Sunday, November 27, 2011

Timequake

Timequake
© 1997 Kurt Vonnegut
219 pages


Timequake may be the oddest novel I've ever read. Scratch that: it is the oddest novel I've ever read, but despite its utter lunacy I loved it anyway, because it is so much the product of its author. The tacit premise of Timequake is that in 2001, after billions of years of expansion, the universe hiccoughed, reversed its course to 1991, and then -- decided to continue expanding after all. Every being on Earth was forced to live out the last ten years of their life exactly as they had before. When free will kicks in again, everything goes to hell.

Vonnegut never tells the story of those relived years in away one might expect in a conventional novel. There's no setup; the Quake never happens within the plot. Instead, the reader is introduced to what happened by Vonnegut, and he continues to refer to it tangentially as he rambles merrily about whatever he likes, often using the consequence of the quake on those who lived through it to illustrate a point he's in the middle of making. Chapter divisions are utterly arbitrary, and Vonnegut will often stop to to introduce a random through before returning to the subject of his musings, which range widely from nostalgic thoughts about his family to opinions on faith and human community. A favorite section for me describes Vonnegut's labors to send some of his work to be edited. Rather than emailing or faxing it, he sends in a bundle of typewriter-produced pages and makes a jaunt downtown to fetch the appropriate stationary and postage, thoroughly enjoying his time out and about socializing with others. True, he could be efficient and use faxes or buy envelopes and stamps in bulk, but for Vonnegut that isn't the point. He valued the experience of human interaction, and ends the passage by declaring, "Listen! We're here on Earth to fart around. Don't let anyone tell you different."

Vonnegut is at times heartwarming and sometimes cynical, but he's always present. Kilgore Trout, his alter-ego, makes frequent appearances and Vonnegut works Trout's short stories -- usually with a cynical point -- into his own thoughts. Timequake is pure Vonnegut -- "talking lazily back and forth, almost buzzing like honeybees" with the reader --  and I would recommend it on that basis. If it's a proper story you want, and you've never read Vonnegut before, perhaps introducing yourself to him via Slaughterhouse-5 or Jailbird would be in order. If, however, Kurt Vonnegut's personality and humor have already appealed to you in times past, Timequake will satisfy enormously. To quote his uncle Alex, "If this isn't nice, what is?"

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