A Series of Accidents #19: Timequake

A Series of Accidents is a chronological read-through of the books of Kurt Vonnegut. You can check out earlier articles in the series here.

The novel Timequake begins with a story about the novel Timequake. In his prelude, Kurt Vonnegut tells us that the novel, his first in seven years and announced as his last, was originally a completely different book, a more directly science fictional story called Timequake-One. But the novel just wouldn’t come together, and so eventually he decided to release it in the form it is now: as an awkward, fragmentary assemblage of fiction and autobiography.

It’s a nice story, but I’m not sure I believe it. In true postmodern fashion, Vonnegut may be telling us a metafictional story as much as he is a fictional one, providing a justification for the shape the book was always going to take. (Although, given the time it took to come out, there probably was some writer’s block involved.) This kind of autofictional assemblage was where Vonnegut was always headed: through his two “autobiographical collages”, and the heavily autobiographical nature of essentially all his work since Slaughterhouse-Five (and arguably even before that.) In the end, Timequake is pure Vonnegut, whether one likes it or not.

The plot of the novel, such as it is, is about the eponymous timequake, an event in which everyone on Earth finds themselves experiencing a vivid flashback of the last ten years of their lives. People experience their pasts minute-by-minute, but are unable to change anything, moving on automatic. When the flashback catches up to the present day, they find themselves surprised that their bodies aren’t on autopilot, leading to a great deal of accidents and mayhem.

This is a time travel novel but, like Slaughterhouse-Five, about time travel that doesn’t allow one to change anything or even experience anything that they wouldn’t in their regular life. It is, in other words, about the form of time travel that we all possess: memory. It’s an old man’s novel, about seeing life in retrospect, and the way in which memories can be richer and more evocative than present-day lived experience.

In one scene, the Timequaked Vonnegut (who is, of course, a character in the novel) watches his late-in-life daughter Lilly’s dance recital. He recollects that, when he experienced this the first time, his mind was consumed with future plans and worries, but now, knowing that the future cannot be changed, he is able to fully experience and enjoy the moment. Despite being a fairly minor moment, it’s a scene I keep thinking about. How many moments do we waste thinking of the past and future instead of the present? How might our lives be different if we lived like Tramalfadorians or timequake victims, experiencing the flow of life knowing we have no control over it? “Enjoy the present” is trite advice, and hard to live in practice, but through a science fictional device Vonnegut makes it feel new and real.

Into the fray wades Kilgore Trout, brought back after his previous dismissal in Breakfast of Champions. Trout is, in this timeline, still a failed science fiction writer, living out his final years in poverty and disrespect. (Again, one senses the parallels to Vonnegut’s early writing life, although I’ve also read that Trout was meant to be not autobiographical but a stand-in for the 60s sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon, who Vonnegut thought deserved credit as a great literary author.) But, in the chaotic aftermath of the timequake, he finds a chance for heroism, as one of the first people who realizes that time has resumed. Trout helps people survive, guiding the injured to a makeshift hospital at the Museum of the American Indian, another mark of Vonnegut’s cynicism about American history.

Along the way he repeats what later becomes known as Kilgore’s Creed: “You were sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do.” This is as close to a moral call to action that one finds in Vonnegut’s work. Yes, Trout says, we are all subject to the illnesses of the world around us, our mind, and the relentless march of time, but it is imperative that we realize our own agency and use it to help the people around us instead of being endlessly trapped in the cycles of the past.

This fairly basic plot, however, is only part of Timequake. The narrative is frequently interrupted by the author’s musings on various topics, whether it be the decline of extended families, Vonnegut’s relatives, the US socialist tradition, and other greatest-hits from across the author’s corpus of novels and nonfiction. The “autobiographical collage” books are easy to dismiss as glorified collections of Vonnegut miscellany, and they are that, but Kurt seems to have been truly invested in this mishmash of genres. Timequake seems to be a natural outgrowth of these anthologies, adding in a fictional narrative to the melting pot of ideas and influences.

I read Timequake for the first time for this project, but it was almost the first Vonnegut book I read: I remember seeing it on a library spinner rack in high school, and was attracted by the title suggesting the kind of grown-up but not too grown-up sci-fi adventures I read almost exclusively in those days. I have no idea what I would have thought if I had ended up borrowing it instead of some other forgotten book, reading it as my first Vonnegut book and expecting a fairly linear plot. Perhaps I would have been lost and put it down, or maybe it would have shined brighter for me, with Vonnegut’s ideas and insights not dulled by the wear of repetition.

General audiences also didn’t really seem to know what to make of Timequake. It was a bestseller, largely on Vonnegut’s reputation, but received mostly negative reviews. It’s definitely a self-indulgent book – but then, if you can’t be self-indulgent in your final novel, when can you be?

Like so much of Vonnegut’s late work, Timequake is haunted by death. Kurt’s brother Bernard passed away from cancer during the writing process, something that Vonnegut discusses in the epilogue. Bernard, the man of science, was a huge influence on Kurt and still someone he looked up to even after becoming a famous author.

In its final pages, Vonnegut imagines himself “timequaking” back to 1947 and spending more time with his brother. Like Kilgore Trout shouting at his author at the end of Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut wants to be young again, to re-experience all the ups and downs of his early professional life. If once he sympathized with Billy Pilgrim, flashing forward to a fantastical future to forget the trauma was the past, now he was desperate for a fantastical device to return to the past.

Timequake would indeed be Vonnegut’s last novel, although he would continue writing over the next several years, including a couple of book-length collections. The first of these would be a timequake of its own, returning to the early years of his career as a short story writer. Before we reach the end of Vonnegut, then, we have to travel to his beginning.