The titular timequake goes like this: everyone in the world is catapulted back in time 10 years, from February 13, 2001 to February 17, 1991. For an added twist, Vonnegut wrote this book in 1996, but inserted himself as a character so he could be part of the discussion in 2001. So, everyone goes back in time. But, instead of being able to make changes (because they retain their memories) they just have to go through everything again. Basically, their brains remain unchanged from 2001 – they have all their memories and education, etc. – but their bodies have changed and, oddly, have their own minds.
This is what I mean by Vonnegut not being satisfied with regular weird. Going back in time: fairly routine science fiction trope. Going back in time with all your present memories but no ability to change the past: Vonnegut's slice of the scifi pie. Because, as it seems, Vonnegut isn't interested in allowing his characters to race against time to change their futures; he's interested in what happens when you lose free will and just get carried through life with a complete disconnect between your brain and your body.
Vonnegut also takes delight in the moment when, after the 10-year rerun, people's free will returns and they don't know what to do. A lot of them fall over, because they aren't used to having to walk on their own anymore. There are a lot of car accidents, airplanes falling from the sky, and general disaster. But don't worry about it too much, because both Vonnegut the character and the failed science fiction writer Kilgour Trout (Vonnegut the author's semi-autobiographical projection) do alright. They manage to not be in moving vehicles, or crossing the street, or swimming, when their free will returns.
Vonnegut is hilarious, and his outbursts and insertions (by which persona, it's hard to say) are enough to make this novel worth reading. But there's much more to it than that. Just think about having to experience a rerun of every moment from February 1991 to February 2001. As Vonnegut points out, it means that although you get to experience all the joys again, you also head right into disaster and despair with absolutely no recourse. Sure, you can think to yourself "I get through this," but that doesn't necessarily make it easier. The lack of free will, coupled with a kind of omniscient knowledge is hell. So in some ways, Timequake is an exercise in reminding us how lucky we are to have the past in the past.
For the writing style – and the laughs – alone Timequake is worth reading (you can pretty much open it to any page at random and have a good chuckle). But it's also a pretty sophisticated piece of science fiction, completely grounded in our reality but about something that could never actually happen. And to be honest, having it happen in a novel is quite real enough.
by Kurt Vonnegut
First published in 1997 (cover image from Berkley International edition)