(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Kurt Vonnegut has come unstuck in time.

If this, his last book, proves to be true, be prepared for a nasty jolt at 2:27 p.m. on February 13, 2001. At that moment, the universe will suffer a crisis in self-confidence and stop expanding. The result will be a “timequake,” in which Vonnegut and everyone and everything else will go back to February 17, 1991. Then the universe will resume expanding, and everyone will relive the next ten years exactly as they did the first time. However, although everyone will know precisely what is coming, no one will be able to do a thing about it. People will live through the timequake like actors in plays (“artificial timequakes”) controlled by a script that denies them free will. Those who die before 2001 may enjoy being restored to life in 1991, but they will die again, exactly as they did the first time, before the timequake ends.

Real trouble does not begin, however, until the timequake returns everyone to February 13, 2001. Unprepared for the abrupt restoration of their free will, people are immobilized. Those who happen to be walking stumble and fall; those operating vehicles and machinery have accidents, and so on. Ten years of being on automatic pilot leaves almost everyone too numb to cope on their own.

Ironically, the first person to gather his wits and respond intelligently is the aging and ostensibly dissolute science fiction writer Kilgore Trout (who appears in many of Vonnegut’s previous novels). Blessed with a rich, if unprofitable, imagination, Trout alone recognizes what is happening when the timequake ends, and he takes vigorous action. To help others come to their senses, he tells them: “You were sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do.” His words become the mantra that helps the entire world readjust to having free will. (Unfortunately, Trout is not awarded the Nobel Prize that Vonnegut promised him in Breakfast of Champions in 1974.)

Such is the plot loosely tying together what is surely Vonnegut’s most eccentric book. Its fictional storyline may be thin, but Vonnegut’s explanation of how he came to write it—which is also related in bits and pieces throughout Timequake—is of great interest. That story begins with Vonnegut’s birth.

Born on Armistice Day in 1922, Vonnegut reached the age of seventy-three in 1995. He then realized that he had achieved a greater age than either of his parents and declared that he had lived too long. Moreover, he announced that this book would be his last. His completion of the book, therefore, signaled his literary death. The exact moment evidently occurred around late April, 1997, when he wrote Timequake’s last pages—an epilogue eulogizing his brother Bernie. The timing was ironic, as Mark Twain, one of Vonnegut’s literary idols, died on almost the same date in 1910 when he, like Vonnegut, was five months into his seventy-fifth year. So it goes.

Categorizing any Vonnegut book as fiction, nonfiction, or something else is a tricky business. Lines separating fact and fiction in his novels often grow fuzzy, then disappear—especially when Vonnegut slips himself in as a character. Vonnegut’s sudden appearances in Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), for example, remind readers that he, like his fictional protagonist Billy Pilgrim, was a German prisoner in Dresden during World War II. That novel’s description of the Allied firebombing of Dresden, therefore, seems more real than imagined. In contrast, Vonnegut’s appearance in the entirely imaginary Hooverville ofBreakfast of Champions is something different—a more contrived device, evidently designed to startle readers and remind them of his authorial presence.

Timequake takes metafiction to a new level, opening with this disclaimer: “All persons, living and dead, are purely coincidental.” What follows is not so much a novel as a rambling meditation about a novel, in which Vonnegut slips back and forth into the very fiction he describes. One moment he comments on a problem he had while writing the book; the next moment he describes his conversation with Kilgore Trout as if Trout were a real person. Even more startling is his casual mention of the fact that, in 2010, he will be married to Monica Pepper (a fictional character), although his present wife, Jill Krementz, is still very much alive.

Bizarre transitions such as these will delight Vonnegut’s regular readers, while leaving those unfamiliar with his work merely bewildered and unable to pick up on the book’s underlying humor and often devastating wit. The book’s jacket blurb may not exaggerate in calling Timequake a “literary form such as the world has never seen before,” for it would be difficult to name the book’s structural peer. How much...

(The entire section is 1959 words.)