Friday, 8 June 2001

Kurt Vonnegut: Timequake (1997)

Edition: Vintage, 1998
Review number: 834

In 1997, Vonnegut imagined that on February 13, 2001 there would be a timequake; the universe would revert to its position about ten years earlier, and the decade would be repeated exactly as before, with the massively important difference that everybody would remember what happened the first time around, but be powerless to change anything.

Vonnegut's novel is not a narrative of the ten year rerun. It is, instead, a series of commentaries on it, with all kinds of digressions. It is fairly obvious that this is going to produce a more interesting read than a straightforward narrative, especially as it enables Vonnegut to talk about individuals affected in different ways by the beginning and end of the rerun without having to describe experiences in between common to all. (Once someone has reacted to repeated past events with "Oh no, not again" and "Oh good, this again", there isn't a great deal left to say.)

Part of Timequake is autobiographical, little anecdotes from throughout Vonnegut's life, and another part is about Kilgore Trout, the author who is Vonnegut's alter ego in several of his novels. There is a description of them meeting, after the end of the rerun, which is a bizarre touch of irony (but typical of the author). Many of the stories about the two writers are extremely funny; this is one of Vonnegut's most obviously humourous novels.

Like all of Vonnegut's novels, however, Timequake also has something to say. It is about free will, fatalism, and apathy. It is about people living their lives on remote control, which is why the end of the rerun is greeted by accidents (as people driving cars don't realise that they need to be driving them proactively after years when thought and action are disconnected) and the by a syndrome akin to catatonia, Post Timequake Apathy, with people not knowing how to exercise free will. Vonnegut has been consistently suspicious of devices like TV which can reduce a person to a passive observer; he has campaigned against technological devices that he believes are dehumanising.

This was Vonnegut's last novel, as he wanted to retire, and it ends with a clambake attended by many of the people that he knew, or wanted to know, or lookalikes for some who were already dead. The guest of homour at this party is Kilgore Trout (not because of his writing but because of his behaviour when the rerun finished), and as a whole it provides a final ironical twist in a novel filled with them. Vonnegut was able to combine intellectual ideas with the most immediate humour, and Timequake is an excellent example of this talent.

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