Kurt Vonnegut's 'Timequake': the final novel?

September 21, 1997|By Alane Mason | Alane Mason,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Timequake," by Kurt Vonnegut. G.P. Putnam's Sons. 240 pages. $23.95. In 1969, at the height of Vietnam, Kurt Vonnegut published "Slaughterhouse Five," an irreverent, absurdist anti-war novel based on his experiences during the bombing of Dresden in World War II. He immediately became a guru, and is now dTC celebrated by dozens of critical works and Web sites devoted to fatherly Vonnegut photos, insiders' references to his invented jargon and his characters, links to the Chicago Tribune columnist's "graduation speech" made famous by its false attribution to Vonnegut, and breathless anticipation of his new novel.

"Timequake" is Vonnegut's 19th work of fiction, and, according to its preface, his last. It is confessedly a revision of "a novel which did not work, which had no point, which had never wanted to be written in the first place," on which he had spent 10 years of his life. In the meantime, his editor of some 20 years, a publishing legend named Seymour Lawrence, had died.

So had Vonnegut's first wife - the book's most touching lines are about their last conversation, just before her death - and his best friend and war buddy, Bernard O'Hare. His brother was diagnosed with cancer, dying just in time to be memorialized in the book's epilogue. Vonnegut himself had turned 73, already older than his father when he died, then 74; he ticks off his birthdays incredulously. At his book's end, his alter-ego, Kilgore Trout, is dying too.

The "timequake" takes place in 2001 and zaps everyone back to 1991, condemning them to relive the next 10 years exactly as they did before. The return of free will, when the timequake is over, causes some confusion and a new syndrome, PTA, post-timequake apathy.

Kilgore Trout dips in and out of the book, throws his stories in a trash receptacle outside the American Academy of Arts and Letters, shoots up some car alarms with a bazooka and speaks for Vonnegut in oracular manner with the mixture of wisecracking and sincerity for which he is known.

Even Vonnegut doesn't seem to think much of the timequake idea; or the pretense that this self-conscious "stew" of diary musings and half-baked story ideas makes a novel. It would have been more dignified to publish it as a collection of working notes, rather than "His First Full-length Work of Fiction in Seven Years" as his publisher's press release blares - without a single other word about the author or his book.

One thing is clear: "Timequake" is obsessed with time - not the freak motion of it, a contrivance which even the author can't convince himself constitutes a plot - but its natural motion, disorienting enough, which has swept behind him family, friends, stories written and unwritten, a safe-seeming middle- class world he once knew, speeches he gave, his mother's suicide, his sister's early death from cancer, all leaving him sticking out like the last turret of a sandcastle.

Too bad it's such a terrible novel, seeming the work of a depressed man trying still to caper while he juggles wisecracks, references to his early work, silly generalizations, acid comments on human crumminess, greed, artistic pretension and so on, but he gets tired and drops the balls; his heart isn't in it. It's hard to blame him. Just don't let me have to read this book again when the timequake strikes.

Alane Mason is an editor at W.W. Norton. She is a contributer to Commonweal and has an essay forthcoming in "Beyond the Godfather," an anthology of writing by and about Italian-Americans to be published this fall.

Pub Date: 9/21/97

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