SCIENCE FICTION BOOK REVIEW: "Timequake" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1997)

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I’ve resisted reading this book for a long time. I’m not entirely sure why.

I first became aware of Kurt Vonnegut, by extension anyway, in 1977 or 1978. Star Wars was out, it was insanely popular, and as an aftermarket bonus, Science Fiction in general was insanely popular. As it was easier to produce books about SF than to actually write it, a whole slew of lavishly-illustrated books with titles like ‘The Road to Science Fiction’ and ‘Science Fiction Film History’ and ‘Speculative Cinematic Fiction’ and so on, all of which were pretty much just collections of stills from various movies, with just enough text to pad out the book to 100 pages. As SF was ‘kids stuff’ in those days, well-meaning parents with vague memories of Flash Gordon and Rocky Jones: Space Ranger simply bought these books for their kids without perusing them first. After all, SF is, what again? Monster movies and guys with swords and helmets that look like art deco gas pumps? Nothing bad there.

My parents, of course, did look at the books first, so I never got any. But at the Christian School I went to, my friends and I were scandalized by, but inexplicably compelled to look at pictures from A Clockwork Orange and Slaughterhouse Five, among others. This was undoubtedly my first exposure, third-hand though it was, to Vonnegut – sneaking peeks at nekked pictures of the beautiful Valerie Perrine in the lame movie version of Slaughterhouse.

None of us had any idea what the movie was about. Certainly the text never made it clear. The text never adequately explained what any of the movies were about, really, not in any of the books. My best friend at the time, said that it would probably make sense if you saw the movie. Yeah, but I’d seen Strangelove already, and it made no sense to me.

But I digress…

We all assumed based on our scant and incoherent knowledge of such things, we all assumed that Slaughterhouse Five must be a bad movie, undoubtedly based on a bad book by a bad author who was, undoubtedly a very bad man. Putting naked beautiful women in movies, why, who would do such a thing? The scandal to my virgin eyes! Yikes.

I remember Kurt’s name coming up from time to time, with no particular context aside from the vague unfavorable opinion of him. As a freshman in high school, I read “Harrison Bergeron” as homework during Gym, desperately trying to appear busy in the bleachers so as to avoid playing basketball. The gym coach, like all gym coaches, was a brutal little man with many issues, of which kids who read Vonnegut in the stands was just one. I got slammed square in the face with a basketball and ended up having to have two teeth filed down. I have many negative early associations with Kurt. For instance, I remember reading a magazine essay in which he babbled about how New York City was “Skyscraper National Park” in the waiting room of my dermatologist just prior to a particularly grueling session of leaching.

In fact, I never heard anyone say anything good about the guy until Kevin Bacon said “Slaughterhouse Five is a great book!” in the movie “Footloose,” for Pete’s sake.

Curiously, I made it more than halfway through college before I ever read him. Prominent living American author of the 20th century he may be, but he was not required reading at my state university in the 1980s. The closest I ever came to reading him during my 3 years there was a review in the school newspaper, which started out, “Someone should contact Mr. Vonnegut’s psychiatrist and inform him that their patient is very depressed again.”

It was my junior year girlfriend who actually turned me on to the guy. It was summer, and I was visiting her. She was a lit major, if I recall correctly (And I very well may not), and had pointed out authors that I had really liked before. Tom Robbins, for instance. She took me a bookstore and forced me to grudgingly buy Slaughterhouse Five and Mother Night. I was completely amazed by Slaughterhouse – it was rude, it was funny as hell, and it was very interesting, despite my assertion that the author fails to accomplish what he said he was trying to do at the outset. But failed experiments are often more interesting than successful ones.

Shortly thereafter I was on a grueling, semi-insane road trip with my parents. It was one of those nauseatingly arduous introspective Conrad-esque journeys where every mile traveled geographically is mirrored by an equally awful journey inside oneself. An awful, awful, trip up the river into the heart of darkness which, if anyone’s interested, lies in a small college in Appalachia. I don’t think I’ve fully recovered from the trip to this day, but, to be honest, I haven’t tried very hard.

My only comfort during this travail was my copy of Mother Night, which I still think is Vonnegut’s best. I love it with the insane passion born of adversity, with the camaraderie of the fox hole, the brotherhood of those with the same affliction. I love it so much that I have read it only once, and will never read it again for fear that it won’t hold up, thus robbing me of…well, something, I don’t know quite what.

Anyway: There began a period of giddy excitement as I hungrily read up all of Kurt’s vintage novels back to back to back, a kind of literary love affair that I’ve only know one other time, in the mid-80s, when I went crazy for anything by Philip K. Dick. Stage one of my Vonnegutaphilia culminated on a couch in the lobby of my old dorm, which smelled of very old ashes, sweaty feet, and nine decades of stale flatulence, while MTV was on the tv, and some dumb Hoosiers talked loudly about basketball. There, the hairs on my neck stood on end when I read the line, ‘Oh happy day, oh happy soul, oh happy, happy Rabo Karabeckian!’ It is the only happy ending in any of Kurt’s books, and I felt the world born anew. I felt magical and full of promise. I felt, for a moment, better than myself.

If only for a moment.

Truth be told, I don’t recall a lot of the specifics of the books. Kurt’s novels tend to overlap quite a bit, re-using the same locals and characters, and sometimes even bits of the same plots. It all glooped together in my head as one big, dark comedy with a surprisingly happy ending.

The second wave happened during my first year and a half after college. I was less enthralled. I still lapped up most of Kurt’s second-string work, though. I never quite made it through “God Bless you, Mrs. Rosewater”. The whole thing was a bit frustrating, like getting back together with an old girlfriend after a year or two broken up. Sure there’s some interest there, mostly residual, there’s an attraction, there’s some history, but there’s also a lot of unspoken fears as well – ‘would I be putting up with this crap if it wasn’t you doing it?’ And if so, why should I put up with it just because it is you? And am I in this relationship for a reason, or simply because I don’t wanna’ be alone? That kind of thing. Things cooled. I quietly moved out in November of ’91.

Kurt’s writing and I bumped into each other again quite unexpectedly at a party in the mid-90s. It was awkward, as we were both there with other people. Kind of exciting and naughty, though. We got along well, and tried to hide our obvious attraction from our significant others. We arranged to meet over lunch a couple times that week, and had our fling. It was surprisingly good, but only because we both knew it was a fling. No real poignancy, just get in there, have a couple laughs talking about sex and what a gas World War II was, and then move on. I remember smiling as I closed the cover of Hocus Pocus in a pizza place near my office, and thinking that was the frothy end of it all.

So imagine my surprise when some years later, I’m told that Kurt wrote another book. I had misgivings, of course. A lot of time had passed, I was a different person, and though the fling was nice, it was, after all, just a fling. It was obvious to everyone that the Kurt’s writing had long since passed the peak of the bell curve. So I put it off and put it off for five years. Why? I don’t know. Probably for the same reason that I’ll never re-read Mother Night: the fear that doing so would rob me of some memory or feeling that is important to me.

“Timequake” was announced as Vonnegut’s final novel, and many people wondered ‘why?’ After all, even a lame Ringo Starr album is better than no Beatles at all, so why not milk it a little? It is my opinion that the only reason Kurt released this train wreck of a “novel” at all was to prove that he really shouldn’t be writing anymore.

Certainly the book itself gives us plenty of reason to believe that. In the forward, Kurt tells us that this book is actually “Timequake 2.” Timequake 1, he says, was a massive, sprawling mess of a manuscript that refused to be manhandled into book form. He claims to have wrestled with it for about a decade, thus making it at least somewhat contemporary with Hocus Pocus, and, indeed, there is some evidence of a typical Vonnegutian spillover of ideas here and there. For instance, in Hocus Pocus, we have a general breakdown of civil order in some regions of the country, and in Timequake, we’re told that Columbia University is now controlled by a gang of warlords.

Kurt tells us that Timequake (2) is actually just a flensing of the good bits of Timequake 1, lashed together in some semblance of order. He quotes from his manuscript, he talks about the manuscript, he tells us things that were thrown out of the manuscript, he mentions other books, he rambles on about plays and movies, and basically just sits around chatting amiably. He does so much of this that I was perhaps 30 pages into Timequake when I realized the book hadn’t really started yet. Of course, Vonnegut has always been self-referential and fond of taking long, rambling asides. This book is the logical conclusion of that trend, the book itself is one long aside, and the plot is the diversion. In the hands of a younger, defter Kurt, perhaps that would have worked, or at least been interesting. Hell, style over substance is at least tolerable if there is any real style to it. In this case, there is not.

Kurt tells us, repeatedly, that he couldn’t write the novel, and that this book is really just a sort of ‘sample’ of it. Later on he tells us that most American male writers have done their best work by age 50, and he’s 25 years beyond that. The latter third of the book follows Kurt essentially ‘farting around’ for a day (As he puts it) to no real purpose. In fact, the book resembles nothing so much as a listening to an senescent old man doddering about nothing in particular. He says some funny things, he makes some old points, and he’s not without some engaging charm, but he basically just rambles without any real structure. In fact, he’s so reluctant to come back to the haiku-length story at all that it’s pretty obvious he’s tired of it. If he’d really been wrestling with it for a decade, I can certainly understand his reticence, but, really, if he doesn’t care, then why the hell should we?

The plot, such as there is, is some elephant dung about time reversing itself, thus forcing everyone to relive the last ten years of their lives exactly as they did the first time through. This is uncharacteristically big for a Vonnegut plot, and predictably he can’t quite seem to wrap his brain around it. Most of the “Rerun” as he calls it takes place offscreen. We see the beginning of it, and the end just in glimpses. Then we see the world go all crazy for a bit afterwards, when free will kicks in again, and no one’s quite prepared for it. There’s some stuff with a Bazooka that doesn’t quite play out. All this is pretty derivative, done in one form or another by a number of SF authors. But all this is just MacGuffin, the absolute thinnest justification for the last scene in the book: a Clambake in New England.

Kurt’s longsuffering alter-ego, Kilgore Trout, finally gets some recognition. He’s an old man now, just like Kurt. He’s compulsively writing stuff and throwing it out, just as Kurt did with the first draft of Timequake. He emerges as a hero for the flimsiest of reasons as a result of the Timequake, and is venerated as the guest of honor at the Clambake. There, finally, he is feted and worshiped as the crazy-ass genius he is. And after his shining moment of recognition, he goes to bed and dies happy.
The end, more or less.

The point of the book is to give Trout the happy ending he deserves, and which Kurt probably desired for himself. In fact, that’s heady stuff. It should raise the hairs on the back of my neck just like “Bluebeard” did, but it doesn’t. It’s handled flatly, matter-of-factly, as though it’s a piece of conversation you overhear in the checkout line of a grocery store, and nothing more.

There are rumors that Kurt was ‘helped’ with this book by some anonymous co-author, and I don’t have any problems believing that. It is a lifeless thing, full of spastic, but not terribly funny or heartfelt rants about the need for extended families, or how computers are bad, and how standing in lines for stamps is good. It is the period at the end of the sentence of Kurt’s career. Granted, that had to happen, but couldn’t it have been an exclamation point instead? I mean, there was no physical reason Kurt couldn’t have continue to write, other than his self-proclaimed writers block, which I interpret as more apathy than anything else. So the guy’s got what, ten, twelve years of people saying, “Hey, Kurt, writing anything new?” No, I retired. “Really, why?” And instead of explaining that he simply lost the love of writing to total strangers three times a day for the next five thousand, four hundred and seventy-eight days, he can simply point to this book. Anyone who reads it will agree that, yes, it is probably best that you stop now.

So in the end, as I suspected, it’s a disappointing farewell. But, really, I think that was the point.