Netty still loves Kurt … the story continues …

July 3, 2011

Imagine, for a moment, that at some stage in your life – or possibly you are not even still alive; perhaps you are dead, and have been maybe for quite a few years – that you are propelled back 10 years in time (and yes, if you were dead, well, now you’re not any more. But you will be again). You are being forced to relive that 10 years of your life. But here’s the catch – you will be living those years exactly as you did the first time around, retreading the same paths, repeating the same mistakes, completely in the absence of free will and all the while knowing exactly how this thing is going to play out and not being able to do a damn thing about it.

This is the premise of Kurt Vonnegut’s final novel Timequake, published in 1997 when its author was 75 (it was followed by several collections of stories and essays before Vonnegut shuffled off this mortal coil in 2007, aged 84). I use the word “novel” in the very loosest sense of the word, despite the author’s ironic assertion in the opening pages that “all persons, living and dead, are purely coincidental”.

Timequake is basically Vonnegut’s autobiography – it’s written in the first person and the narrator’s life story mirrors Vonnegut’s own. The character widely considered Vonnegut’s alter ego, the largely unsuccessful science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout, is also front and centre throughout these pages, as the story of the timequake unfolds. So the reader has two strands here with which to play – Vonnegut’s life story weaved in between and around the real-time (or as close as you can get to real time when you’re actually going back in time) experience of the timequake, which strikes on February 13, 2001, hurtling everyone back to February 17, 1991.

A writer as unconventional as Vonnegut was never going to present his life story in any sort of conventional form, which makes Timequake all the more fitting as his definitive epitaph. His family story and his own life makes for a fascinating biography, while it makes perfect sense that he would be looking back at that stage of his life, in his mid-70s. And I imagine that despite one’s best intentions, that one’s impending demise would be a major preoccupation for anyone who gets to their 70s, 80s and beyond that.

Vonnegut’s youngest daughter Lily (he fathered three children and adopted four, including three of his sister’s children after her and her husband’s early deaths, from cancer and a freak rail accident, respectively), from his third marriage, was a young teenager with a septuagenarian dad when Timequake was written (he even muses at one point about still being alive in 2010, aged 88 – “98 if you count the rerun” – his beloved daughter aged 28). The epilogue deals with the death of Vonnegut’s older brother Bernard, from cancer at the age of 82, cutting the final link to his familial past. So Vonnegut looks back, but also looks – and projects – forward. Personally, I couldn’t think of much worse than having to rerun 1991-2001 (or any other period, for that matter). But then, I am not 75, with the sands in the hourglass fast dwindling.

Meanwhile Kilgore Trout – who will die later in 2001, after the timequake, aged 84, having been feted at a clambake, by, amongst others, Vonnegut, at the Xanadu writers’ retreat where he resides in luxury in the Ernest Hemingway Suite – is less than thrilled about being forced to relive the last 10 years of his life (“being alive is a crock of shit”, he says at one point). Of course, Trout is Vonnegut, and Vonnegut is Trout; Vonnegut chooses life, Trout is really not that fussed, actually (incidentally, both Vonnegut and Trout despise semi-colons – “transvestite hermaphrodites”, Vonnegut calls them. I have used three in this blog). But then, it is the old, curmudgeonly hobo Trout who saves countless lives at the end of the timequake – whilst the survivors struggle with the return of their free will, it is Trout who frees them from their life-threatening stupor, telling them “you were sick, but now you’re well, and there’s work to do”.

So, at the end of the day, yes, Timequake is the closest thing we will ever get to a (reasonably) straightforward Vonnegut memoir (bearing in mind that autobiographical elements feature heavily throughout all his work; also, two biographies are due out at the end of this year). But it’s also a hepped-up, whacked-out, cultish sci-fi that manages to be both momentous and mind-boggling, sometimes sensitive and sobering, but always a helluva lot of fun.

And what to ultimately take out of this tome, with its meandering mediations on life and death and everything in between? Well, for me, it’s summed up nicely at the end of chapter 57 (don’t be fooled by the seeming abundance of chapters – most are only a couple of pages long), by Vonnegut, in his guise as his mid-70s self: “Listen. We are here on earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different!”

Well, who am I to argue with that?

PS: Before I wrote this blog entry, I went back into the annals of Andy and Netty’s Reading Challenge 2008, just to familiarise myself with what myself (and Andy) had to say about Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, our first foray into the great man’s canon. Whilst waxing lyrical about that book, here is what I noted at the time, and I quote: “I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read any Vonnegut. I’ve actually got Timequake on one of my bookshelves somewhere – just never got around to it. I’ll certainly be prioritising it now, though.” That was July 2008. It is now July 2011. Ahem.

PPS: I bought my copy of Timequake around 1998, or ’99, knowing the author’s name but not having read any of his work, and it languished untouched until my then-BF picked it up a couple of years later. He read it and liked it – so much that he reread it shortly thereafter. And on a train trip home from work one day, while rereading Timequake, some chick tried to pick him up with this opening gambit: “Oh, you’re reading Vonnegut? I just love that book.” Nothing came of that particular encounter (well, he was with me, after all), but no doubt it would have made a good “how-we-met” story. I think Kurt would have approved – hell, it might have even made its way into one of his yarns. With Kilgore Trout sitting in the opposite seat on that train …

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