Winter is when I like to read things that are heavy or dark or thought-provoking or deeply emotional because the weather sort of matches my mood and it gives me something new to drift away with when I’m staring out the window at the pouring rain and bracing myself to go out into it, even when it’s never as bad to go out in as it looks like it’s going to be from my warm cozy place on the sofa.
Recently I’ve tried reading McSweeney’s again, which is something various people keep telling me I should read, even when I have never quite felt like I get it. I wonder if I’m just missing some inside joke, or if there’s some academic background I have to have to follow along, or what, and probably I am missing some of those things because I was far too cheap to stay in college, and also not fond of taking direction from professors or completing assignments or learning anything that didn’t appeal directly to me in the moment. But there are some really talented writers there, and I’m a fool for anything well-written, so I keep giving it another try.
McSweeney’s had an interview with Kurt Vonnegut a few years ago (he’s now dead) which intrigued me, so even though fiction isn’t my thing – even less so science fiction – I have the library two blocks away and so it’s easy to try on books that I normally wouldn’t. I checked out Timequake, and since the premise that blew my mind is right there in the prologue, I don’t think I’m spoiling it for anyone to discuss it here.
The timequake is an event that happens in February of 2001 (book was written in the 1990s) that sends everyone back in time to a day in February 1991, and everyone has to live their lives over exactly in the way that they did the first time through, only with the awareness that they are living it a second time and can’t change anything about what they did. If someone died, you couldn’t save them – unless you did it on the first go-round; if you hurt someone, you would hurt them again with the full awareness of what you were going to do and exactly how it would turn out, and you couldn’t change anything. If you married the wrong person and wasted any part of that decade with them, you would do so again. The part where you’re aware of what’s happening, of living in a constant state of deja vu, that is the part that hit me so hard I had to put the book down and examine for myself the horror of what it would be like to go through the last decade of my life … or especially that particular one, the one in the novel – 1991 to 2001 – again.
I am thirty-five, so the last ten years have been pretty eventful for me. So much happened to me as a human being in that decade, it would be really difficult to watch myself have to grow up again that way. But however horrifying that idea may be, going back to 1991 would have been many thousands of times more difficult, because 1991 was the year of my second attempt at suicide, and I was still in high school. Going back to high school is a recurring nightmare I’ve had that only recently mellowed out, to the point where in the dream itself I would realize it was only school, nothing that happened there really mattered, and anyway I didn’t have to go to class when the bell rings after all, I could wander the halls alone or leave entirely – really, I could do whatever I wanted while everyone else was in class and no one could arrest me or make me stay or do anything else. Doing my own thing is fine, whatever other people choose to do with their time or whatever rules they like to follow. That seems to be the message of peace I get from that dream, and it’s only changed for the better this way in the last, oh, five years or so.
2001 by contrast was two years after buying my first house and a year after I bought a grand piano to fill up one corner of it. By then the color of my path was starting to become more clear to me, and some of the most enjoyable times I had with friends were 1995-1998, when I lived in the camper, and I would get to relive those, but I don’t know if that would make up for going all the way back to high school.
So the premise alone of this book is enough to give me a lot to think about, which will come in handy because I’m packing to go off to Quiet Weekend at Breitenbush today, and there won’t be a lot of social chit-chat to fill time with. Since it’s my friend Lisa I’m going with and we are unreformable chit-chatters, I think it’s going to be very difficult to behave ourselves with the chatting. Since we’re both nannies, there’s something about adults-only and silence that is very appealing when we make our vacation plans. And we have the whole drive there and back as well, during which I fully expect we will wear out the timequake idea and chatter ourselves hoarse in the bargain.
What I think makes this book so amazing is the thoughts it provokes. How would I have lived differently, if I knew I would (or even might) one day live it again just as it had happened the first time? What would I wish I had done that I didn’t do? How would I wish I had steered my life, knowing I would do it again exactly the same way?
Because no one who knows what the afterlife is like – assuming there is one – is capable of coming back to tell us, we have to work out for ourselves what to do with the time and the body we’re given. Everything is improvised. You get one shot at your life, which happens in moments, tiny individual moments that you can only barely plan for and which you can only grasp in the slightest possible way before they are over and you have another, and another, and those moments are strung together like beads in a design you won’t see the pattern of until it is too late to change your mind about what the end product will become. You never get to change what’s already done, only what comes next, and what comes next starts to race faster and faster past us as we go along. I’ve definitely felt time picking up speed lately, I don’t know if it’s because I’m older, or because the kids around me are getting older and marking time for me, or because the universe itself really is expanding at an ever-faster pace and I’m tuning in to it, but wow. I had to put the book down for a whole day before I could get back to it. Vonnegut was in his seventies when he wrote this book. I would love to have the kind of perspective now that he had then. This book is just a little peek through the window of what my 70 year old self may feel and think – and I don’t even know if I will live that long.
There’s a parable about death that I heard recently, I can’t remember how I stumbled upon it but it seems to have come into my life because I’m working for a family where the mom is living with cancer and I can’t help thinking about her small children who may or may not be old enough to remember her when she’s gone.
The parable takes place in a pond, where dragonfly larvae are talking among themselves, and every so often one of them bursts to the surface and never comes back. And the ones that are left behind keep asking each other, what happened to that one? Why don’t they come back and tell us what it is like up there? So they make one of their number promise to come back, and tell the story, again and again, but none of them ever does. And of course the dragonflies above keep looking down into the water at the babies and wishing they could keep their promise, and they can’t, but from what they know, they aren’t worried for those left beneath the surface, because their turns are coming, and when they do come above the surface, all that they need to know will be contained in that one golden instant, and the mystery will be solved. And meanwhile the wondering gives them something to think about – what do you do with the moments you have, knowing someday that your turn is coming, that everything changes, and that you’re not coming back to what is familiar to you now?
The more I learn, the more I realize that I really don’t know anything.