Saying farewell to a beloved author is never easy. It's no easier
when a master satirist like Kurt Vonnegut bids writing adieu.
Vonnegut proclaims Timequake to be his swan song, the
last long fiction he will ever write. Vonnegut cites his age, saying
that at seventy-four he's long past his prime. He credits his literary
retirement also to the recent death of his last remaining sibling, his
older brother Bernie. "I was the baby of the family," he writes. "Now
I don't have anybody to show off for anymore."
The author of such skewed
beauties as Slaughterhouse Five and Sirens of Titan
gives the world a fitting parting gift with Timequake.
We get to spend a final book in the company of Vonnegut's alter-ego,
Kilgore Trout, and with the author himself in his own voice. Vonnegut
writes that Timequake in its original incarnation failed
to work as a novel after he had worked on it for nearly a decade. The
book in its final, published form he urges readers to think of as "a
stew made from [the original story's] best parts mixed with thoughts and
experiences during the past seven months or so." The first Timequake
(which he refers to as Timequake One) describes a rerun in time
of a decade's length, where people have to do exactly what they've done
for the past ten years a second time, aware of what is happening but
utterly incapable of doing things any differently. The real disaster of
the timequake ocurrs when it is over on February 13th, 2001, when free
will kicks in again. The population, so used to running on automatic
pilot for ten years, is slow to respond to the sudden need for purposeful
action. Free will is back, but nobody does anything with it. Planes
and automobiles crash, people fall down midstride; general chaos ensues
for a time.
Timequake is indeed the stew Vonnegut describes in the
prologue. He muses about misuses and abuses of free will the world has
seen, including the development and deployment of nuclear weapons. He
tells us of the worldviews, both cynical and optimistic, of the people
he has loved the most. He considers favorably the comforting powers of
religion, although he himself is not a religious man. He waxes nostalgic about his life as a writer,
a humanist, and a human being. What comes through most strongly in
Timequake is Vonnegut's frustration with a world that doesn't
try to make living life the best possible experience for all of its
inhabitants. His disappointment at society's failures colors the
apparently fatigued resignation with which he approaches his waning
ability to produce a satisfyingly cohesive piece of the written word.
Vonnegut's avowed final work shows the author in as intimately
personal a light as readers of his novels have every seen. It's
touching, sad, and smoldering still with his indignance at a
nonsensical world that refuses to show enough collective common sense
to make itself a better place. Timequake is an appropriate
farewell of the bitterly fond and bemusedly satiric sort, just right for
one of this century's best.