Thursday, 20 April 2017

Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut

You were sick, but now you're well
and there's work to do.
Please assume I’ve included the usual Vonnegut disclaimer here to start with. That way I can charge straight into the regulation waxing lyrical.

OR NOT.

Cue gasps of horror and disdain etc. and so on.

Well. I should probably explain. Timequake is Vonnegut’s “last” novel, published in 1997. It struggles somewhat with the fact that the main plot device, a blip in the linear nature of time which causes everyone on the planet to jump back ten years and live it all over again with no ability to affect the direction of their lives or change any decisions already made, is ostensibly that of a novel which he hasn’t been able to write to his own satisfaction. It became this novel partly because he lacked the focus and willpower to shape it into a novel in its own right, and so instead, like the many Kilgore Trout short story ideas that litter this and other novels, it is just the bones of an idea lacking the meat (which would be ‘eaten by sharks’ anyway, so he reports in a prescient statement as to its eventual critical reception) of a really excellent book.

The other drawback, in my opinion, is that most of the vignettes, the little asides about Vonnegut’s own trials and tribulations, including his trips to the shop for an envelope each time he needs to send his typewritten manuscript to his copy-editor in his own inimitably Mock-Luddite fashion, have been seen before. Lovely as it is to reminisce about his other works, notably ‘Fates Worse than Death’ in which much of the autobiographical stuff first breathed air in 1991, and to meet Trout once more at the end of his life, it’s a bit of a hash. Or a ‘stew’ as the author suggests.

Now, that’s not to say that what we have here is not full of writerly merit. He is poignant, dark, soulful, and tear-jerkingly beautiful. He makes sound political observations (he suggests a new and forward-looking amendment to the Constitution to the tune of ''Every adult who needs it shall be given meaningful work to do, at a living wage.”) and sharp social comments, and his pseudonymous alter-ego keeps coming up with the goods in terms of his short story output, many of which are summarized as examples of Vonnegut’s conclusions on the world. But the borrowing of Hemingway’s dark metaphor and the apathy of the world to the new-found self-determinism at the end of the timequake decade portend the darkening of his mood, evidence of the struggle to come to terms with the entropic nature of his creative energies. In my eyes it feels very much like the last book, and with that comes a sense of loss. This, in turn, engenders anger that it could all come to this. I’m annoyed there will be no more (notwithstanding the tranche of posthumously published work that appeared as if by magic once he had no veto on their publication).


But then maybe he’d just had enough. "You were sick, but now you're well, and there's work to do,” yells Trout in the ears of those paralysed by the availability of free will, and maybe Vonnegut’s lack of the creative imperative finally left him free to make his own choices, among them to not write. 

  

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