alternative, and that life is has its ridiculous moments even when it hurts.