Nothing fills me with such a malicious glee as a critical hit job à la Patricia Lockwood’s 2019 evisceration of John Updike or Pete Wells’s infamous 2012 takedown of a Guy Fieri restaurant in Times Square. (“Why did the toasted marshmallow taste like fish?”) Each pan adds a kick to my otherwise mild diet of thoughtful criticism and elegant-but-sugar-sweet raves. And yet, the terrific schadenfreude of being audience to respected critics hurling insults at long-revered celebrities does little to guard me against the sting of shame when the target of a critical assassination is something or someone I love.
I’m speaking of a review more than four decades old of a book the same age—Roger Sale’s impassioned review of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick, or Lonesome No More! (1976), a slim, satirical novel of which I am rather fond and which Sale not only dismissed as vapid and unoriginal, but pointed to as evidence of the intellectual hollowness of Vonnegut’s entire oeuvre.
Slapstick is Vonnegut’s eighth novel, published well after Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), the novel which launched him into literary stardom. The same style that had elicited such praise in this earlier work—his irreverent humor, his pithy irony, his detached amusement—features largely in Slapstick.
We begin in the lobby of the dilapidated Empire State Building, where our protagonist, the world-weary centenarian Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-II Swain, the former (and final) President of the United States, resides. The country has been decimated by plague and by sudden fluctuations in the force of gravity, which on some days is so strong that one can scarcely get out of bed, and on others is so weak that people can practically scale buildings. (On the lighter gravity days, notes Wilbur mere paragraphs in, every penis on earth grows simultaneously erect.)
Wilbur recounts the events of his life which led him to the Island of Death (Manhattan), where he passively awaits the end of his life amongst hundreds of candlesticks with no candles to fill them. Born with a twin sister, Eliza, both monstrously deformed, the two are quickly sent away to an isolated apple orchard in Vermont by their outrageously wealthy and emotionally repressed parents. In the hidden passages of the gothic mansion where they are housed, under the apathetic supervision of paid caretakers, Wilbur and Eliza discover that they are not the idiots the doctors presumed them to be; rather, when together, their combined minds form a perfect genius. By the time they reach adolescence, they are precocious theorists, hyper-polyglots, and masters of deception.
Sale’s critique of the novel tends to fixate on Vonnegut’s recycling of techniques that were fresh in Breakfast of Champions (1973) and Cat’s Cradle (1963), but had, Sale argues, grown stale—formulaic. The famous Vonnegutian repetition of short phrases, (the phrase “so it goes,” appears no less than one hundred and six times throughout Slaughterhouse-Five) is reincarnated in Slapstick as “Hi ho,” the senile hiccup of the narrator that, Sale argues, functions less as a poignant rhythmic device and more as a literary crutch—a way of abbreviating insights down to their least significant, easiest forms.
To which I say: fair enough. Vonnegut writes in koans, often leaving the reader to do the hard work of finding meaning or value in his novels. And, as an elite public intellectual of the mid-twentieth century, I doubt Sale’s appetite for endless collages of funny, aimless cynicism were anywhere near as mighty as that of an underemployed millennial with a Twitter addiction. This can largely be relegated to a matter of taste.
The real heat of Sale’s argument—the irritant that underpins each critique—is not Vonnegut himself but his audience. “Unlike most extremely popular novelists,” he writes, his bitterness palpable, “furthermore, Vonnegut attracts a following that includes serious people who take fiction seriously.” The argument, in essence, is that Vonnegut’s appeal to the young and “semi-literate” obfuscates the value of more rigorous literature. (Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow is offered as an example.) The thinking echoes that of earlier public intellectuals, like Dwight Macdonald, who felt that America’s cultural and intellectual integrity was under attack. Ambitious art asking challenging questions was being commercialized and intermingled with—let’s not mince words—the baser art of the lower classes.
Never mind the eugenicist undertones of assuming that blending registers of education, culture, and taste necessarily results in degradation—Sale’s fear, to my mind, far overestimates Vonnegut’s power. That exposure to and fondness for an easy novel would diminish one’s ability or desire to tackle a more challenging one is an odd assumption. It would be like assuming (to take both Sale and Vonnegut firmly out of their time) that the intellectual curiosity, resilience, and nuanced mechanisms for developing individual taste have evaporated from the soul of every person who frequently checks their Twitter feed or mainlines Love Island on Netflix.
Slapstick is a pu pu platter of blended registers. Twisted over books in the walls of their gothic home, Eliza and Wilbur educate themselves gleefully, with no thought of the status or renown their mounting genius might earn them. Wilbur reads aloud from classic texts in his “squeaky voice, often with gestures.” It’s delicious, the dissonance this image produces—of a deformed creature with a pre-pubescent voice, theatrically reciting the most celebrated words of “high-culture”—arma virumque cano…
What Sale mistakes for cynicism is, I think, an honest refusal to categorize and rank experience. As a novelist, Vonnegut is not a moralizer but an equalizer. No person is elevated above any other—nobody is assumed to have more severe or more noble pain. No scene or scenario is afforded more gravitas than any other. This is why the protagonist of one novel can be a veteran of war while another can be a fabulously wealthy, deformed genius riding out the apocalypse in the Empire State Building. They are, in essence, the same.
It is unsurprising, at the end of the day, that this book sent critics into such a rage. (Sale was not the only one to object.) It is not just the style of Vonnegut’s novels, but the assumption upon which they rest: that the categories we separate our world into are arbitrary and easily undermined. Wilbur’s presidential candidacy is won with the pitch that everyone in the nation will be assigned—at random—a middle name that entitles them to kinship with all those who share it. They would be a family, bound not by love, Wilbur insists, but by the expectation that they treat one another with “common decency.”
This more egalitarian view is what swells amongst the public intellectuals of my generation. The moral panic over the corruption of elite culture fades as a new batch of critics and academics pose basic questions about what distinguishes one artwork over another as profound or important. Whose stories deserve to be told? Who deserves to tell them? And how? “Without knowing what we were doing,” says Wilbur before he and his sister are separated, their combined genius lost to the winds, “Eliza and I were putting the traditional curse of monsters on normal creatures. We were asking for respect.”
I will not—indeed, cannot—defend the place of Slapstick among the great, weighty works of literature, novels categorized by their intellectual rigor and oceanic depth. I will, however, defend it as clever, funny, and—in aggregate—a compelling ode to the loneliest monsters among us, whom love and acceptance perpetually evade. I have no illusions that Slapstick will enter the public consciousness—that many people besides myself will bask in the many delights to be found in its pages.
Slaughterhouse-Five, at least, will continue to be read. Or it won’t. Vonnegut may very well be edged out of the literary canon in due time, purged from required reading lists, made less ubiquitous among the literarily inclined youth. He was—after all—white and male, and while he was dealt some rough blows, died fabulously wealthy. (As Sale resentfully puts it—”almost as rich as the Rosewaters and the Swains.”) If it’s not too optimistic to assume, the knee-jerk prioritization of the white, educated male in literature is ever so slowly beginning to dissolve. I don’t imagine Vonnegut would have minded if he falls into obscurity as the decades pass and cultural values shift. He wasn’t, after all, writing to the “literate,” as Sale fears—trying to convince them that they need look no further or work any harder than reading these few short chapters. He was writing, as the opening line of Slapstick makes clear, “To whom it may concern.”