Cities and suburbs, real and imaginary.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

After "Slapstick" by Kurt Vonnegut

In fiction, I am always interested in what I refer to as "bookends". I like fiction that begins with one scene or moment or idea, and returns to that idea again to provide closure to the story. When I read "Slapstick", I got that feeling of a bookended narrative despite the difference in tone, subject matter, and characters involved in the two sections.

The comically mournful listed anecdote after anecdote about the Vonnegut family. The end of the book, with the King of Manhatten's granddaughter, was a surprising appearance of a fairy tale: a young woman, convinced she is a princess of the far away King of Candlesticks, escapes an abusive brothel, and quests to her mysterious grandfather, determined to find her happily ever after which - in the story - seems like something the poor girl achieved. How did these two elements of great family tragi-comedy and fairy tale create the bookend experience I felt when I read the story? I suspect the answer to my own question lies in the symbolic content of the different sections.

` The novel operates like a reverse adumbration of the prologue. The "story" of the prologue, of family vignettes building to a climax when the sister's kids are orphaned parallels the rest of the novels treatment of the family of the final President of the USA. Thus, in the Prologue, we are explicitly told we are about to read an autobiographical story - the most autobiographical story Vonnegut ever wrote. Then, Vonnegut gives us samplings from his life and others to show us the story he is about to tell. The parallels are not immediately apparent, but the theme of siblings closer than spouses, and orphaned children searching for a home are well-established in the early prologue.

When those elements are expanded across a continent, the President runs for office on a ticket rooted in the creation of adopted families in the aftermath of losing his sister. Though the content is wildly different, the subtext is the same in this larger narrative. Just like in Vonnegut's life, this attempt of pulling a family together is broken. Vonnegut's adopted son asks his father, as the son is about to leave for college as an adult, forever, for a hug. The father had never hugged his own adopted son. In the zany, machine-made families, some of the people are able to pull together into communities that almost make it, while most fail with the fall of America.

Still, in the end, the granddaughter shows up at her grandfather's house, candle in hand, full of hope in a better life with someone who will take her in, care for her, and never abuse her like her former guardian, the King of Milwaukee. Still, in the simple hearts, beats an urge to family. Her moment of hope closes a book that is otherwise bleak and morose. This effectively takes the themes established in the beginning, during the prologue, and reverses the emotional tone, like two bookends that mirror each other on a shelf.

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