book review: timequake

Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut (1997)

This is the first novel by Kurt Vonnegut that I have read.  To be honest, I have no idea what made me pick up Timequake, but I’m sure it has something to do with my perception that Vonnegut is one of those authors I should read.  This book has been on my bookshelf for several years now (how many, I have no idea, but it’s been awhile).  I decided to try to read the book again, this time from start to finish.  I was successful and did get to the end, but not because I was at all interested in the ending.

I’m getting ahead of myself, and that is likely because it’s time to summarize the plot, and I’m not exactly sure how to do that.  Mostly because there really isn’t much of a plot to speak of, at least not what most readers recognize as a plot.  On February 17, 2001, the entire world experienced a timequake, sending everyone to 1991 and forcing humans to relive the previous ten years of their lives.  Vonnegut (who is both author and narrator) explains that the timequake occurred because the Universe was indecisive about whether or not it should keep expanding.  The thing about the timequake is that free will has been completely erased—during the “rerun” everyone has to do the exact same thing they had done previously.  Nothing can be altered or changed, and consequently apathy has set in.   Kilgore Trout—the old science fiction writer who is one of Vonnegut’s characters—refers to that time as being on “autopilot”.  When the timequake ends ten years later on the second February 13, 2001, everyone in the world experiences “Post-Timequake Apathy” or PTA.  Humans have become so used to not having free will and living on autopilot, that they don’t care about anything and have no will to do anything.  It takes the efforts of Kilgore Trout, through the mantra, “You were sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do,” to wake everyone up, and the mantra comes to be known as the Kilgore Creed.  Interestingly, this helps Vonnegut turn his isolated, man alone character into, if not a hero, then certainly an anti-hero.

The novel is clearly satire, and it takes aim at several topics.  One such topic is the value of books and reading, particularly as opposed to the value of television.  Vonnegut builds a thoughtful commentary upon what is at stake when books and the printed word give way to the medium of television as well as the digital age.  Another topic that he targets is the value of extended families, and not just blood relations, but families in the sense of communities, and what is lost when an individual is not part of this kind of extended family.  Indeed, part of the story as it concerns Kilgore Trout seems to be showing how he goes from being isolated to being part of a family.  Still another focus of his satire is the division of wealth and those amendments he would make to the Constitution guaranteeing what he argues are basic human rights.  There is also a compelling commentary upon religion and its value to the individual that I would not have expected to find in a Vonnegut novel.  The “Post-Timequake Apathy” adds another layer to the satire and of course is intended to prompt the reader to think about his or her own apathy and attempt to shake his readers out of that apathy.  He wants his readers to care.  He wants his readers to believe that life is worth living, but that it takes participation from everyone in society to build a better society.  Vonnegut’s novel succeeds in challenging the status quo and advocating for change.  Indeed, if I were teaching this novel in one of my literature classes, I would highlight the ways in which Timequake uses the power that the form of the novel possesses to critique social and political structures of power.

Although I can appreciate the novel on the level of satire, and at the risk of alienating Vonnegut fans, I have to admit that the novel was a disappointing read for me.  The first question I asked myself upon completing the novel was if all Vonnegut novels are like this?  Slaughterhouse-Five is on my to-read list, but now I’m in no hurry to check it off.  I don’t mind literature that uses satire to make social and political commentary; at the same time, I want my satire to have more of a story.  Or perhaps what I should really say is that my expectations didn’t match up with what I got from the novel.  I wasn’t expecting it to be semi-autobiographical, and I wasn’t expecting the first-person, almost diary-like narrative style that Vonnegut employs in the novel.  As a narrator and character in his own story, Vonnegut has an engaging voice, but at no point in the novel was I really invested in the narrative.  I finished reading the novel because my goal was to finish the book, not really because I cared all that much how it ended.  Oddly, I don’t even think I had the hope that maybe I would start to like it.

As I said above, this is my first introduction to the Vonnegut canon of work.  I will, someday, give Slaughterhouse-Five a try, and hope for a more favorable response, but someday won’t be coming anytime soon.  On a five-star scale, Timequake receives only one-star from this reader, and that’s only because zero-stars isn’t an option.

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