- Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut
Cape, 219 pp, £15.99, October 1997, ISBN 0 224 03640 8
Kurt Vonnegut’s latest book, and, according to its author, his last, is almost impossible to appreciate without extensive knowledge of his previous work. As far as I can tell, this is deliberate and it can be considered a flaw or a virtue depending on one’s view of writing in general and Kurt Vonnegut in particular. But one thing is clear: if you’re not familiar with the characters who have populated Vonnegut’s writing since, say, 1965 – including Vonnegut himself and his fictional alter ego Kilgore Trout – Timequake will seem to be nothing more than a few salvaged fragments from an abandoned project glued together with autobiographical sketches and aphorisms. Timequake One, as Vonnegut calls the original book, seems to have started out as just another Vonnegut novel, but Timequake Two, as he calls the finished product, has been reconceived as the legend to the Vonnegut map, less a final act than a curtain call, a thin rubber band holding together the braided but distinct strands of a 45-year career and a 75-year life.
In a pair of recent articles in the New York Observer, headed ‘Twilight of the Great Literary Beasts’, Sven Birkerts and David Foster Wallace lament the decline in quality of the work produced by America’s greatest living straight white male novelists, citing Bellow, Mailer, Roth and Updike. Neither mentions Kurt Vonnegut, even though Wallace goes so far as to call the trio of Roth, Mailer and Updike ‘the great narcissists’, a title to which Vonnegut has a far better claim. What Bellow and the narcissists have is a host of prizes, which Vonnegut certainly can’t claim – a Nobel and a trophy case full of National Book Awards and Pulitzers – but Vonnegut has one thing they don’t: a cult following.
In the extended family of American writers Vonnegut is the crazy uncle, the old codger full of wit and wisdom and more than a little bullshit. Take the Prologue to Timequake: ‘I have pretended in this book I will still be alive for the clambake in 2001. In Chapter 46, I imagine myself as still alive in 2010. Sometimes I say I’m in 1996, where I really am, and sometimes I say I am in the midst of a rerun following a timequake, without making clear distinctions between the two situations. I must be nuts.’ Forget the last sentence: that’s just Vonnegut trying to throw us off the trail. The key word here is ‘pretend’. Pretending is something children do: writers create, or invent, or forment; at the very least, they imagine. Vonnegut’s use of the children’s ‘nuts’ is characteristic of the regressive urge that informs all his work: more important, it is a pointed reference to the infantilised position he finds himself in as the titular object of the Cult of Vonnegut.
Cult status is a trap. In Vonnegut’s case, a very lucrative one. He’s sold millions of books, but what he’s been denied is legitimacy, or, more to the point, influence. Cult writers almost always have a political or social or aesthetic agenda – this agenda being what keeps them out of the mainstream – and Vonnegut’s pet peeves aren’t hard to find. He’s railed against violence in general and war in particular, against the way technology has reduced the ability of human beings to find meaningful work, against our treatment of the young, the elderly, the poor and the otherwise ‘useless’ members of society, against greed, against television, against semi-colons (he says they don’t mean anything), and against the lionising of literary figures – both writers and their creations. Fans and critics have long noted and praised his opinions (praise which seems always to include the phrase ‘Vintage Vonnegut!’), and ignored him. It’s not that the fans don’t believe what he has to say. They just don’t seem to care.