JULY 31, 1997
+ i = n = k
Kurt at MIT?
Kurt Vonnegut in a
Timescape of His Own
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
MIT" commencement address that for reasons known only to
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
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
"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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