Way beyond the slaughterhouse

TIMEQUAKE by Kurt Vonnegut, Cape pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
There is something curious - but very Vonnegutian - about this summer's story of how a Chicago journalist's newspaper column came to be mistaken for a university awards speech that the writer Kurt Vonnegut did not give. Not least because the odd tale quickly acquired mythical status, thanks to the Internet, a medium that has long attracted the antipathy of a man who otherwise seems the epitome of easy going.

It is just the sort of strange chain of events that this septuagenarian son of Indianapolis would feature in one of his books as a symbol of the absurdity of our times. No wonder that even his wife, the photographer Jill Krementz, apparently received the article via e-mail and transmitted it to their family as further evidence of the great man's wisdom.

So, given that somebody else has come up with words that seemingly could have been written by him, is he that wise? On the evidence of Timequake, his latest - and, so he says - last book, yes and no.

Readers have long since realised that he cannot be confined to the science fiction ghetto with which early works such as Cat's Cradle associated him. The hugely successful Slaughterhouse Five, with its exploration of the author's experience of the Allied bombing raids on Dresden, made sure of that.

Not that Vonnegut is a straight novelist either. Timequake is rooted in science fiction or fantasy in that it is ostensibly about a "sudden glitch in the space-time continuum" that makes everybody do again exactly what they'd done during a past decade. "It was deja vu that wouldn't quit for ten long years," he explains. And as if to keep it just within the bounds of science fiction, he makes the decade in question the 1990s.

But not only does he not stick to this conceit, he does not keep to fiction. While a prologue explains that the timequake idea is the invention of Kilgore Trout, familiar to fans as his alter ego in other books, Vonnegut merely toys with the notion as he drifts into seemingly unrelated musings on death, family and this crazy old world of ours. Not surprisingly, the Dresden story, which has done so much to cement his reputation as a prober of the human condition, keeps cropping up.

In this sense, it is indeed an old man's book, full of reminiscence, jokes of varying degrees of tastelessness and an awful lot of whimsy. But there are enough of Vonnegut's touches - such as his repetition of the catch-phrase "Ting-A-Ling" and of a peculiar anatomical description of the sexual act - to bring a wry smile to the face, if not to spawn mottoes for sensitive undergraduates.

Such has been his influence that even management books echo the terse, declamatory style that Vonnegut has honed over the years. So perhaps we can forgive him for producing a less than memorable final effort - even if we do not really believe that a man who can demonstrate his love of the writer's craft by concluding with the words "What a language" has written his last book.