Thursday, October 16, 1997

Timequake, by Kurt Vonnegut

A review of Timequake, by Kurt Vonnegut

Originally published in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine,
October 16th, 1997

Septuagenarian Stew

By Kurt Vonnegut
Putnam, $23.95

Some writers quit while they’re ahead. J.D. Salinger was one, having published four first-rate books before clamming up for good. And despite what most of his cult following will say, those four books are enough. Harper Lee, Ralph Ellison, and Joseph Mitchell all share (or shared) Salinger’s prudent silence, choosing for some reason or another to keep their oeuvre tight and unmarred by decline. Too many other writers, however, just keep cranking them out. Look at Saul Bellow or John Updike or John Barth. I mean, really, who do they think they’re fooling?

And then there’s Kurt Vonnegut. Ya gotta love the old fart for keeping his old-school left-wing stance firmly planted in the American conscience, but let’s face facts. His fiction hasn’t been any good for at least a dozen years—and even that stuff wasn’t that great. His last really good book was Breakfast of Champions, and that came out in 1973. Since then it seems like he’s just been coasting, writing book after book of facile truisms and cute catch phrases. But he’s worn his decline fairly well, always making even his lesser efforts worth reading, if only for his crusty humanitarianism and his wacky take on the contemporary scene. It’s only now, with his final book, Timequake, that things get really depressing.

Timequake’s original release date was sometime in 1993, but Vonnegut couldn’t get it done on time. He ended up spending almost a decade on it, but as he writes in the book’s prologue, he ultimately found himself to be “the creator of a novel which did not work, which had no point, which had never wanted to be written in the first place.”

The premise is that the universe goes through a “timequake,” with everything and everyone stopping on February 13th, 2001 and beginning again in February 17th, 1991. Back in the ’90s, everyone finds themselves having to get back to 2001 the hard way: “minute by minute, hour by hour, year by year, betting on the wrong horse again, marrying the wrong person again, getting the clap gain. You name it!”

Everything, including Vonnegut’s science-fiction-writing alter-ego Kilgore Trout, is stuck on auto pilot for a decade. And when February 13th, 2001 rolls around again, almost everybody’s stricken with Post-Timequake Apathy, not wanting to even move, much less take charge of their lives. It’s an interesting enough premise, with the timequake acting as a springboard for questions of divinity and free will, but Vonnegut just couldn’t take it anywhere. So what he did was compile the best parts of it and use them as the center of a freewheeling, jumbled mess of reminiscences, essays, and fictional sketches. Ultimately, what the novel ends up being about is not being able to write this novel, which fascinates in a postmodern kind of way, but it really just ends up sucking.

There are some real gems buried in the mire, though, and most of them have to do with the aging Kilgore Trout. As Cynthia Ozick does with her recurring character Ruth Puttermesser in The Puttermesser Papers, Vonnegut finally kills Trout off. And Trout goes out in style, with Timequake incorporating several of his stories and proving the out-of-print sci-fi writer to be a true prophetic visionary.

The book’s most amazing section is Trout’s story “Bunker Bingo Party,” an account of Hitler’s last hour with Eva Braun and Joseph Goebbels and family. In the face of imminent death, the Goebbels kids get out their bingo game and teach Hitler how to play, thus mercifully keeping the villainous thug at peace during his last few minutes.

This flash of brilliance may be one of Vonnegut’s finest moments, but it’s hardly enough to carry the whole book. “Bunker Bingo Party” redeems Trout before he dies, making Timequake seem like a requiem for Vonnegut’s favorite character, but what it ends up being is a requiem for Vonnegut’s own lost brilliance. So it goes.

—David Wiley

Thursday, October 2, 1997

Publish and Perish, by James Hynes

Originally published in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine,
October 2nd, 1997

By James Hynes
Picador, $24

Scholastic horror stories—why hasn’t anybody thought of doing this before? After all, what could be more terrifying than academia?

James Hynes’ new collection, Publish and Perish, comprises three novellas, each one scarier than a dissertation committee. The first story, “Queen of the Jungle,” tells the chilling tale of Paul, Elizabeth, and their cat, Charlotte. While Elizabeth is away at the University of Chicago, Paul has an affair with a flaky communications major, and Charlotte does her best to foil his dastardly plans for their family.

Sounds silly, and it is, but Hynes’ hilarious vision of academic life makes it stomachable. With Elizabeth schmoozing the tenure board at Chicago, Paul flounders on his unpublishable dissertation, writing such chapters as “Slouching Toward Minneapolis: William Butler Yeats, Mary Tyler Moore and the Millennium.”

The other two novellas, “99” and “Casting the Runes,” are successful in the same ways as “Queen of the Jungle”—and to the same extent. They’re all tightly written, funny, and scary as hell, but a horror story is still a horror story. Each tale follows a pattern of rising creepiness, with the reader figuring out if the protagonist deserves to survive, and then the climax passes final judgment on him or her.

It’s pretty straightforward stuff, but Hynes’ satires of academia can be breathtaking—literally. If Perish and Publish shocks at all, with its desperate doctoral candidates, disgraced theoreticians, and satanic tenure-dinosaurs, it shocks with recognition.

—David Wiley