I love turning teenagers on to the work of author Kurt Vonnegut.
I want their minds to be blown the way mine was at 15, when I picked up Slapstick, his 8th novel, for reasons I no longer remember. It wasn’t on recommendation of some beloved teacher, nor was there any Vonnegut on our home shelves, despite the fact that he was a local author. Whatever drew me to that book, thank god it did. It was the beginning of a lifelong romance.
What grabbed me so? His genius idea for bestowing an artificial extended family on every citizen, via the assignment of middle names:
I told him, ‘your new middle name would consist of a noun, the name of a flower or fruit or nut or vegetable or legume, or a bird or a reptile or a fish, or a mollusk, or a gem or a mineral or a chemical element — connected by a hyphen to a number between one and twenty.’ I asked him what his name was at the present time.
‘Elmer Glenville Grasso,’ he said.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘you might become Elmer Uranium-3 Grasso, say. Everybody with Uranium as a part of their middle name would be your cousin.’
This held enormous appeal for me as the only child of an only child. Lonesome No More!
It also contained the most wonderful profanity I had ever heard:
You ask him his middle name, and when he tells you “Oyster-19” or “Chickadee-1” or “Hollyhock-13” you say to him: Buster – I happen to be a Uranium-3. You have one hundred and ninety thousand cousins and ten thousand brothers and sisters. You’re not exactly alone in this world. I have relatives of my own to look after. So why don’t you take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut? Why don’t you take a flying fuck at the moooooooooooon?
Imagine my dismay when just two books later, Vonnegut gave Slapstick the lowest possible mark in a literary self evaluation published in Palm Sunday, below.
He wasn’t describing the difference between a B and a B+. In Vonnegut’s mind, Slapstick was a D. In other words, a minimally acceptable, deeply below average performance.
(Slaughterhouse Five, which also contains the rolling doughnut line, received an A+. Breakfast of Champions, my other favorite, earned a C.)
He later reflected to journalist Charlie Rose that he’d been overly hard on the title. But the critics had trashed it when it first appeared, and presumably critics knew best. So much for Vonnegut the rebel and class clown. This was a clear case of give the teacher the answer you think she wants.
I give it an A+, and so would you, if you’d discovered it when I did.
How about you? Any marks you’d change on Vonnegut’s report card?
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He might not thought much of “Breakfast of Champions” but it was the first story of his I read and I liked it enough to read a few of the others. So for that I think it should at least get a C+
I had read several other novels of his before I read Slapstick, most notably Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse and Breakfast, but it was Slapstick that made me a fan.
Funny – Slapstick was also the first Vonnegut I ever read, but for me it was at age 11. You are absolutely right, though – A+ all the way.
Forgot to mention in the above piece that The Surrealist has devised a Slapstick Middle Name Generator, wherein you can get a new middle name and add yourself to a sidebar showing everyone in your new extended family. (I am actually a Raspberry-14)
I love “Slapstick” to the googolth power. My story is similar, although I was in my early 20s when I discovered Vonnegut. An only child, constantly ill, an awkward student who had trouble making friends and trying to save her family from falling apart through divorces and deaths..
Vonnegut gave “The Player Piano” B, I don’t like it at all.
For me it’s “Slapstick”, “Breakfast of Champions”, “Cat’s Cradle”, and “The Sirens of Titan” that deserve A+ (or 6+, in the Polish grading system).
Yes, Slapstick is an A++++ for me, as well. It’s always the first book of his I think of, though I really enjoyed them all. Slaughterhouse Five and Galapagos are up there for me, as well. KV was extremely important and formative for the naive and ill-read 19 year old me.
What about Yellowbeard???
I took the list to order my reading of his books. Then, I wondered, why he ranked them in this way. In the end, what I have learned is that authors can evaluate their works differently. There are not only those who sell everything as gold or hate everything.
It’s a shitty movie with the Monty Python crew and Cheech and Chong… So what about it?
Oh, you mean BLUEbeard? It was released after Palm Sunday (the last book on his report card here)…
I don’t remember writing this entry, but this is my exact story and my exact sentiment. I used to skip class and go to the library and randomly stumbled upon Slapstick and fell in love with Vonnegut. I couldn’t believe anyone knew my secret author when I was assigned Slaughterhouse-Five in my second year of high school.
I just had to say, that I also, used to skip class and go to the library to read Vonnegut. This pleases me so. I stumbled across it during a “Banned Books” event. I find it hard to imagine another person doing such a thing, but I love you for doing it!
Ha! This is great – I too used to skip class in high school to hang out in the library and read Vonnegut books. Only my first encounter was with Breakfast of Champions, which I was fascinated with because of its naughty sketches and profanity while skimming through. Years later I picked up Galapagos at a second hand store and I loved its randomness and jabs at humanity. Then I enjoyed Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle much later in my 30s. But the book that really blew me away for some reason was Sirens of Titan – still one of my faves. Amazing author who left behind an incredible body of work.
I’ve read all of Vonnegut’s books, I think. While I totally enjoyed each of them, Slapstick will forever stand-out in my mind as most memorable. To this day, I tell friends who haven’t read Vonnegut about “Lonely No More” as perfect evidence of Vonnegut’s spot-on brilliance. I suppose I’m happy for Vonnegut that he doesn’t have to endure the unprecedented travesty and stupidity of the Trump regime, but his insightful perspective could have helped us endure the horror of it all.
If you’re referring to ‘Yellowbeard’, that’s a riot. Lighten up, Francis.
Slapstick is tied for first with Galapagos as my favorite Vonnegut book. In fact, the way I ran across this old post was just random enough to warrant revisiting Slapstick in audiobook form on my commute. Thanks!