Slapstick : or, Lonesome No More!: A novel

by Kurt Vonnegut

Hardcover, 1976




[New York] : Delacorte Press/S. Lawrence, c1976.


This hilarious, wickedly irreverent farce presents an apocalyptic vision seen through the eyes of the current King of Manhattan (and last President of the United States).

Media reviews

A brief outline of this lesser-known novel’s plot will help the listener better understand the interview. Even as children, protagonist Wilbur Swain and his twin Eliza are monstrous in appearance: freakishly tall, awkward, sporting six fingers on each hand, possessed of “Neanderthal features.” Their distressed parents at first consider them of subnormal intelligence, and remain ashamed of them even after the twins reveal their precocious theories about gravity, evolution, and extended families. The parents soon take the advice of an obviously twisted child psychologist and separate the twins. They are of course bereft without each other, but get back together as adults to publish a book on good child rearing. (Vonnegut reveals to Miller that his model for Wilbur Swain was Vonnegut’s friend Dr. Benjamin Spock, of baby-book fame.) Long into the future in a decaying U.S.A., Wilbur runs for president under the slogan “Lonesome no more.” He wins and takes office, but his creation of artificial extended families for every American can’t stop the demise of a society under a twin assault by microscopic Chinese, who have found a way to shrink themselves so they can invisibly invade the U.S. , and by microscopic invading Martians who, when inhaled by humans, give us a disease called the “Green Death.”
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Whatever it is, one is left feeling empty by "Slapstick," Emptiness, conveyed with grace and style, still amounts to almost nothing. That is why, for all the new chic skill Mr. Vonnegut has brought to his latest novel, it still seems as if he has given up storytelling after all.

User reviews

LibraryThing member ValerieAndBooks
This was kind of all over the place, even for Vonnegut. I felt Slapstick is not one of his best works, but I still enjoyed the wild ride.

Told from the point of view, and reminiscences, of the current King of Manhattan and Last President of the United States, this is both entertaining and, in places, thought-provoking.

"...all the damaging excesses of Americans in the past were motivated by loneliness rather than a fondness for sin". Hence the campaign slogan "Lonesome No More!" that runs throughout.

I wouldn't advise this as one's first reading of Vonnegut, certainly, but it's worth a read after determining whether one is able to take his signature style.

Hi ho.
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LibraryThing member goodmanbrown
I loved Vonnegut in high school and then, for reasons I don't in retrospect understand, I classed him among the childish things to put away when I got to college. In the last year or two-- about a decade after college-- I've gone back and read some of the novels I loved in high school. The ones I remember being the best-- Mother Night and Cat's Cradle, e.g.-- are amazing. They're like fascinating and funny clockwork. The individual gears and springs are beautiful in their own right, but when all the pieces come together and function as a whole, it's almost hard to believe.

I didn't remember much about Slapstick. Reading it again, all grow'd up, it's easy to see why. If the best Vonnegut novels are functioning watches, Slapstick reads like it was cobbled together from gears and springs found around the shop, then abandoned half-finished.

Some of the components are wonderful. Slapstick is the book that develops Vonnegut's idea of artificial families-- family groupings based on shared middle names, assigned at random by a computer. It's a neat idea, and he spells out a few imagined ripple-effects. The book also features a long preface, written in his own voice, that is something special. He gives some history of his family, and writes a bit about the origins of Slapstick. In the preface he mentions writing books with his sister in mind-- she the only member of his audience. I don't know if he talks about this elsewhere in more detail, but his comments on writing with his sister in mind-- both before and after she died-- I've always found wonderful and touching. (Also helpful as a suggestion for writing most anything.)

There are also some problems. The Vonnegut tics-- in this book they're “Hi ho” and “And so on”-- don't add any texture to the story. Certainly nothing like the neck-wrenching nihilism of Slaughterhouse 5's “So it goes.” In Slapstick, they're just tics. There are ideas thrown in but not developed. Variable gravity and miniaturized Chinese. These ideas are structurally integrated in a way that makes them seem like they're supposed to be important. But if they serve any purpose of plot, theme, or metaphor, I failed to notice. The book stops abruptly, without resolution. (There's a comment, at the end, about how it is fitting to stop, here, at the climax of the main character's life. But, given the events of the book, no one could take such a claim seriously.) It's almost as if Vonnegut decided to cut his losses after realizing the novel wasn't going to work out.

Broken watches are still fun to look at. Page by page, Slapstick is fun, too. It's got the usual mix of funny and sad, thought-provoking passages mixed with crude humor. Just don't go in mistaking it for a functioning novel.
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LibraryThing member wunderkind
I'm starting to think that the creative basis for this novel was the phrase "Hi ho", which the narrator, Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain--King of Manhattan, landlord and tenant of the vacant Empire State Building, genius idiot, pediatrician, twin, and former tallest President of the United States--repeats quite often throughout his story. And novels probably shouldn't be based on short, almost meaningless phrases. The story sort of meanders along in that effortlessly entertaining way that Vonnegut has, but in the end there doesn't seem to be a point, or much of a plot either. The best thing in here, which could have made for a much better story, was the idea of the Chinese becoming so advanced as a civilization that they shrink down to the size of microorganisms and learn to dematerialize to Mars, cure breast cancer with gongs, and possibly manipulate gravity. That would have been an awesome novel right there, but it's just mentioned in the periphery of the main goings-on of the book. Which doesn't really have an ending, by the way. It just sort of stops.

I guess this is one to read if you already like Kurt Vonnegut and want to read all of his books, but if you haven't tried him yet then I would avoid Slapstick for now.
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LibraryThing member elenchus
Vonnegut combines a stark religious skepticism (don't recall that atheism was referenced specifically) with the loss and sometime cruelty of life, coming up with a science fiction novel about ... what? Broadly, how modern American life perverts the human animal: the illusion of such a life, what nevertheless might still be hoped for, how much is tiresomely predictable. At one point he calls it "the low comedy of living", and both story and tone fairly justify the title. Hence slapstick: that laughter which emerges when the choice is either laugh and shrug, or pull back in horror or despair. It's interesting Vonnegut treats of this theme: religion is a standard response to it, the bleakness of Vonnegut's imagined future precisely the scenario which calls so stridently for spiritual belief and religion.

The bleak outlook underpins the book's signature lines, "Hi ho!" and "and so on". These are peppered throughout, ostensibly the flip verbal tics of the narrator, delivered immediately after sharing some profoundly sad bit of news or describing some cruel behavior of another human being. They are that, and they are cathartic.

I'd vaguely associated various science fiction-y settings and other trappings to Vonnegut, but this was my first of his novels and I was pleasantly surprised at the lack of farce. That is, there is plenty of farce in the book, but it's not centred on the science fiction aspects of it, particularly. His post-apocalypse U.S. does require a bit of hand-waving for the backstory involving Chinese miniaturization and gravity manipulation, but Vonnegut better predicts future political landscape than did Gibson in his Sprawl Trilogy. The premise of artificial families and cross-cutting cleavages inherent in a healthy American democracy were strong ideas, even if delivered in the guise of a Marx Brothers movie.

The remainder of the satire focuses on the interchangeable parts of the American Machine, and the resulting unhappiness of so many of its citizens. The idea of exploring this through the characters of twins provides a nice allegory: brilliant together, dull and litigious when separated. And so easy to skewer pretensions of the liberal, wealthy elite and the science literati.

It's been a long time since I read a book in one day. Curious that my first Vonnegut, picked up somewhat on a whim, would be such a quick read.


My edition includes decorations by an uncredited illustrator, apart from the A Hirschfield caricature appearing on the dedication page.
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LibraryThing member BooksForDinner
Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, the King of Manhattan. One of my 5 favorite KV's.
LibraryThing member Magadri
Not my favorite Vonnegut book, but I did like it. It was a little hard to follow in some parts, but I don't think the point was to follow the story. It starts out kind of slow, but it becomes interesting toward the middle/end.
LibraryThing member amlet
I really enjoyed this book. It was my first Vonnegut experience, and the mutant genius children instantly appealed to me and drew me into their secluded lives. After reading Cat's Cradle, I'm not sure if I would have liked this book if I had read it afterwards. To me they seem cut from the same cloth, and I started wondering very quickly whether he had some kind of template.… (more)
LibraryThing member shawnd
This typical Vonnegut novel weaves in many of his usual settings and topics: Indianapolis; Urbana, Illinois; Dresden (although late and little--see if you can find it); German-Americans; and a future version of Earth--in this case a sort of post-apocalyptic America. Plainly written in his signature style, it is a biography of sorts of a set of twins born deformed, to a very rich family. Their trials and travails of being physically challenged and mentally super-superior makes for some interesting twists and turns, and provoking tragedies and sadness at times. A master designer is to a smock as Vonnegut is to slapstick. Functional, beautiful, tragic, plain, enduring, not believable, Vonnegut.… (more)
LibraryThing member Darrol
In Fates Worse Than Death, Vonnegut says that it was a sequel to Palm Sunday. But I think that maybe both might be background for Slapstick.
LibraryThing member danconsiglio
Vonnegut is a beast. His futures are imaginative, well conceived, engaging, and thought provoking. Feel free to add all of your favorite positive adjectives to this list.
LibraryThing member DLMorrese
This isn't your typical post-apocalyptic novel. Of course not. It's Vonnegut. Through genetic manipulation, the Chinese have shrunk to thumb-size and smaller to save resources. America has declined, mainly due to over-consumption, and has fragmented into warring states. And fraternal twins are born who resemble neanderthals. Separate, they're fairly normal, other than their appearances, but when together, they're a genius. One of them becomes President of what's left of the United States. This is the story of his life.… (more)
LibraryThing member bartt95
A fun, quirky little book that puts forth a utopia in a world of apocalypse. Swain, who seems to be a caricature version of old Vonnegut, is a powerless President of the United States, numbed by pills, old and tired. His only contribution as POTUS is an imposed system of new names that creates artificial families, which unites those who feel like they belong nowhere, and to no one. Dukes and kings rule the land now, there is war and death, yet all this matters very little to Swain; all will be well as long as people are lonesome no more.

Vonnegut takes on the human condition in this book, cleverly, in a period where all has gone to hell. Yet, people seem to be happy and functioning in their new families, which is perhaps the main message. "History is merely a list of surprises", says Dr. Swain. We can only prepare ourselves for being surprised again in the future, and these surprises would perhaps be a little less devastating if people weren't so isolated, so rootless.
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LibraryThing member dilldill
My absolute favourite Vonnegut novel. Satire-light, if you will. Totally digestable humour with a lesson.
LibraryThing member dczapka
Not Vonnegut's best, but also not his worst, in my opinion. Starts a bit slow, and finds itself rooted much more strongly in autobiography than some of his others, but I did think the plot eventually became more clever, if painfully unresolved.

Recommended, but probably only for true Vonnegut fans.… (more)
LibraryThing member Smiley
Funny, but dated. The reader will have no trouble placing this novel in the energy worried, malaise ridden Carter years of the '70's.
LibraryThing member wombatdeamor
I love Vonnegut. As an Indiana native, it fills me with a profound sense of joy that a literary icon was born in Indianapolis, and it is one with the sick sense of humor that Vonnegut has, so even his worse stuff to me is going to be awesome.

The way I'm working through his collection is only reading them when I own them. I only have one book of his that I've not purchased that I've read, and that'll soon change.

Strangely however, I think I had read this one before I bought it.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed it immensily. What made it extra cool is that I read Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons before I read this (which is a collection of essays and interviews and speeches) so seeing the ideas that Vonnegut shoves down your throat in this book revealed early was a facinating experience.

if Only I was a little older, and I could have had that joy when this book was new.
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LibraryThing member nicholasjjordan
I love how dark and absurd this is. Poignant too. I guess that makes it a Vonnegut novel.
LibraryThing member JFBallenger
Vonnegut was brilliant with Slaughterhouse Five, but his next several books were dreadfully derivative -- this piece of narcissistic bilge being perhaps the worst of the lot.
And so on.
LibraryThing member Sean191
Some funny moments, ok read.
LibraryThing member Arctic-Stranger
Unfortunately Vonnegut is winding down here. There are enough good moments to make this a worthwhile read, but it is almost too easy to read. You just want to expect more from him.
LibraryThing member AuntieAmerica
By Vonnegut's own admission not one of his best, and yet I still enjoyed it more than 90% of what I've read this year.




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