As a novel, Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake registers pretty low on the Richter scale, or the Vonnegut scale, or even the bathroom scale (a thin 219 pages). But then, it’s not a novel. It’s the obituary of a novel, or maybe the dismembered corpse. As he explains in a prologue, Vonnegut found himself in early 1996 ”the creator of a novel which did not work, which had no point…. Let us think of it as Timequake One. And let us think of this one, a stew made from its best parts mixed with thoughts and experiences during the past seven months or so, as Timequake Two.”
And let us try not to think what the worst parts were like. The timequake occurs in 2001, when the universe hiccups and it’s suddenly 1991 again. Everyone has to live through the 10 recycled years exactly as before, aware that they’re doing it all over again. It’s life as one long deja vu. But when 2001 returns, all hell breaks loose. People have forgotten how to exercise free will. Cars go unsteered. Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s cranky, derelict alter ego, saves the day. He tells an immobile security guard: ”You were sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do.” This becomes a mantra that jump-starts everybody out of their state of inertia.
First problem: The idea of repeat performances of time’s ironclad script has already been kicked around by other writers, starting with Nietzsche, to greater philosophical or fictional effect. Second problem: Regular Vonnegut readers will be struck by the same sense of deja vu the author is satirizing — there’s a feeling that we’ve read this before. For instance, in one of the sci-fi fables that Trout’s been depositing in a Manhattan trash can, there’s a trio of sisters (with the last name of B-36) on a planet called Booboo — a writer, a painter, and a bad apple. The bad one catches a nasty case of scientific method from some local lunatics and goes on to invent TV, ”which made imaginations redundant,” and along with cars, computers, and automatic weapons rendered the formerly happy and imaginative ”Booboolings” stupid and merciless. A satirical elegy to lost imagination is a good idea, but this one illustrates its own point.
Vonnegut’s best work has coupled indignation and resignation, radiating serene disgust and gloomy levity. But in this book he strikes the right note only in those ”thoughts and experiences.” He ponders his sister’s short life, Hemingway, Lincoln, friends, coincidences, and civilization’s second unsuccessful attempt to commit suicide, World War II. He delivers droll aphorisms: ”There is no way a beautiful woman can live up to the way she looks like for any appreciable amount of time…. They say the first thing to go when you’re old is your legs or your eyesight. It isn’t true. The first thing to go is parallel parking.” He offers his nominations for the three greatest movies of all time (My Life as a Dog, All About Eve, Casablanca). He savors multiethnic Manhattan while out buying an envelope. Timequake is a wry, pensive memoir trapped beneath the debris of a misbegotten novel. Its author’s unaffected wanderings and mutterings do make it worth reading, but not over the course of time — or in the event of a timequake — worth reading twice. C+