`Novel' Is Like A Letter From Vonnegut

----------------------------------------------------------------- "Timequake" by Kurt Vonnegut Putnam, $23.95 -----------------------------------------------------------------

The most famous thing Kurt Vonnegut has written in the past five years wasn't actually written by Kurt Vonnegut. A document that purported to be his commencement address to MIT's class of '97 blazed through the Internet this summer, and was only recently unmasked as a Chicago columnist's advice to graduating seniors.

That so many people believed it to be Vonnegut reflects the columnist's skillful juxtaposition of the goofy with the common-sensical ("Don't be reckless with other people's hearts . . . Wear sunscreen"). That so many people wanted to believe it was Vonnegut reflects how much we miss his voice.

Well, here he is again, certifiably himself - yet, at age 74, for the last time, he has vowed - with his first "novel" in five years. I put "novel" in quotes because what we have here is a 219-page introduction to a novel that never gets going. The bare bones of the story are interspersed throughout, but they are offered in an almost by-the-way fashion.

This gives Vonnegut more time to talk about what Vonnegut wants to talk about - whether it's the disappearance of the short-story culture that nurtured his career, his German-American heritage or his continued insistence on the need for extended families. He maintains a Midwesterner's delight in silly jokes and quaint phrases (". . . something the cat drug in"); and he has the uncanny ability to launch into purposeless anecdotes, then connect them all in exquisite fashion.

He even provides explanation, via his longtime alter ego, Kilgore Trout, for the format of this novel:

"If I'd wasted my time creating characters," says Trout, "I would never have gotten around to calling attention to things that really matter: irresistible forces in nature, and cruel inventions, and cockamamie ideals and governments and economies that make heroes and heroines alike feel like something the cat drug in."

In a time warp

Those bare bones of the story are these: Just as Billy Pilgrim could get unstuck in time (in "Slaughterhouse-Five") and gravity could become variable ("Slapstick"), so Kilgore Trout and the world discover in "Timequake" that the universe isn't always expanding. In the year 2001, the universe has second thoughts and contracts, or hiccups, sending everyone back to what they were doing 10 years before.

It's a perverse form of eternal recurrence. Everyone has knowledge of the next decade but is unable to alter it in any fashion. They essentially become prisoners within their own bodies.

Thus, when the universe gets going again, people are unprepared - asleep at the wheel, as it were - and disasters occur. They don't realize that once again they have to drive their cars or fly their airplanes or concentrate on walking straight. So cars crash, planes plummet, people wobble and fall over.

Trout, one of the first to realize what has happened, tries to wake people out of their stupor by shouting, "You have free will!" When this doesn't work, he tells them, "You were sick, but now you are well, and there's work to do!"

Metaphor for our time

The metaphor for our time becomes obvious. And while the metaphor resonates, it's Vonnegut's voice that recommends the novel. Yes, he's older now and tends to repeat himself ("As I've said elsewhere . . .," "As I've written elsewhere . . ." are ubiquitous phrases). But his voice is so personal, the book is like a 219-page letter from a fascinating friend you haven't heard from in a while - which indeed, it is.

After telling us about a meandering day of his, Vonnegut adds: "Listen: We are here on Earth to fart around. Don't let anybody tell you any different!"

It's so nice to fart around again with Kurt Vonnegut.

Erik Lundegaard is a Seattle writer and bookstore worker.