h = o = t   +   i = n = k               [   Kurt at MIT?   ]

Kurt Vonnegut in a
Timescape of His Own

i thought Kurt Vonnegut was dead.

Apparently, he's just been blocked. Serious writer's constipation. For about ten years.

Not that one would know it from the ostensible "Vonnegut at MIT" commencement address that for reasons known only to the Net daemons has been stuffing e-mail boxes this week. In form, the speech is almost "All I Need to Know I Learned on Tralfamadore." Every sentence in it funny, profound, penetrating, silly, and more honest than any writer should be in public. Obviously, Vonnegut doesn't seem to be dead.

But his latest novel is. In fact, because the first novel since Hocus Pocus in 1990 is such a clunker, he is going to have no more to do with the business of ink. He's done. The chunk of paper that made up his mind is TimeQuake, which will be in bookstores on September 22. According to the author, he labored on a story which "did not work, which had no point, which had never wanted to be written in the first place." Vonnegut had spent ten years on a story that "stunk." Therefore, he's going to retire.

What retirement exactly means to a writer is somewhat ambigious. Obviously, he'll have more time to give hilarious commencement speeches. Possibly, he'll create a few more of the fan-beloved autobiographical essays like that in Slapstick.

But no more novels. Says he. In fact, no more working on novels either. When asked to make changes to the TimeQuake manuscript by his Putmans editors, Vonnegut reportedly replied "go take a flying leap." Despite this, it seems Kurt will go on living.

But does this mean he is no longer a writer? Writing is in itself the act of being attentive to experience. Honest communication seems almost a footnote to the act of observation.

Writing can consume. As William Gaddis is fond of observing, one searches for writing a whole life, "and as soon as we find it, we become its prey." Once you're caught, I doubt it's as easy as Vonnegut thinks to escape.

Ironically, this is perhaps the subject of his new novel. In TimeQuake, a sudden slip of the universe's timestream causes everyone to repeat ten years on automatic pilot. It seems everyone is conscious of their predicament (having gone through it all before), yet unable to affect events, or comment upon them. It's Time's Arrow without the Nazis.

As always, Vonnegut's allegory seems both plainer and more complicated than contemporaries like Thomas Pynchon and Martin Amis. What does it mean to see the direction of your life? In the MIT address, Vonnegut said that "The most interesting people I know didn't know... what they wanted to do with their lives." What if you're caught in not knowing, over and over again? Doesn't the act of experience then become torture?

Like Kilgore Trout or Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut is trying to escape the terror of time. Deliciously, by publishing TimeQuake, he's done everything but escape. Instead of releasing a straightforward narrative, he's crafted a pastiche of autobiography and fiction. Like the circular narrative of Slaughterhouse Five, his story becomes an interpretation of itself.

Vonnegut's own voice clearly speaks through the pages of the book; one moment Kilgore Trout is going to the mailbox, the next Vonnegut is telling us of his brother's cancer. Trout is admitted up front to be Vonnegut's alter ego, and the two stories meld. The act of living Vonnegut's life has all the skin stripped off. We can see nerves twitching as the author struggles with a book and its subject matter.

By the end, Vonnegut has effectively become the subject himself. Thus does the writer neatly avoid having to put words on a page. For if he is the subject, everything he does from here on out is part of the continuing saga. There is no need to record it on pages.

At the end of TimeQuake, Kilgore Trout saves the world. As we collide with the end of the century, can Vonnegut do the same?

"Enough!" writes Vonnegut in the prologue. "Enough! Fifty-five is a long time for me now." Yet despite his constant cigarettes, Vonnegut seems nowhere near death. There may be a lot of stories in the days ahead, even if they are never written down.

--   Josef Kaye


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