Wednesday 5 July 2017

Timequake, by Kurt Vonnegut

A few thoughts on Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake:
So let me say this up front. I’ve never really been able to connect with Vonnegut’s work. Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions were on the Modern Library’s top 100 list, so I read them as part of that binge. While S-5 was okay, with a bunch of quotable thoughts, BoC felt like rambling, too meta for my taste, and overall too lightweight to really enjoy.
I picked up Timequake against my own better judgement, deciding to give Uncle Kurt another chance, and I’m glad I did. Probably my own writing and reviewing experience helped me “get it” to some extent.

So here’s the concept: Time has reset itself to ten years ago. Everyone finds himself doing what they were doing ten years ago, and are forced to do exactly the same thing again, with nothing changed at all. What this means is no free will - everyone is, and everyone knows they are, ordained into a routine they don’t need to think about.

Given this idea, how would you write a book around it? The beginner would take it step by step, detailed what triggered it, selecting a bunch of characters to live through it, examining the after effects through these same characters, and so on.

The advanced would pick up a small piece of the concept, zoom into it, and tell the events of that short part in detail with all the ramifications.

But what does Vonnegut do? He turns it into something almost real. Timequake is partially an autobiography with Vonnegut talking about himself, but also about Kilgore Trout, his alter ego, and how he, Trout, survived the timequake. Vonnegut “hears” the story from Trout over multiple sessions, while also talking about a book written by Trout, Timequake One, that is somehow fictional but also real and describing the events in the linear manner. It all gets mixed up and feels somewhat like Vonnegut just rambling about random things, from his two wives to his children and his work, and then little stories he’s heard here and there (like the Robert Fulghum stories) - and then, interspersed, what happened when the timequake hit.

The approach almost reminded me of Borges’ reviews and examinations of imaginary books. Implicit in Borges’ approach is that the books themselves aren’t as interesting as our reaction to them, and their place in the larger scheme of things. Implicit in Timequake is the assumption that all the wierdness did happen, there’s no real reason to explain it further, and we might as well just get on with it. Wonderfully done.

It helps that Vonnegut is extremely quotable. The one I’m taking away from this book is Trout’s exhortations to the world at large, to get them out of the catatonia of the timequake: “You’ve been sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do.”

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