Last week, I was spazzing out. A lot. I’d just returned from an amazing one-year honeymoon and realized I had emails to send and errands to run and blog posts to write times like a million. The world was going to implode. But then I came home. I sat on the couch and vented at my beloved, for a very long time, until finally, we’d arrived at a solution. He would just do my homework for me.
And because I blew off my assignment, you’re very fortunate to get to read Jimmy LeChase’s brilliant take on a very complicated novel about how life feels too awful to bear sometimes, and how other times we feel stuck on autopilot, and how once in awhile, we learn to sit back and accept life for what it is.
By Jimmy LeChase
Kurt Vonnegut and I don’t have a lot in common. He was one of the greatest writers of all time. I write jokes about how awful I am. He was a secular humanist that used cynicism and sarcasm as joyous weapons. I get mad at bees. I could go on like this forever, but one thing that Mr. Vonnegut and I seem to agree on is the simple notion that time is a very silly thing that’s just as malleable and unreliable as the average human memory and that it shouldn’t play as big a part in people’s lives as it does.
What Mr. Vonnegut started with his 1969 masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five, he continues with his 1997 semi-autobiographical novel, Timequake. Without giving up too much of the ghost, Timequake plays with the idea that the concept of time is tied into the inner workings of the universe in such a way that once the universe expands to the point where it needs to contract, everything goes backwards. Even time.
The titular event of the novel sends everybody from 2001 back to the year 1991 to re-live an entire decade’s worth of experiences. The kicker -and it is a huge kicker- is that during the whole “rerun” none of the inhabitants of our planet have anything resembling free will. They are at the mercy of their own past’s. All the happy birthdays that happened are going to happen again exactly as they happened the first time. All the murders, wars and other atrocities that took place during those ten years are going to happen again exactly as they happened before.
Another author might handle this subject with a grimness that edges on dystopia, but Vonnegut never lets the bastards get the reader down. Everything that happens throughout the novel is written straightforwardly with Mr. Vonnegut’s usual sense of humor and sarcasm that borders on ephemeral joy.
“Science never cheered up anyone. The truth about the human situation is just too awful.” (Ch. 31, p. 121)
I’ve argued with people that Kurt Vonnegut is the happiest writer that ever lived, because when I read sentences like the one above this paragraph, I don’t take the meaning to be bleak. I see the opposite. I see a man firing on cylinders that has a deep understanding of the human condition and a sense of humor about how fucked up we all are that other authors either do not want to see or just can’t.
Timequake, thanks to the autobiographical sections, dives deeper into Mr. Vonnegut’s relationship with the world and his own personal philosophies about how things work than any of his other novels could have due to the demands of the plot and narrative. In Timequake, Vonnegut seems not to care that much about plot and narrative, and entire chapters are devoted to writings about his secular humanism. All of which are written with brevity and impeccable wit.
As much as I adored the novel portions of Timequake, I found myself chomping at the bit to get back to the autobiographical sections whenever Kilgore Trout (Mr. Vonnegut’s surrogate in many novels) was on the page. I love Kilgore Trout, and Timequake uses this character perfectly while subverting the reader’s expectations with passages like this:
“Those artsy-fartsy twerps next door create living, breathing, three-dimensional characters with ink on paper. […] As though the planet weren’t already dying because it has three billion too many living, breathing, three-dimensional characters.” (Ch. 18, p. 71)
Again, this seems like a pitch-black take on the world, but it’s not. It’s Mr. Vonnegut taking shots at himself and having fun with it while he does, because a page later Mr. Vonnegut explains what he and Trout meant:
“Trout might have said, and it can be said of me as well, that he created caricatures rather than characters. His animus against so-called mainstream literature, moreover, wasn’t peculiar to him. It was generic among writers of science fiction.” (Ch. 18, p. 72)
It’s easy to forget that Mr. Vonnegut is a science fiction writer while he’s dealing with the unbelievable in such a down to earth manner, but he never let’s the reader stray too far away from the events of Timequake to forget they’re reading a book about an impossible occurrence that calls into question everything human beings that live in the novel’s universe thought they knew about themselves. I like that.
I also like this:
“I am eternally grateful […] for my knack of finding in great books, some of them very funny books, reason enough to feel honored to be alive, no matter what else might be going on.” (Ch. 47, p. 182)
If Timequake is about anything, it’s about the little things people overlook throughout their lives that would make them happy if they just took a moment to realize what was going on around them. In perhaps Mr. Vonnegut’s greatest “fuck you” to his readers, he presents a situation we’ve all dreamed about (What if we got a redo? We’d do it all so differently and better!) and then eliminates the option for free will. All of the people within the universe of Timequake go on autopilot and re-experience things exactly as they did before, even though some of them are aware they’re going through the motions all over again, none of them can do anything to change it.
It questions the very notion of free will which Mr. Vonnegut has, seemingly, always called into question with his writings. I’m not a literary scholar by any means, that’s my wife’s calling, so I can’t immediately call up a list of other novels that have played with the idea of free will as effectively as Timequake. Where Billy Pilgrim was able to experience different portions of his life completely unfettered by the linear nature of time we’re all familiar with, Timequake goes ahead and says “time is linear and repetitive, and there’s nothing any of us can do about it.”
It’s in the subtext of the novel’s deeper meanings about the human experience where Mr. Vonnegut rises above and beyond his contemporaries to build upon his already optimistic ideas of what constitutes a good life.
Three passages come to mind as being the backbone of the novel:
“All persons, living and dead, are purely coincidental.” (Epigraph, p. xii)
“We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.” (Ch. 20, p. 78)
“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” (actually a quote from his uncle that he used in this novel, speeches and A Man Without A Country)
To my mind, the essence of all of Mr. Vonnegut’s novels can be boiled down to the idea that what happens on a universal scale doesn’t matter nearly as much as what happens on a person-to-person scale, because we can’t control the universe. The human experience is what it is and it’s not easy and, in fact, it can be a real pain in the ass for 95% of the people that are currently living on this planet, so it doesn’t matter if the universe decides to contract and send us all back another decade to relive our past mistakes, because we’d make them anyway.
I could be wrong, but I believe that Mr. Vonnegut was trying to show people that when you go through life on autopilot you miss out on what makes a life worth living. The timequake in the novel is just a device he’s using to show people how their past mistakes, as terrible as some of them might have been, do not make up the whole of their existence. Nobody was thinking during the timequake. Nobody was acting. They were drones carrying out their pre-planned attack routes, watching as everything floated by them without taking a moment to notice the good things. It’s a form of purgatory that borders on hell. It’s mean. It’s a punishment, sure, but it’s the only way Mr. Vonnegut felt he could show the world the way his mind works and he never speaks to the reader as an authority figure, but as a teacher who wants and needs the people of the world to help each other out once in awhile.
When free will kicks back in, Kilgore Trout is the first person to notice. Others are in the middle of driving a car when they suddenly have control over their lives again. The results are what you’d expect. Damning and hilarious all at once, but Trout, being Vonnegut’s surrogate, is excited to have the control back and tries to get other people on board with this message:
“Kilgore’s Creed: “You were sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do.” (Ch. 50, p. 196)
There’s a lot to take away from Kilgore’s Creed, but to me it comes down to the idea that there’s no point in living in the past when the future is where you’re headed, and Timequake shows us that nothing changes by repeating things. Nothing. It just happens twice and then one day you get to make your own decisions again. It’s what you do when you can think and act on your own that matters the most.
We’ve all been sick. We’ve all done horrible things we’re ashamed of. It’s part of what makes living on this planet seem like such a kick in the gut most of the time, but that’s because people get to make their own choices and people are not (and never will be) perfect. There’s no time to punish them, there’s no reason for it, because all we have is each other and it’s how we spend our time here together that matters more than anything else.
I didn’t need to read Timequake to learn that, but it helped.
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