Much has been written about the reasons for Vonnegut’s appeal to the first television generation. The time-tripping, the McLuhanite non-“linearity,” the pacifism, the jokes, the sci-fi inventiveness, the quick sympathy for life’s losers and has-beens—these have all been repeatedly cited and have evoked little disagreement. But there is a more interesting question. Why has Vonnegut encountered such strong and continued resistance from so many literate members of his own generation, which may be extended to include serious readers from thirty to seventy? Why should a well-educated, highly intelligent magazine editor confess to me that she has been unable to finish a single Vonnegut novel? Why should a first-rate college teacher I know—sympathetic to the young, open to new experience—complain vehemently when compelled to include Slaughterhouse-Five in an introductory course? After all, the elements that endear Vonnegut to his cult are not in themselves antipathetic to older readers who cherish Catch 22, love the Beatles, and feel themselves magnetized by the phallic hardware of Gravity’s Rainbow.
An examination of Slapstick cannot by itself provide a satisfactory answer, for the novel is too obviously vulnerable. A few things may be said in its favor. I found the autobiographical opening interesting and even touching in its account of Vonnegut’s relationship to his scientist brother, his dead sister, and his roots in Indianapolis. The story of Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-II Swain—first encountered as a hundred-year-old man sitting in a clearing in the ailanthus jungle that was once Thirty-fourth Street—has its moments of goofy charm. Some of the futuristic bits of whimsy are fun to read about: a depopulated, ruined New York, where, because of fluctuations in gravity (possibly produced by the Chinese), even the centenarian Dr. Swain can, on certain days of light gravity, have an erection and imagine scampering to the top of the Empire State Building and flinging a man-hole cover to New Jersey; or the United States after the final energy crisis, when the country has broken up into warring dukedoms and kingdoms rather like Western Europe in the fifth century AD.
More to Slapstick‘s credit is the section dealing with the childhood of Swain and his dizygotic twin sister Eliza. Vonnegut can always be counted on to empathize with the plight of the rejected child confronted by unapprehending or frightening parents. In this case the twins are repulsively ugly neanderthaloid monsters, while the parents are sweet, well-meaning multimillionaires who—shamed by their hideous offspring—allow themselves to be convinced that the babies are idiots destined to die before they reach fourteen. The parents’ solution is to isolate the twins on a vast gothic estate in Vermont, where their animal needs are supplied by a staff of servants and supervised by the daily visits of a doctor. Far from being idiots, the twins, especially when they put their heads together, are brilliant. Undetected, they lead a rhapsodically happy life until, on the eve of their fifteenth birthday, they decide to throw …