June 19, 2015

Vonne Gut Reactions: Timequake


I recently completed my quest to read and review all of Kurt Vonnegut's fourteen novels, a task I had originally set for myself during school year 2012-13 and which I completed in the summer of 2015.

And so it goes.
First, let me point out that Timequake was the least fictional of Vonnegut's novels. He offers up the following in the book's introduction after speaking about Hemingway and he last novels, his fish, as it were...My great big fish, which stunk so, was entitled Timequake. Let us think of it as Timequake One. And let us think of this one, a stew made from its best parts mixed with thoughts and experiences during the past seven months or so, as Timequake Two.

And that's a fairly apt description of the Timequake that I held in my hands. It's not a linear story, but it does contain parts of a linear story. It also contains what might be called essay fragments written from Vonnegut's point of view that aren't any part of the story, that only sometimes relate to the story, and that are told directly to the readers without any pretense of inclusion in a fictional narrative.

This is, in the end, the purest of Vonnegut. He includes Kilgore Trout - offers a far more sympathetic salute to the man than he did when the character first met his author and alter ego in Breakfast of Champions - and the Tralfamadorians. He offers up his viewpoints sometimes couched in fiction but quite often without the thinnest of veils that Vonnegut has offered us through the course of his writing. Vonnegut even gives us a sketch of Trout, himself, as shown above.

Here Kurt - it feels wrong to call him by his first name, he's too big for that, too massive in my head - Vonnegut is saying good bye and possibly realizing that he doesn't have another novel in him any more. The book was published in 1997, and though Vonnegut would live another decade, he never published anything more that would be called a novel.

To my notes...
  • dedication - "All persons, living and dead, are purely coincidental." This is a sentiment that has been espoused by Vonnegut in many of his books: that we are here entirely by luck. Some of his characters are crippled by this, and others are freed. It's all in your attitude, I guess.
  • p5 - "Human rights? What could be more indifferent to the rights of any form of life than an H-bomb?" - Another common Vonnegut thought: that weapons of war are indifferent to who they are killing. This leads to the just and the unjust being endangered just alike.
  • p10 - "I made sandwiches of German soldiers between an erupting Earth and an exploding sky, and in a blizzard of razor blades." - Vonnegut has frequently described horrific acts in odd, uncommon descriptions. Here Trout is describing what he did during World War II and how he viewed those acts.
  • p11 - "If I had it to do all over again, I would choose to be born again in a hospital in Indianapolis. I would choose to spend my childhood again at 4365 North Illinois Street, about ten blocks from here, and to again be a product of that city's public schools." - Vonnegut goes on to describe how he would live his life exactly as he had the first time. He doesn't think that doing things any differently would have made him any happier. 
  • p12 - "If this isn't nice, what is?" - One of Vonnegut's most famous lines...
  • p16 - The Booboolings (from another planet) have a 'weird' custom through which they talk to their offspring and explain how they should act, how they should feel, how they should believe. The Booboolings even make their youngsters read books and explain how they should feel about the situations therein. - Yup, Vonnegut observing his world and explaining it from the perspective of an alien.
  • p18 - The Booboolings stop this custom when television is introduced. Instead of needing to divert themselves and their children from boredom (as they did with the books), they simply sit and watch televisions..."and automobiles and computers and barbed wire and flamethrowers and land mines and machine guns and so on." - Technology hasn't made our world any better in Vonnegut's eyes.
  • p19 - "The moral at the end of that story is this: 'Men are jerks. Women are psychotic.' "- Yeah, Vonnegut doesn't have the most positive image of women.
  • p23 - "My great-grandfather Peter Lieber...was a Freethinker, which is to say a skeptic about conventional religious beliefs...as would be Kilgore Trout and I." - Vonnegut is long-known to be an areligious man. That comes up again later in the book again.
  • p28 - "The late British philosopher Bertrand Russell said he lost friends to one of three addictions: alcohol or religion or chess." - I don't know that chess is a major addiction that I can think of, but the inclusion of religion there again echoes Vonnegut's areligious status.
  • p30 - "in Timequake One...by the year 2000, [writers] had become 'as quaint', in the opinion of the general public, 'as contemporary makers in New England tourist towns of the toy windmills known since colonial times as whirligigs." - Again, echoing the Booboolings, Vonnegut thinks that writers have become obsolete since the invention of television, and I don't think he believes that's a positive thing.
  • p43 - Tralfamadore makes another, final appearance. This time it's as a planet where 'representatives of all the chemical elements held a meeting...to protest some of their members' having been incorporated into the bodies of big, sloppy, stinky organisms as cruel and stupid as human beings." - It's actually a fascinating idea, and I would very much read the story, maybe even use it in class. It's not a short story that is developed beyond the sketch stage as are so many of Trout's short stories.
  • p44 - In the short story of the elements' conference, "Sulfur...made a motion that all chemicals involved in medical research combine wherever possible to create ever more powerful antibiotics. These in turn would cause disease organisms to evolve new strains that were resistant to them." - We've seen the idea of antibiotics leading to stronger diseases, though there they were tests from the Tralfamadorians to make better space travelers (the diseases). Clearly the idea of antibiotic-lead evolution was an idea that stuck with Vonnegut.
  • p46 - From Trout's memoir of the timequake, My Ten Years on Automatic Pilot, "Listen, if it isn't a timequake dragging us through knothole after knothole, it's something just as mean and powerful." - In spite of Vonnegut's famous quote about how nice this is, he really does espouse the belief that much of life is suffering, that life is generally a horrible time.
  • p51 - Here is the joke to which I linked at the very top. It's dirty, I warn you, but it's a great example of Vonnegut's characters making tragedy into dark humor.
  • p56 - Vonnegut offers this quote from his sister Allie, "If there is a God, He sure hates people. That's all I can say" - Vonnegut saw some pretty awful things in his life - suicide, war, hatred - and that (or something) left him pretty skeptical about God and how He could create a world such as this.
  • p57 - "For anybody who could believe in God, as you once did, it would be a piece of cake to believe in the plant BooBoo." - See, believing in God is like believing in a ridiculous, fictional story.
  • p63 - Trout here, not Vonnegut, "If I'd wasted my time creating [three-dimensional] characters," Trout said, "I would never have gotten around to calling attention to things that really matter: irresistible forces in nature, and cruel inventions, and cockamamie ideals and governments and economies that make heroes and heroines alike feel like something the cat drug in." - Yeah, that's Vonnegut as Trout right there.
  • p68 - Vonnegut's three favorite quotes...
    • A friend, Ted Adler, had rebuilt an ell for Vonnegut and at the end stepped back in shock and said, "How the hell did I do that?" because it was too well done for his understanding.
    • "The second is Jesus Christ's 'Who is it they say I am?' "
    • "The third is from my son Mark, pediatrician and watercolorist and sax player. I've already quoted him in another book: 'We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.' "
    • That about sums up Vonnegut's thoughts on the world...shock at beauty...skepticism and irreverence at religion...be kind to each other because the world's hard enough.
  • p71 - Hitler's last words, according to a short story by Kilgore Trout: "I never asked to be born in the first place." - see the dedication...we're here randomly.
  • p81 - Vonnegut is describing Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms as his nephew sees it, "he was close to tears because he had to read, having been forced to do so by a professor, A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway." Vonnegut recaps the novel and says thusly, "The tears Hemingway has made you want to shed are tears of relief! It looked like the guy was going to have to get married and settle down. But then he didn't have to [because she and the baby died]. Whew! What a close shave!" - Wow, Vonnegut on marriage.
  • p93 - From Trout's My Ten Years on Automatic Pilot again, "I didn't need a timequake to teach me being alive was a crock of [poop]. I already knew that from my childhood and crucifixes and history books." - Yup, a ray of sunshine, our little Kurt.
  • p104 - Discussing Isaac Newton's brain, "And well might any educated person excrete a sizable chunk of masonry when contemplating the tremendously truthful ideas this ordinary mortal, seemingly, uttered with no more to go by, as far as we know, than signals from his dog's breakfast [Vonnegut's description of a brain] from his three and a half pounds of blood soaked sponge. This one naked ape invented differential calculus! He invented the reflecting telescope! He discovered and explained how a prism breaks a beam of sunlight into its constituent colors! He detected and wrote down previously unknown laws governing motion and gravity and optics!" - Yeah, Newton is the bomb, but Vonnegut's description of all these idea (positive here, far more negative in the Booboolings) coming from a dog's breakfast, three and a half pounds of blood-soaked sponge is appropriate.
  • p117 - Jane, Vonnegut's first wife, died a believer in God, an Episcopalian after having been raised a Quaker. "She died believing in the Trinity and Heaven and Hell and all the rest of it. I'm so glad. Why? Because I loved her." Earlier, on page 73, Vonnegut mourned for his "buddy Bernard V. O'Hare, now dead, [who] lost his faith as a Roma Catholic during World War Two. I didn't like that. I thought that was too much to lose." - Vonnegut himself never had faith (he says as much in the next paragraph on page 74). He is happy for those who have faith and sad for those who lose it. That's really interesting.
  • p139 - "In real life, as during  a rerun following a timequake, people don't change, don't learn anything from their mistakes, and don't apologize." - Man, that's dark.
  • p152 - Vonnegut proposes two amendments to the Constitution, "Article XXVIII: Every newborn shall be sincerely welcomed and cared for until maturity. Article XXIX: Every adult who needs it shall be given meaningful work to do, at a living wage." - Those are pretty liberal ideas there, Kurt. I wish they could come true, too.
  • p162 - "[T]he British astronomer Fred Hoyle said something to this effect: That believing in Darwin's theoretical mechanisms of evolution was like believing that a hurricane could blow through a junkyard and build a Boeing 747." - Not quite...more like believing a hurricane - given a billion chances - could put two parts together. Once those are put together and stay together better than they do separately, a billion more hurricanes will put a third part together. Repeat until a plane exists.
  • p169 - " I had to add, though, that I knew of a single word that proved our democratic government was capable of committing obscene, gleefully rabid and racist, yahooistic murders of unarmed men, women, and children, murders wholly devoid of military common sense. I said the word. It was a foreign word. That word was Nagasaki." - Vonnegut has repeatedly said that the bombing of Hiroshima can be defended (he won't, but it can be) but that Nagasaki's can't be.
  • p183 - One of my favorite foreign phrases, "Esprit de l'escalier!" and Vonnegut never explains it, so I won't either. I love that phrase.
  • p191 - The Girl got to hear Vonnegut speak at Indiana University once. She related to me a story that he told there about a postal worker woman with whom he was secretly - even from her - in love. Here he tells that same story. It's beautiful.
  • p202 - Vonnegut quotes from Abe Lincoln in Illinois: a play in three acts and includes a large passage from Lincoln. I quote a short part of that, "I have heard of an eastern monarch who once charged his wise man to invent him a sentence which would be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words, 'And this too shall pass away.' " - I'm actually kind of surprised that Vonnegut didn't ever use that phrase as one of his books' choruses. 
  • p211 -
    "I got a sappy letter from a woman a while back. She knew I was sappy, too, which is to say a northern Democrat. She was pregnant, and she wanted to know if it was a mistake to bring an innocent little baby into a world this bad.

    I replied that what made being alive almost worthwhile for me was the saints I met, people behaving unselfishly and capably. They turned up in the most unexpected places. Perhaps you, dear reader, are or can become a saint for her sweet child to meet.

    I believe in original sin. I also believe in original virtue. Look around!
    Vonnegut is just a walking contradiction - believing that the world is horrible, that the people in it do horrible things to each other, but also that there are saints.
  • p216 - Vonnegut tells a story about a letter that he wrote once and anonymously to his uncle about his brother. It's too long to relate here (read it on Google Books if you want to). It made me laugh out loud.
Vonnegut ends the book in very touching fashion.

I'm thrilled that Kurt wrote such a wonderful and beautiful and meandering and personal final novel.

I thank him digitally.

And I am thrilled that he was here to make our world - my world, especially - a much better place.

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