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Thursday's Books: Kurt Vonnegut, `Timequake', Jonathan Cape, pounds 15. 99

Kurt Vonnegut, `Timequake', Jonathan Cape, pounds 15.99

This is the plot. Get this - there is no plot! Kurt Vonnegut has served up, as the supposed final course in the long feast of his writing career, a delectable millefeuille of irony. Timequake explores what happens (or more precisely, what doesn't happen) to Vonnegut when, in 2001, a "timequake" hits. The universe has a decade of self-doubt, shrinking back to 1991 and forcing everybody to relive the last 10 years of their lives exactly as they had before, but without free will. The same mistakes. The same corny jokes. The same doses of clap.

Periodically, we see Vonnegut grappling with a book he's destined never to finish called (you guessed) Timequake. Maybe there are crumbs of plotting here and there. In 2001 (second time around), free-will kicks in and flummoxes Americans all over again by forcing them to think for themselves. Vonnegut's fictional alter ego, sci-fi writer and bum Kilgore Trout, emerges from his doss-house next to the quasi-derelict American Academy of Arts and is accidentally taken to be a national literary hero. The security guard had collected all the crappy stories that Kilgore had scribbled and then deposited in the lidless wire trashcan outside the buildings. He thought it was a sign!

So Kilgore is exalted, and installed in the Xanadu suite, previously inhabited by icons such as Hemingway or Tennessee Williams. Timequake notionally ends at a clambake held in Trout's honour at which the good and the great are present. Vonnegut, of course, is there; his own unfinished novel echoing in the empty larder of American fiction circa 2001. Trout's admiring audience applaud all his inanities and the cheesy aphorisms he quotes from his own post-timequake bestseller My Ten Years on Automatic Pilot, such as "I didn't need a timequake to teach me being alive was a crock of shit."

Here the confection is at its sweetest. Vonnegut has a handful of basic ingredients - the shittiness of life, the senseless cruelty of war, the unequal distribution of wealth - which he renders into the reduced satire of people craving direction and leadership. He adds scarily uninspiring titbits from Trout's/Vonnegut's mundane lives, scattering those crumbs of plotting with more digression than Tristram Shandy.

Timequake, chock-full of self-important references, perhaps isn't a substantial valedictory offering. But it does suggest Vonnegut's alarm at a possible future world in which Trout's drivelling idiocies are elevated to the level of vatic utterance. Mercifully, we are not there yet. And there's a deliciously sly irony that Kilgore's "final" novel is at once a klaxon against tedium and itself a monumental yawn.