by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
It is a tribute to Kurt Vonnegut's writing ability that a failed novel, such as Timequake, can be so entertaining. In his prologue to Timequake, and in various interviews, Vonnegut has described Timequake as his last novel. In this description, he is wrong, because Timequake is not a novel. It is a personal memoir mixed with story ideas and excerpts of stories which were never finished.
Vonnegut claims that he spent ten years writing a novel called Timequake, in which the entire universe jumped backwards ten years, from 2001 to 1991 and then began to move forward again. Rather than allow people the chance to correct the mistakes they made, everyone was forced to relive those ten years exactly as they had lived them the first time through. Vonnegut could not get this conceit to work, however, and nearly shelved the project.
Timequake, as published, is a metafictional account of Vonnegut's life and attempts to write the original version of the novel. Vonnegut's memories of his family and friends is interspersed with the story of the old science fiction author, Kilgore Trout, who has lived through the ten year re-run and is now coming to terms with the return, as Trout calls it, of free will.
In many ways, Timequake is a prolonged rant rather than a novel. Vonnegut turns his attention to the rise of technology while lamenting the decline of traditional values, reading, family-life and ties to a single area. He uses the extended Vonnegut family to underline the last point. Despite the Vonnegut family's close ties to Indianapolis, none of the remaining Vonneguts live there and few are buried there. When informed that his brother, Bernard, was dying of cancer, Vonnegut comments that Bernard would not be buried in Indiana, where John Dillenger and James Whitcomb Riley are buried. Vonnegut fails, at that point, to mention that his parents are also buried in Indianapolis.
Family is obviously an important anchor for Vonnegut. Through Timequake, he keeps track of a wide variety of siblings, uncles, children, wives and ex-wives, etc. It says a great deal about Vonnegut's view of family that he is close to his family and is also a successful writer while his alter ego, Kilgore Trout, is an unsuccessful author and has no family. When Trout does gain some success in Timequake after the rerun has concluded, he has also gained a family of sorts.
By not being a novel, Vonnegut frees himself in several ways. He can be chatty and explain what he is, or was trying, to do while writing the original fiction. He can explain that whenever he mentions the title or plot Kilgore Trout's novels and stories, they are ideas he had but couldn't get to work or wasn't happy with. At the same time, Timequake proves what Vonnegut has been saying for years. He is not a science fiction author.
Science fictional elements exist in much of Vonnegut's work, from The Sirens of Titan to Timequake. However, the science element is completely lacking. Vonnegut uses the trappings of science fiction as a framework for his satire. They serve to put his characters into strange situations, whether a cage on Tralfamadore or the rerun of a timequake, which will allow the foibles of human existence to show through. The loss of free will the world suffered during the ten year timequake could as easily have been induction into the military. Instead, by creating an impossible situation, Vonnegut hasn't tainted the lack of free will the the violence which otherwise would have been part of an army novel.
While Timequake masquerades as a novel, it may, perhaps, be better viewed as a monologue in print. Vonnegut uses the book to espouse his ideas in an almost stream of consciousness manner, occasionally interrupting himself to let us in on the life of Kilgore Trout and his stalled writing career. These thoughts come across with Vonnegut's easy, sometimes biting, wit and sarcasm, an example of which was his comment at Isaac Asimov's American Humanist Association memorial service that Isaac was in Heaven, a comment Vonnegut hopes will one day be made for him.
Vonnegut has claimed that Timequake is his last novel. This may be true, but Vonnegut is the type of person who may choose to come out of retirement at any time. Frequently in the book, his thoughts turn to death, his brother's, his ex-wife's, his sister's, and Kilgore Trout's. He almost gives the feeling that he is trying to sum up all the loose ends of his life and prepare himself for his own death. If so, he does it in a very well-written and humorous fashion.
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