Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Kurt Vonnegut - Timequake (1997)

"Listen: We are here on Earth to fart around. Don't let anyone tell you any different!"

'Timequake' is Kurt Vonnegut's last novel, and appropriately enough it is a novel obsessed with the past. Although it lacks the violent inspiration of his earlier works, it has enough of the trademark Vonnegut charm, wit and worldly wisdom to act as a fitting bookend to his novel writing career.
   The central conceit is that on the 13th of February 2001, the universe suffers a crisis of conscience. Unsure whether it should continue on expanding or just call it quits and  collapse, it shrinks back ten years. The end result is that everyone has to relive the past ten years on autopilot, all free will removed, making exactly the same stupid mistakes all over again. The main thread of the plot involves Kilgore Trout, homeless out of print SF writer and Vonnegut's alter ego, helping people deal with free will kicking in after ten years on autopilot with the timeless advice, "You were sick, but you're well again, and there's work to do." The timequake is a witty and apt metaphor for the sheer dismal-ness of the 90s, the effect of finding yourself in a world where people have decreasing amounts of autonomy over their own lives, where pop culture is terminally eating itself and regurgitating the same old ideas over and over again. In fact post-timequake apathy, which Vonnegut describes so well here, is increasingly indicative of our own times as much as anything else.  
   Ever since developing his signature style in 'Cat's Cradle' and 'Slaughterhouse Five' Vonnegut has tended towards unconventionally structured stories where much of the joy comes from the narrative voice and the philosophical diversions it makes. Vonnegut's frank, conversational style has allowed him to effortlessly inhabit a range of very different characters in his past novels, but whatever persona he's using his deadpan humour and warm humanism always shine through. 'Timequake' is like this but more so, with Vonnegut pretty much narrating as Vonnegut. He admits in the introduction that the book is basically a salvage operation, with the original book focusing more on the actual timequake story. The end result is that the narrative is frequently pushed to the side, as Vonnegut uses the themes and ideas raised by the skeleton of the original abortive work to reminisce on his past life in general and dispense worldly wisdom with that unlikely mix of sardonic humour and warm compassion, in the way that only Vonnegut can.

Pictured: sardonic humour and warm compassion

   Spiraling out from the story's central idea, Vonnegut reflects on the illusion of free will and how different people cope with this, leading him to look back on the various people he's know in his life, the circumstances and luck that lead to him taking the path he did through life, and the changing modern times he finds himself in. Fans of Vonnegut's work will notice several themes running through his work that are revisited here. Vonnegut remembers his experiences in World War II and ruminates on the futility of war and humanity's potential for self-destruction, as he does in 'Slaughterhouse Five' and 'Cat's Cradle', he expounds on the virtues of a supportive network of friends and family, one of the major themes of the underrated 'Slapstick, or Lonesome No More!', and he reflects on aging and death as he does in 'Deadeye Dick' and 'Hocus Pocus'. While this 'greatest hits' approach nicely ties together many of Vonnegut's major themes and concerns, it does point to my main problem with this otherwise very good book: these are all ideas Vonnegut has explored at greater length and developed more fully elsewhere.
   However, one would have to be truly churlish to hold this against 'Timequake' when the book itself is so full of warmth and laughter. Vonnegut is, after all, one of those authors that it is a pleasure to just listen to him ramble on. And 'Timequake' rambles beautifully, weaving together many laugh out loud moments with genuine pathos, and building to a suitably elegiac conclusion, seeing as it is the great man's last book.While it may not stand as the man's best work, that's a harsh grading curve to hit anybody with, and it provides Vonnegut with an opportunity to see Kilgore Trout, and by extension himself, out with style.

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