Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut; Berkley Books, New York, 1998
Kurt Vonnegut, who was born in 1922 and died in 2007, is perhaps best known for The Sirens of Titan (1959), Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), and Breakfast of Champions (1973). Timequake, published in 1997, was his final novel. Well, not a novel, exactly; more like a farrago of fiction, philosophy, and autobiography. To convey a clear sense of what this book is about, I can do no better – indeed, not nearly as well – than to quote Vonnegut’s prologue to Timequake in its entirety. Here it is:
Ernest Hemingway in 1952 published in Life magazine a long short story called The Old Man and the Sea. It was about a Cuban fisherman who hadn’t caught anything for eighty-four days. The Cuban hooked an enormous marlin. He killed it and lashed it alongside his little boat. Before he could get it to shore, though, sharks bit off all the meat on the skeleton.
I was living in Barnstable Village on Cape Cod when the story appeared. I asked a neighboring commercial fisherman what he thought of it. He said the hero was an idiot. He should have hacked off the best chunks of meat and put them in the bottom of the boat, and left the rest of the carcass for the sharks.
It could be that the sharks Hemingway had in mind were critics who hadn’t much liked his first novel in ten years, Across the River and into the Trees, published two years earlier. As far as I know, he never said so. But the marlin could have been that novel.
And then I found myself in the winter of 1996 the creator of a novel which did not work, which had no point, which had never wanted to be written in the first place. Merde! I had spent nearly a decade on that ungrateful fish, if you will. It wasn’t even fit for shark chum.
I had recently turned seventy-three. My mother made it to fifty-two, my father to seventy-two. Hemingway almost made it to sixty-two. I had lived too long! What was I to do?
Answer: Fillet the fish. Throw the rest away.
This I did in the summer and autumn of 1996. Yesterday, November 11th of that year, I turned seventy-four. Seventy-four!
Johannes Brahms quit composing symphonies when he was fifty-five. Enough! My architect father was sick and tired of architecture when he was fifty-five. Enough! American male novelists have done their best work by then. Enough! Fifty-five is a long time ago for me now. Have pity!
My great big fish, which stunk so, was entitled Timequake. Let us think of it as Timequake One. And let us think of this one, a stew made from its best parts mixed with thoughts and experiences during the past seven months or so, as Timequake Two.
The premise of Timequake One was that a timequake, a sudden glitch in the space-time continuum, made everybody and everything do exactly what they’d done during a past decade, for good or ill, a second time. It was déjà vu that wouldn’t quit for ten long years. You couldn’t complain about life’s being nothing but old stuff, or ask if just you were going nuts or if everybody was going nuts.
There was absolutely nothing you could say during the rerun, if you hadn’t said it the first time through the decade. You couldn’t even save your own life or that of a loved one, if you had failed to do that the first time through.
I had the timequake zap everybody and everything in an instant from February 13th, 2001, back to February 17th, 1991. Then we all had to get back to 2001 the hard way, minute by minute, hour by hour, year by year, betting on the wrong horse again, marrying the wrong person again, getting the clap again. You name it!
Only when people got back to when the timequake hit did they stop being robots of their pasts. As the old science fiction writer Kilgore Trout said, “Only when free will kicked in again could they stop running obstacle courses of their own construction.”
Trout doesn’t really exist. He has been my alter ego in several of my other novels. But most of what I have chosen to preserve from Timequake One has to do with his adventures and opinions. I have salvaged a few of the thousands of stories he wrote between 1931, when he was fourteen, and 2001, when he died at the age of eighty-four. A hobo for much of his life, he died in luxury in the Ernest Hemingway Suite of the writers’ retreat Xanadu in the summer resort village of Point Zion, Rhode Island. That’s nice to know.
His very first story, he told me as he was dying, was set in Camelot, the court of King Arthur in Britain: Merlin the Court Magician casts a spell that allows him to equip the Knights of the Round Table with Thompson submachine guns and drums of .45-caliber dumdums.
Sir Galahad, the purest in heart and mind, familiarizes himself with this new virtue-compelling appliance. While doing so, he puts a slug through the Holy Grail and makes a Swiss cheese of Queen Guinevere.
Here is what Trout said when he realized that the ten-year rerun was over, that he and everybody else were suddenly obligated to think of new stuff to do, to be creative again: “Oh, Lordy! I am much too old and experienced to start playing Russian roulette with free will again.”
Yes, and I myself was a character in Timequake One, making a cameo appearance at a clambake on the beach at the writers’ retreat Xanadu in the summer of 2001, six months after the end of the rerun, six months after free will kicked in again.
I was there with several fictitious persons from the book, including Kilgore Trout. I was privileged to hear the old, long-out-of-print science fiction writer describe for us, and then demonstrate, the special place of Earthlings in the cosmic scheme of things.
So now my last book is done, with the exception of this preface. Today is November 12th, 1996, about nine months, I would guess, from its publication date, from its emergence from the birth canal of a printing press. There is no rush. The gestation period for a baby Indian elephant is more than twice that long.
The gestation period for a baby opossum, friends and neighbors, is twelve days.
I have pretended in this book that I will still be alive for the clam-bake in 2001. In chapter 46, I imagine myself as still alive in 2010. Sometimes I say I’m in 1996, where I really am, and sometimes I say I am in the midst of a rerun following a timequake, without making clear distinctions between the two situations.
I must be nuts.
So, why open this nutty book in the first place? First, while Vonnegut is always entertaining, Timequake is laugh-out-loud funny in more places than just about any other book I can think of. Here is one example:
A boyhood friend of mine, William H. C. “Skip” Failey, who died four months ago and is up in Heaven now, had good reason when a high school sophomore to think of himself as unbeatable at Ping-Pong. I am no slouch at Ping-Pong myself, but I wouldn’t play against Skip. He put so much spin on his serve that no matter how I tried to return it, I already knew it would go up my nose or out the window or back to the factory, anywhere but on the table.
Second, Timequake contains a good deal of wisdom, both the folk variety and the solid gold kind, born of a lifetime of experiences both joyful and painful, processed through a questioning, intelligent mind. Listen to this:
My uncle Alex Vonnegut, a Harvard-educated life insurance salesman who lived at 5033 North Pennsylvania Street, taught me something very important. He said that when things were really going well we should be sure to notice it.
He was talking about simple occasions, not great victories: maybe drinking lemonade on a hot afternoon in the shade, or smelling the aroma of a nearby bakery, or fishing and not caring if we catch anything or not, or hearing somebody all alone playing a piano really well in the house next door.
Uncle Alex urged me to say this out loud during such epiphanies: “If this isn’t nice, what is?”
I have taught creative writing during my seventy-three years on automatic pilot, rerun or not. I did it first at the University of Iowa in 1965. After that came Harvard, and then the City College of New York. I don’t do it anymore.
I taught how to be sociable with ink on paper… Still and all, why bother? Here’s my answer: Many people need desperately to receive this message: “I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people don’t care about them. You are not alone.”
Who would not want to hear messages like that?
Third, Timequake overflows with ideas, some gently subversive or heretical, all of them thought-provoking. On page 20, for example, he writes about televisions: “… satanic devices, which made imaginations redundant. They were instantly popular because the shows were so attractive and no thinking was involved.”
And from page 22, “In the only love story [Trout] had ever attempted, ‘Kiss Me Again,’ he had written, ‘There is no way a beautiful woman can live up to what she looks like for any appreciable length of time.’ The moral at the end of that story is this: ‘Men are jerks. Women are psychotic.’”
Vonnegut apparently knew while he was writing Timequake that it would be his final novel, and from first to last, it feels like a last will and testament. In places, he seems to be writing his own literary epitaph, and wants to be absolutely clear about where he stands regarding things he considers important. One of those is kindness, references to which recur throughout Timequake. At one point, he writes:
When the City of London wanted to give [George Bernard] Shaw its Order of Merit, he thanked them for it, but said he had already given it to himself.
I would have accepted it. I would have recognized the opportunity for a world-class joke, but would never allow myself to be funny at the cost of making somebody else feel like something the cat drug in.
Let that be my epitaph.
To give another example, take this short passage about Eugene Debs:
I still quote Eugene Debs (1855-1926), late of Terre Haute, Indiana, five times the Socialist Party’s candidate for President, in every speech:
“While there is a lower class I am in it, while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
In recent years, I’ve found it prudent to say before quoting Debs that he is to be taken seriously. Otherwise many in the audience will start to laugh. They are being nice, not mean, knowing I like to be funny. But it is also a sign of these times that such a moving echo of the Sermon on the Mount can be perceived as outdated, wholly discredited horsecrap.
Which it is not.
In addition to being an epitaph, Timequake is also a leave-taking from those closest to Vonnegut: his sister Allie, his first wife Jane, and his brother Bernie. Vonnegut writes about his first wife:
Jane could believe with all hear heart anything that made being alive seem full of white magic. That was her strength. She was raised a Quaker, but stopped going to meetings of Friends after her four happy years at Swarthmore. She became an Episcopalian after marrying Adam, who remained a Jew. She died believing in the Trinity, and Heaven and Hell and all the rest of it. I’m so glad. Why? Because I loved her.
And listen to what Vonnegut says about his brother Bernie:
More news of this day in August, halfway through the rerun, as yet another autumn draws near: My big brother Bernie, the born scientist who may know more about the electrification of thunderstorms than anyone, has an invariably fatal cancer, too far advanced to be daunted by the Three Horsemen of the Oncologic Apocalypse, Surgery, Chemotherapy, and Radiation.
Bernie still feels fine.
It is much too early to talk about, but when he dies, God forbid, I don’t think his ashes should be put in Crown Hill Cemetery with James Whitcomb Riley and John Dillinger, who belonged only to Indiana. Bernie belongs to the World.
Bernie’s ashes should be scattered over the dome of a towering thunderhead.
If pressed to reveal the single most important message in Timequake, I think Vonnegut might have said that what we need to realize is that for us, today, the timequake has passed. Free will has kicked in again, and we are not prisoners or robots of our pasts anymore. Listen to what he says on page 193 of my edition:
What matters now is that, on the afternoon of February 13, 2001, Kilgore Trout roused Dudley Prince from his Post-Timequake Apathy. Trout urged him to speak, to say anything, no matter how nonsensical. Trout suggested he say, “I pledge allegiance to the flag,” or whatever, to prove to himself thereby that he was again in charge of his own destiny.
Prince spoke groggily at first. He didn’t pledge allegiance, but indicated instead that he was trying to understand everything Trout had said to him so far. He said, “You told me I had something.”
“You were sick, but now you’re well, and there’s work to do,” said Trout.
Conscious or not, this is a clear echo of Candide, in which Voltaire writes, “That’s true enough,” said Candide; “but we must go and work in the garden.”
For all his charm and wisdom, at various points in Timequake, Vonnegut falls prey to what he himself might be tempted to call “Old Fart Syndrome”, a condition in which people reflect fondly and often on an earlier time, bemoan the disappearance of certain aspects of their youth, and make unfavorable comparisons between what they see today and what they knew then. Take, for example, this passage:
In the early days of television, when there were only half a dozen channels at most, significant, well-written dramas on a cathode-ray tube could still make us feel like members of an attentive congregation, alone at home as we might be. There was a high probability back then, with so few shows to choose from, that friends and neighbors were watching the same show we were watching, still finding TV a whizbang miracle.
We might even call up a friend that very night, and ask a question to which we already knew the answer: “Did you see that? Wow!”
Perhaps Vonnegut never saw “Roots”, and of course, he wasn’t alive to watch “Downton Abbey”.
Early in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield muses, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” I feel sure that, after reading Timequake, Holden would have wanted to call Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut was that kind of guy. Holden would have agreed with me that, if sitting down with Kurt Vonnegut for an hour or two isn’t nice, what is?