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Timequake by Kurt VonnegutUK edition3.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsIf Kurt Vonnegut had ever been a blogger like John Scalzi or Cory Doctorow, a collection of his blog posts might well look like Timequake, a scattershot mishmash of fiction, autobiography, and philosophical musings whose very randomness and haphazard absurdism is entirely why it’s so giddily entertaining. It could only be the product of a writer in the winter of his years, looking back on the madness and majesty of life with both a jaundiced and sentimental eye, and it could only be the product of a writer who happened to be Kurt Vonnegut. Timequake is like a book made up entirely of Post-It notes, in which ideas are scribbled down and either expanded upon or allowed to wander. If it has themes, they are essentially these: that life is a crock of shit, and none of us has free will. There are only two things you can do with such pessimism. You can become, say, Morrissey, or you can milk it all for laughs. Vonnegut chooses the latter, which is the more sensible choice, I’m sure. We all know where that path led Morrissey.

The fictional conceit of Timequake is that the universe gets bored one afternoon in February, 2001, and briefly decides to stop expanding and shift into reverse. The result is that Earth is pitched back in time ten years. During this ten years, everyone on Earth is forced to do exactly what they did the first time around. There are no second chances to right wrongs or undo mistakes. The lousy part is that while reliving these experiences, everyone is aware they are reliving them. They are simply powerless to do anything other than what they did, say anything other than what they said, the first time. All of this is witnessed by the sardonic eye of Vonnegut’s mildly unhinged alter-ego, Kilgore Trout.

Woven into this threadbare SFnal framework are an inexhaustible and fitfully funny collection of vignettes about the absurdity of life from Vonnegut himself. Vonnegut had combined fiction with autobiography (or, perhaps, diaries) before, most famously in Slaughterhouse-Five. But he’s never knocked the sheetrock out of the fourth wall in such a whimsical, devil-may-care fashion as he’s done here. Throughout, the satirical view that the human race simply wouldn’t know what to do with itself if we were ever put in a position to think about the degree to which we possess free will, or the degree to which we’re simply being carried along by forces beyond our control (another career-spanning theme of Vonnegut’s), is certainly biting, but never bitter. Yes, there’s a world-weariness here, as expected from a man who’s had a lifetime of witnessing the worst inhumanities, often at close range. But I detect more a sense of sorrow than anger or misanthropy. We should, quite simply, be able to do better. We should be willing to do better. In Timequake, when the human race is forced into the ten-year period Trout simply calls the “rerun,” the fact of having to sit back helplessly in our own heads while we repeat all our past triumphs and failures ought to be an illuminating experience. In fact, it’s a demoralizing one. Once the rerun decade ends, and free will kicks in as the world reaches 2001 for the second time, most people are struck with PTA, “Post Timequake Apathy.” Is there any point to it all?

Vonnegut offers no easy answers here, which may leave some readers thinking this is one of his more rambling and aimless books. But a few simple suggestions can be gleaned. Do the best you can, and when you leave this world, try to leave behind a life that makes people look well upon you. After all, we don’t get any second chances.