Friday, February 12, 2010

Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut

Timequake is a fascinating novel. Indeed, it is essentially an anti-novel, in that Vonnegut’s usually cavalier approach to the traditional elements of fiction – narrative, character etc – is even more pronounced than ever. Vonnegut establishes his plot – that a timequake affects the fabric of time causing the whole world to be shunted ten years into the past, so that for the ensuing decade time repeats itself exactly – but then, rather than exploring the implications of that through a straightforward narrative, he riffs on the writing of the first draft of the novel, the things that happened in it, why it failed as a literary endeavour and how this version isn’t much better, all the time regaling us with autobiographical snippets and humanistic musings, while his alter-ego Kilgore Trout offers sage (and not-so-sage) advice from the sidelines. It’s very Vonnegutian. If you didn’t know Vonnegut’s work you would conclude that it is a. demented; b. appalling; c. lazy; d. unfinished; or e. all of these. If you do know Vonnegut’s work you will realise that it is x. smart, humane and clever; y. richly textured; and z. precisely because he does not dwell on the implications of the timequake that he manages to make those implications feel that much more real.

Valerie Sayers calls Vonnegut a word cartoonist and I like that description. It sums him up perfectly. There is a simplistic beauty to his writing but, as with the best cartoons, the two-dimensionality artfully conceals depths and barbs for the unwary. In this novel, Vonnegut describes a timequake as a ‘sudden glitch in the space-time continuum’, the result of which is that ‘everybody and everything do exactly what they'd done during a past decade, for good or ill, a second time. It was deja vu that wouldn't quit for ten long years.’ Imagine that. Imagine the foreknowledge that comes with that – the car crash you are going to re-live, the death of a loved one you will have to re-endure, the stupid mistakes made again, the lost opportunities re-lost, the impotence, the driving, nihilistic sense of fate, damned fate, dogging your every step, attending your every waking moment, pre-destining your every simple thought or act or hope or fear. The prospect is simply terrifying.

After ten years of this the world becomes accustomed to it. Post-Timequake Apathy, or PTA becomes endemic. In Kilgore Trout’s words, people ‘stopped giving a shit what was going on, or what was liable to happen next.’ In the repeat world of the timequake, ‘the hiccuping Universe, not humanity, was responsible for any and all fatalities. People might look as though they were steering something, but they weren’t really steering. They couldn’t steer.’

Thus, when the ten year timequake has cycled back to the beginning and free will once more intrudes, there is chaos. People, unaccustomed to making any choices for themselves, fail to control their motor reflexes. They fall over, become helpless. There are ‘planes aloft on automatic pilot. Their crews and passengers, still gaga with untreated PTA, couldn’t care doodley what would happen when the fuel ran out. In ten minutes, or maybe an hour, or maybe three hours or whatever, their heavier-than-air-craft, often six miles up, would cash in the chips, would buy the farm, for all aboard.’ On the ground, civilisation crashes around a dishevelled and demotivated humanity. Only Kilgore Trout is unaffected. He offers the rallying cry: "You were sick, now you're better, there's work to be done." And thus we have the humanist heart which beats on through the pessimism of the story, offering that glimmer of hope at the end. Vonnegut may have been a pessimist – with what he saw in his life it is hard to imagine him otherwise – but it is a curious, uplifting sort of pessimism, a mood that transcends – in the humanist, not religious sense of the word – any short-term afflictions of doom: pessimistic, yes, but it’s humanity we’re talking about, and so, as Vonnegut puts it, ‘We serve as well as we can the highest abstraction of which we have some understanding, which is our community.’ And what an anthem for humanism that is.

That, though, is only a part of Timequake. Vonnegut himself described it as a ‘stew’. The matters of plot I have described, which Vonnegut suggests were explored fully (but badly) in the abortive first draft of the novel, Timequake One, are here referred to almost in passing, alongside Vonnegut’s reminiscences and observations, some of which are presumably autobiographical, some based on truth and some invented. In this way fact and fiction are melded, stewed, in that uncomfortable manner which is increasingly prevailing in modern life. Each of the stories and reminiscences deals with loss or disappointment or depression. Suicide features heavily. So does the constant feeling that we are not – cannot be – in charge of our own destinies. This, of course, mirrors the narrative of the failed Timequake One, giving a cohesion to what appears at first to be an artless jumble. Only a master craftsman could pull the strands together so well, and Vonnegut is certainly that.

This might sound as though the novel must be relentlessly downbeat but it isn’t. Vonnegut is also a master of humour, and he leavens this serious material with his trademark wisecracks and witticisms and homespun utterances, while the preponderance of exclamation marks identifies a high degree of irony at work and the liberal use of white space helps the novel to zip along at a furious pace.

And all of this, this ironic and formless ‘stew’, has a serious intent. Vonnegut understands tragedy and here, as always, he wrestles with the idea of free will, with the notion of the ordinary man in a callous world. There is something fitting that Vonnegut’s birthday was November 11, Armistice Day, that day set aside for the celebration of life and the remembrance of death and what has been wrought by man in the name of some mystifyingly misguided sense of progress. In Timequake, Vonnegut personalises this to devastating effect – the early death of his sister, the suicide of his mother – and at the same time uses the conceit of the timequake to depict a world at odds with itself and its own humanity.

Kurt Vonnegut: he's up in Heaven now.

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