“You were sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do.”
Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut’s final novel, is a tricky beast. His work had always trampled over the borders between fiction and non-fiction (“That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book.”) and Timequake lives almost solely in those borderlands. It’s a combination of the shattered remnants of his first attempt to write the book and Vonnegut’s musings on the problems of writing, his life, his family and other matters. It’s a stitched-together mess, and doesn’t properly work either as novel or memoir, but it still contains a huge amount of fascinating ideas delivered in Vonnegut’s usual sparse yet folky style.
The central idea of the book is the inverse of Slaughterhouse-Five’s. There, famously, “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time” but in Timequake, everyone has become effectively stuck in time. The universe has “suddenly shrunk ten years”, everything has rolled back from 2001 to 1991 and “we all have to do again exactly what we did the first time through, for good or ill.” Everyone has to repeat the actions they did the first time round, all illusion of free will is removed and people are effectively passengers in their own bodies watching everything repeat just as it had before.
It’s a horrific premise, and I suspect one reason even Vonnegut couldn’t make it work as a novel is because describing most people’s experiences during the Timequake would be to create chapter after chapter of existential terror. Watching helplessly as you repeat everything you did, knowing the consequences of every action you take, unable to make the slightest changes while not knowing if it’s just affecting you, or if everyone else is undergoing the same thing? There’s a reason various fictional Hells have people reliving the worst of what they’ve done.
(And, of course, let’s not forget the accidental symbolism of the period of the Timequake. Writing in 1996, Vonnegut wouldn’t have known that it would bridge the gap between the end of the Cold War and 9/11 beginning the next long war, but from the perspective of twenty years later, it has the air of an anomalous period.)
The main thing that survives from the original novel into the published version isn’t the Timequake, but the aftermath of it. The universe continues expanding past 2001 this time, and in a single moment everyone suddenly finds themselves no longer a passenger in their own body, but properly in control again. For billions of people who’ve spent a decade becoming accustomed to spending their lives as passengers, this is not optimal. Some remain motionless, others trip and fall after getting caught mid-motion, and some find themselves at the controls of a moving vehicle, but too caught in a poat-Timequake apathy to make any effort to steer or stop.
What do you say to someone in that position to get them active again?
It’s Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s frequent author-substitute character, who stumbles on the phrase — Kilgore’s Creed — that snaps people back into action to deal with the mess. It takes him a few tries to stumble on the right words, however, and only discovers that when he stops trying to persuade people they have free will and instead gives them a practical message that they begin to respond.
“You were sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do.”
We have many accounts of fictional pandemics, quite often of the catastrophic variety, but far fewer fictional accounts that encompass actual historical pandemics. I wonder if it’s for the same reason that Vonnegut abandoned the initial version of Timequake. It’s hard to write a story when your protagonists have no free will or ability to act, even if they’re under threat. Indeed, can they even be protagonists without that ability, or is it just the Tralfamadorian literature of Slaughterhouse-Five where everything is perceived at once and has no beginning, middle or end?
Living through the Covid pandemic has been a time when that lack of agency and control has been something all of us have experienced. While not losing all free will, the number of options we’ve had has drastically reduced and in many parts of our lives we have become passengers, watching and waiting for the ability to do things to return to us. I found out a few days ago that I’d be getting my first vaccination imminently (when I write this, it’s happening tomorrow, when you read this, it will likely already have happened and my immune system will have some work to do) and it brought a sense of relief that soon I will be able to do things but also caused me to wonder just how do we go about doing things again.
I think the one thing a lot of us have missed over the last year is that feeling of having any more of our own story to tell, because we lost the ability to talk about “I did this” or “I chose that” for all but the most simple of things. We could no longer be the hero of our own narrative, because we’d become passengers in a driverless vehicle, trundling along and only getting to watch and wait.
For us, there’s no single moment of mass awakening, no instant when the universe decides to keep expanding and let time flow as normal again and the rerun ends. There’s no aging unsuccessful writer to shout his creed at us, either. We’re stepping back into our own stories but each alone in our own time, not as part of a collective moment.
Do we even need someone to tell us it’s over? That now we’re well again, and there’s work to do? Can’t we just shrug this off and get on with things? No one’s standing paralysed with existential doubt, no one’s falling over or crashing vehicles, we don’t need to be told that, surely?
Still and all, why bother? Here’s my answer: Many people need desperately to receive this message: “I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people don’t care about them. You are not alone.”
I think we do. Or at least I think that the people who care about many of the things I care about need it, because we need to remember this happened. We need to remember the frustration and the anger we felt, the things we realised we’d been doing wrong, the ways that we promised we wouldn’t just go back to the old normal. Kilgore’s Creed is not just a statement of fact, but a call to arms: there’s work to do.
The work to be done after a Timequake is obvious: wake people up from their apathy, and clean up the mess it left behind. The question left hanging is whether anyone can go back to the way things were before once they know such things are possible. When free will returns, are people just going to keep acting the way they would have done if they hadn’t just had to relive the past ten years, or is the perspective granted by the rerun going to make them change? Now you can choose again, will you make the same choices you would have done?
And that’s the question I have to leave hanging here. What do we do now our version of a Timequake is coming to an end? What work do we have to do? Can we just carry on like the last year or so never happened, or has it changed us? Right now, I’m still trying to work out what the answers to those are, and what we need our versions of Kilgore Trout to shout at people to get them out of their apathy.
But until I work that out, this:
“Listen: We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different!”