Full fathom five he lies
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But that doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Ariel’s Song – The Tempest, quoted in Timequake
In Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut looks back on his life and the lives of those he shared it with, while navigating his twin attempts at writing the novel Timequake. The timequake itself happened in 2001, four years after Uncle Kurt eventually wrote the book, when it dialled the universe back ten years to 1991. Everyone had to relive their lives from 1991 to 2001, unable to change a thing or a thought. There was no such thing as free will – everything happened all over again, as it had to, exactly the same way as before.
When the timequake catches up with itself, when that day in 2001 rolls around again, everyone is taken by surprise… What do they do now? Is there really free will again? Was there only ever the illusion of free will to begin with? Will everything leap back to 1991 a third time? Planes fall out of the sky as pilots are caught by surprise – which turns out to be a hideously indelible image of 2001 – people are left frozen in place, unwilling or unable to remember how to make a move of their own after a decade on autopilot.
Only fictional science fiction writer Kilgore Trout has sufficient awareness to lurch into action: he runs from human statue to human statue, galvanising them like Frankenstein with what becomes Kilgore’s Credo: You were ill, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do.
I just finished reading Timequake, eating ginger chicken udon while drinking a large Asahi by myself in Canterbury’s Wagamama on an autumn afternoon. The last time I can remember eating ginger chicken udon while drinking a large Asahi by myself in Canterbury’s Wagamama was on the day that my first child was born, six and a half years ago on a spring afternoon. I’d just left my son and my wife in the hospital, after a twenty-three and a half hour labour. Today I have come to Wagamama from hospital again, but this time having visited my nanna on what is probably her death bed. My nanna is fading, she’s a frail skeleton, but the loose pale skin that is hanging off her bones today still has the same moles that I remember from when she was tanned and plump and I was as old as my first son is now. Occasionally her blue eyes still focus on me and my dad, who is her first and only child, and he reminds her that he has the same blue eyes as her. He also inherited his dad’s sense of humour. My eyes are yellow and green, but I like to think that I also inherited that sense of humour.
I’m writing this with the same pen that I bought on the day that my first son was born, after I had eaten that ginger chicken udon. It’s exactly the same kind of pen that my friend Stevie gave me in 2001, the year of the timequake, but I lost that pen the night that my son was born, in the hubbub between my noting the times of my wife’s contractions and the dash to the operating theatre when it looked like things were going wrong. “Watching TV and films you’d think giving birth always involves emergency surgery, but that doesn’t really happen,” said our NCT coach ten weeks or so before I found myself putting on my scrubs while they wheeled my wife away, my pen lost somewhere.
Our son was perfectly healthy. So was my wife. So, eventually, was our second son, born twenty-two and a half months later. There are twenty-two and a half months between me and my younger brother, too, who I met up with this morning in my nanna’s hospital room.
The first Kurt Vonnegut book I read was Breakfast of Champions at the start of 1999, in the Olembia youth hostel in Saint Kilda in Melbourne. It was one of the first things I spoke to my new friend Kendra about. It was the second time I had stayed in Olembia – I first went there in 1998 with two friends I had just met, Lizzie and Debbie. I visited Lizzie in Glasgow at the end of 1999, at the start of a month-long trip around Scotland. I picked up a copy of Slaughterhouse 5 the day I arrived. In America, in 2001, the year of the timequake, I read Player Piano on a Greyhound bus and one cold night a few weeks later, just before Christmas, I went to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and read about a speech Vonnegut gave there where he talked about Timequake. That book sounds good, I thought to myself, I must read that. Fourteen years passed.
I associate Kurt Vonnegut with travelling: it’s not just a quirk of how I have picked up his books… I think it’s because he seems to write quickly, anecdotally, as if on the move, jumping from one idea to another, one time period to another. In Cat’s Cradle he writes: peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from god. It’s all a glorious train of ideas: what’s next? and where shall we go? That crackling offhand ramble is an illusion, it turns out. Vonnegut -of course- wrote and rewrote and hammered away and blocked and tinkered over everything he wrote. Endless work… Why did he do it? In Timequake he writes:
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.”
When I got back from Scotland, in 1999, I read God Bless You, Mr Rosewater. That’s the book with the line that always makes me cry. He says to the newborns:
Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.
I read that to my son the night we brought him home.
In 2001, the year of the timequake, I was sitting on my then-girlfriend’s bed in her orange bedroom, while she told me the story of Sirens of Titan. We split up a couple of months later and I went to America to hang around on Greyhound buses and university libraries. In 2006 I was reading Cat’s Cradle, and I read the aphoristic philosophical jokes to the woman who would become my wife: science is magic that works…
Kurt Vonnegut always makes me think of the people I love. Being born, falling in love, exploring, falling out of love, exploring some more, dying. He is compassionate, funny, cold to the bone honest and as fanciful as the maddest dreamer. And he never lets you off the hook. There’s work to do. God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.
It’s been the strangest, saddest day. I can feel all these odd memories, looping and reverberating. Something sad comes back as funny, something ridiculous comes back as profound. So it goes. God bless you, Mr Vonnegut.