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vonnegut's timequake

2003-05-07 - 11:38 a.m.

I recently read Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut, written (or at least revised into the current form) in 1996, published in 1997, which is a funny science fiction farce on the outside and a tragicomic meditation on the death of eloquence on the inside. While it is almost impossible for me to envision a way in which this book could be "spoiled," if anyone is reading this review who has not yet read Timequake, don't waste your time here. Get thee to a library or a bookstore!

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The premise is that on Feb. 13, 2001, the universe underwent a "timequake" causing the universe to shrink back to Feb. 17, 1991, creating a "rerun" of this decade which would have to be lived again, exactly as it occurred the first time. My immediate reaction: If only it were possible!

And, yet, for all the success of that decade -- which started with the United States plunged into an unadmitted Second Great Depression as a result of the savings and loan debacle and which slowly, then more quickly, built to a level of prosperity perhaps never before seen in history -- it ended on a bitter note, with the coup d'etat and the end of democracy. The construction of the book is fascinating, with its layers of jokes, rants, reminiscences, synopses of short stories, bits of plays and speeches. It actually seems designed to take on more and more layers of meaning as time goes past, for it is cleverly written to hint at the future, so that it seems to foreshadow it, causing events that have occurred after the book was written to throw new light and meaning on the events in the book.

One cannot help thinking, if only they knew what was coming. And yet, of course, they did know -- for ten whole years they knew everything down to the last detail -- and it changed nothing. And we know, as we have always known, what is coming -- death, not just of individuals, but of families, nations, and, it seems rather likely, eventually the planet, the solar system, and, indeed, the entire universe.

The climax, or a climax, of the book is Abraham Lincoln's1 Farewell Address at the Great Western Depot2 in Springfield, Illinois, February 11, 1861, as presented in a stage play with "the half-African-American great-great-grandson of John Wilkes Booth" playing the part of Lincoln:

"...I have tried to enquire: what great principle or ideal is it that has kept this Union so long together? And I believe that it was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the motherland, but that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty to the people of this country and hope to all the world. This sentiment was the fulfillment of an ancient dream, which men have held through all time, that they might one day shake off their chains and find freedom in the brotherhood of life. We gained democracy, and now there is the question of whether it is fit to survive.

"Perhaps we have come to the dreadful day of awakening, and the dream is ended. If so, I am afraid it must be ended forever. I cannot believe that ever again will men have the opportunity we have had. Perhaps we should admit that, and concede that our ideals of liberty and equality are decadent and doomed. I have heard of an eastern monarch who once charged his wise men 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.'"

1Abraham Lincoln is probably the favorite president of science fiction writers in general. Lincoln, or simulacra of Lincoln, were often used in Philip K. Dick's writing, for example. In the movie Minority Report, Spielberg nods to Dick's Lincoln fetish by having the soon-to-be-murdered mother rehearsing the Gettysburg Address with her school-age child. There are quick scenes of the characters rehearsing, without any sense of meaning, the words "...that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth" with intercuts of the pre-crime folks getting on with the business of snooping into people's private lives.

2This is an excerpt of Vonnegut's version of the speech. I am not sure if it is verbatim from the actual Farewell Address, for it seems to include bits and pieces from other speeches, such as the September 30, 1859 Address Before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society and even the Gettysburg Address.

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