Vonnegut: "Timequake"

"Timequake;" By Kurt Vonnegut; Putnam; 219 pp.

Time to Go

By David Abel  |  The Palm Beach Post  |  12/21/1997

It's with a peculiar pleasure, one that maybe only Kurt Vonnegut, with his cross-eyed wisdom, might appreciate, that I trash what one of my favorite writers describes as his last book.

I feel like an unknown featherweight angling for a potshot at the heavyweight champ who should've hung up the gloves a while back.

Vonnegut's smart enough to recognize that, and he admits as much in the preface, describing his first unsuccessful go-around with Timequake. Yet, boxers have a luxury writers don't: It's much easier to see the effects of blubber, loss of agility or bone-weakening in the ring. Counting lights from your back usually serves as a helpful hint.

Vonnegut, for 45 years a scatter-brained yet trenchant emblem of sanity in an insane world, here gives us less a novel and more of an obituary. It's an open-casket funeral. You don't want to see the body, but you have no choice.

"Johannes Brahms quit composing symphonies when he was 55. Enough!" he warns in the prologue. "My architect father was sick and tired of architecture when he was 55. Enough! American male novelists have done their best work by then. Enough! Fifty-five is a long time ago for me now. Have pity!"

The striking thing about Timequake is that it's a real-life rerun of one of Vonnegut's previous novels: Slapstick, which was written about 20 years ago.

Slapstick is about Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, a "terribly old man" and former president of the United States, who, barefoot and in a purple toga made from hotel draperies, writes his autobiography in the backseat of a taxicab inside the remains of the Empire State Building.

In the Prologue, Vonnegut says Slapstick was his experiment with being old. Timequake, with its less wry and more direct carping, its resume of dead friends and family, and its somewhat unintentional blurring of fact and fiction, is Vonnegut being old.

Example: In Slapstick, Wilbur Daffodil explains with topsy-turvy lucidity how he was elected president by creating extended families so no one felt alone in the world. In Timequake, he out-and-out pleads for making extended families one of several Constitutional amendments. No joke.

Well maybe it's a joke, but it hits too close to home. The bemoaning's not exasperated, or true to Vonnegut's giddy nihilism: "So we have in this summer of 1996 ... faithless custodians of capital making themselves multimillionaires and multibillionaires, while playing beanbag with money better spent on creating meaningful jobs and training people to fill them, and raising our young and retiring our old in surroundings of respect and safety. For Christ's sake, let's help more of our frightened people get through this thing, whatever it is."

There's a cast of morbid caricatures, the ritual pouncing on technology and its killing machines, and a host of unsparing assaults on everyone from Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov to Jesus Christ.

And while Timequake jiggers conventional literature, with its chronological plots, three-dimensional characters and use of semicolons (which Vonnegut says make as much sense as a "transvestite hermaphrodite"), the story never blossoms into much of anything.

The story line, punctuated as usual with essays, autobiography and spontaneous digressions, is about a sudden contraction of the universe on Feb. 13, 2001. We all go back to Feb. 17, 1991, re-living everything we did in the past decade.

Kilgore Trout saves the day by waking the masses from their somnambulence with his slogan, "You were sick, but now you're well again, and there's work to do." And some details are reconciled at a final clambake featuring Vonnegut heroes like Laurel and Hardy.

But the story's a skeleton without flesh, like the ravaged marlin of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, as Vonnegut characterizes his first attempt to write Timequake.Yes, there is a message: awareness. It stuffs up our minds no matter how short the blip of time. It's what makes us human and, maybe, the only worthy goal in life. Wake up! is the novel's mantra.

Whatever the shortcomings this lightweight finds in his champ's last hurrah, Vonnegut still stencils his signature in all his sentences. And for that, Timequake is worth the read.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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