Kurt Vonnegut: a tribute
The ultimate tribute, in fact. Today, I read a Kurt Vonnegut book. Or re-read, as I think I’ve read all his books, as previously stated. I chose Slapstick (subtitled Lonesome No More!), published in 1976, because I remember loving it the first time, and it was no less entertaining the second. I love the look of this 1978 Panther paperback edition, which I feel sure I picked up circa 1990 at Merton Abbey Mills market in South London, which used to have – and may still have, I’ve not been back since developers built a leisure complex on the car park – a perfect second hand book shop, the source of so many of my “used” books. I remember feeling quite odd when I found my own Billy Bragg book, Still Suitable For Miners on sale in there, but I have since come to celebrate having my books in second-hand circulation. This was back in the days before eBay orthodoxy. Let us celebrate the handing on of books. Slapstick cost me a pound. If I’d bought it in 1978 it would have cost me 75p brand new! (The best thing about old books is the musty aroma and the discoloured pages.)
Anyway, like many of Vonnegut’s books, it’s short, and chopped up into bite-sized fragments which are rarely as long as half a page, sometimes only a single line, each one separated from the next by a symbol made up of twelve little diamonds. A novel set a couple of generations into the future, it falls loosely under the sci-fi banner, but Vonnegut only uses the form to free up his imagination. It’s a darkly comic novel about a deformed brother and sister who are a genius when they get together and are cruelly separated not by twelve diamonds but by two uncaring rich parents, who allow a twisted psychoanalyst to allow her class-hatred to split the siblings up. Thus, he, Wilbur, who can read and write but not understand the words, is sent off to boarding school, while she, Eliza, who can’t read or write but has great understanding of everything, is banished to a hospital. Anyway, I won’t do the whole plot, which is punctuated with the phrase, “Hi ho” (Vonnegut lives for sly repetition) and takes in a flu epidemic that kills millions and a problem with gravity that causes a horse called Budweiser’s insides to fall out, but it’s such a breezy read, despite being loaded with philosophical ballast, and comment on the world we live in now, or lived in in 1976. Vonnegut’s books are all about the human condition, and despite the fantasy element, rooted in reality.
It begins with an autobiographical prologue, written with pith and depth, revealing how Vonnegut’s sister Alice died of cancer at 41 and that up until that point, he wrote everything he wrote for her (he never told her so): “She was the secret of whatever artistic unity I had ever achieved.” It’s very moving.
This is how the prologue ends (and if you like what you’ve heard, and what you’re about to read, perhaps Kurt Vonnegut Jr is for you. He is very much for me):
The old man is writing his autobiography. He begins it with the words which my late Uncle Alex told me one time should be used by religious skeptics as a prelude to their nightly prayers. These are the words: “To whom it may concern.”