Undercover: Vonnegut’s Bad Joke (10/21/76)

I admit to a prejudice against Kurt Vonnegut, whose new novel, Slapstick (Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence, 243 pp., $7.95), I have just read, but I didn’t always feel that way. I found Cat’s Cradle enjoyable, if too silly and pleased with itself to make its pessimism stick; I liked Mother Night. But Slaughterhouse-Five did me in. Here was a long-awaited novel, the book Vonnegut had ever-so-publicly confessed was virtually beyond his powers: an attempt to convey his war experiences as a prisoner of the Germans during the bombing of Dresden by his own army. He had survived a man-made inferno–not merely a bombing, but a firestorm. He had seen terrible things. How could he restore actuality to an event that was almost unthinkable?

Now, one would think that to simply put across that experience, without cheating, without gilding, and without tying it to morals or eternal truths, would be enough, but it was not enough for Vonnegut. Jumbling the Dresden horror with a ludicrous goody-goody science fiction plot, and punctuating the book with an endless series of so-it-goeses–eternal truth turns out to be a shrug of the shoulders–he robbed his event of all possible impact. The firebombing of Dresden, in Vonnegut’s hands, inspired about as much dread as Hugh Scott.

Vonnegut’s fiction aspires to the surreal and the grotesque. In American terms, almost all of it derives from Nathanael West. One thinks first of The Dream Life of Balso Snell, but also of Miss Lonelyhearts–Vonnegut, like Miss Lonelyhearts, wants to tell us that he feels too much, and too deeply, to live. Vonnegut’s writing also seems to have been affected by Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, a truly great novel that combines the impossible with the all-too-real–and by the remarkable work of such Eastern European novelists as Ludvik Vaculik (The Guinea Pigs) and Tadeusz Konwicki (A Dreambook for Our Time). With Grass, Vaculik and Konwicki, unshaped emotion, an urge to tell stories and a desire to tell the truth seek new forms; with Vonnegut, one gets the idea that it is the other way around–though in his case, the forms are no longer new.

So, Slapstick. The tale is told in that hollow-laugh-in-the-face-of-fate tone one has come to expect: a tone of quiet depression. One reads a paean to meaninglessness, to pointlessness, to so­-it-goeses, to the terrible bad joke of life. Set in the future, Slapstick is about two giant Neanderthal siblings, brother and sister, who together form a single genius, and who separated are rather dull and helpless–victims of fate rather than masters of it (in Slapstick the masters of fate are microscopic Chinese). The brother grows up to become president of a defunct United States, while the sister dies in a landslide on Mars. Instead of “So it goes,” the story is jerked along with new incantations: “And so on.” “Hi ho.” “Yes, and …” “And so on” will do as a description of Vonnegut’s idea of plot-making; “Hi ho” will do for his whimsy. I don’t have any idea why so many paragraphs begin with “Yes, and…”

Within Slapstick is an idea, which runs something like this. Americans suffer because they are lonely. What they need is not love–who knows what love is, Vonnegut asks. Is there such a thing? How is love for a person any different than love for a dog?–but “common decency.” Common decency can best be found in families. (Thus, Vonnegut’s future president reorganizes American society into arbitrary extended families, providing true communities of accidental affection and respect for the first time in our history.)

I did not have to think very hard to figure this out, because Vonnegut says it all in a sort of preface to his novel. He also tells as that Slapstick is “grotesque, situational poetry–like the slapstick film comedies, especially those of Laurel and Hardy, of long ago.” And that Slapstick “is the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography… It is about what life feels like to me.” Which brings up the interesting question of what his other novels were supposed to be about.

I don’t know about you, but I feel (or, feel) insulted when a novelist thinks it necessary to explain his work to me before I have a chance to read it. I also do not want to know, when reading a novel about tall Neanderthal genius-siblings, that the novel is an allegory of the author’s relationship with his tall sister, who, like the victim of the Mars-slide, is dead. I do want to know that the novel’s informing idea–familyhood–is a version of the author’s view of his own family life, which has involved the adoption of his sister’s children, whom he treated, as he treated his own children, not with love, but with common decency. But I suppose all this must be laid out in advance, in case the reader is too dumb to understand situational poetry.

Plainly, I found this novel stupefying: cute, contrived, demeaning, devoid of real feeling. Vonnegut writes–on page one–that Laurel and Hardy, his muses, “never failed to bargain in good faith with their destinies, and were screamingly adorable and funny on that account.” Presumably that sums up Vonne­gut’s ambitions for himself. I have only two comments to add. First, I was more convinced by The Seventh Seal, which seems to argue that if one is to bargain with destiny, one had best have the sense to do it in bad faith. And second, anyone who does not understand the difference between love for a dog and love for a human being has no business writing fiction.

Good News

King Fisher Lives by Julian Rathbone (St. Martins). A pretty good posthippie novel, set in England and Spain, mostly about the relaxation of all limits and the pursuit of all pleasures. A convincing incest theme ties the book together; recommended especially for fans of Jeff Nut­tall’s Bomb Culture.

The Sixth Directorate by Joseph Hone (Fawcett paper­back). Liberal conspiracy in the KGB breaks up, stranding agents in England and America. The most intricate and moving spy story of recent years.

Rolling Stone, October 21, 1976

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