You Were Sick
How Kurt Vonnegut’s final novel gives the perfect advice for resistance in Trump’s America.
It’s been a few years since graduation, but I’ll always be an English major at heart. And like many English majors before and after me, Kurt Vonnegut is a big deal to me.
At times I’ve wanted his quotes tattooed on me, but I’d end up looking like Guy Pearce in Memento. His stuff has just meant too much to me. From sixteen years old, when I read Hocus Pocus and first heard about humanism, then became a pacifist when I devoured Slaughterhouse-Five.
When my wife was pregnant with our son, I prepared myself for fatherhood by re-reading the scene in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater when the eponymous Eliot Rosewater baptises two little twin babies with one of the most powerful speeches ever committed to ink and paper:
“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”
I still get choked up when I think about that.
And now, here we are. A historical precipice that would fit right in with the more dystopian and apocalyptic Vonnegut, right between Harrison Bergeron and Galápagos. A billionaire madman has used cutting-edge social technology to win an election by losing the popular vote, and is marching us toward physical and philosophical destruction. It has all the hallmarks of a Vonnegut story. It’s desperately grim, with some truly loathsome characters, is compulsively readable (I’m looking at you, my eternally-refreshing Twitter feed), and is shockingly, brutally funny.
And, of course, Ol’ Kurt would have loved the Russian golden shower bit. It’s the perfect mix of impossibly funny, and impossible to laugh at.
As in many times in my life, I find myself looking to cultural bits and pieces I’ve crammed into my brain over the years for wisdom, hope, solace, anything. Enter, again, Kurt Vonnegut, with what we need most right now: A call to action.
Plot purists be warned, there be spoilers in these parts.
Released in 1997, Timequake was the last novel he published. It’s often (completely unjustly) overlooked in his overall canon, and even the author himself referred to it as the book “that didn’t want to be written”. In true Vonnegut fashion, it’s kind of a mish-mash of autobiography and science fiction. The basic idea is that time rewinds ten years, from 2001 to 1991, and then starts again. Everyone on earth has to relive those ten years, and do it exactly the same. They are on, as he says, automatic pilot, just riding through those years as passengers, watching themselves and everyone around them commit the same mistakes and fall victim to the same traumas. And none of them knows when or if it will ever end.
This is obviously pretty horrifying. And Vonnegut milks it for every last drop of existential dread. An architect who killed himself during that time over having his job replaced by a computer program is brought back to life, and dragged back through the series of events that led to his suicide. A paraplegic must regain the ability to walk, only to jump headfirst into a shallow pool again, knowing what will happen, while everyone around looks on, internally in horror, externally having fun in the sun. A black man must be wrongfully accused for a rape again, the judge knowing he’ll be eventually exonerated, and serve an unjust prison sentence, again.
It’s pretty heavy stuff.
But the real problem comes when time catches up to itself, the timequake ends (or begins, depending on how you look at it), and the world suddenly has free will again. People haven’t been in control for ten years, and now they are, and they don’t know what to do. Planes fall from the sky, car accidents litter every city, chaos abounds.
Except for one guy, Vonnegut’s career-spanning alter ego character, Kilgore Trout, who led such a determinedly uneventful life that he barely notices when the ten years are up. Apathetic, unhappy, unfazed, he has to step up.
See where I’m going with this?
He goes to that wrongfully convicted ex-convict, now a security guard at a museum, who is terrified to move, lest he be plunged back into his prison sentence, and says the words that were written twenty years too early. “You were sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do.” They then set about waking people from their stupors with those words, essentially saving the world from its disaster and malaise.
It’s not his best novel. It’s not my favorite of his novels. But that mantra stuck in my craw the moment I read it, eighteen or nineteen years old, and has always floated around in my head, waiting for moments to pop up and be of use. It exploded into mind recently, as the unthinkable happened and we got our very own, all-American, reality show authoritarian.
Many Americans have felt trapped and abused by the political cycle, ignored and forgotten by our leaders. We’ve been mad as hell for a while now, and that was quite clear in the 2016 presidential election. On the left with Sanders supporters’ demands for social justice and economic equity, and on the right, where the Tea Party movement reached its inevitable culmination in Trump, populism made that anger very real, and very loud. And in the end, the angriest, loudest side won out, and on January 20th, we inaugurated…that.
Enough thinkpieces have been published about the causes of this catastrophe, so I won’t go further into that. But, it matches up to Timequake strikingly. A long period of frustrating cycling was followed by a descent into chaos when the cycle changed. And now we’re in what could be the worst moment in American history.
A culture of activism has taken over. The Women’s March on Washington on January 21st did something, jolting people from their cringing fear and giving them a way to stand up. Since then, there’s been a nearly nonstop protest culture in DC, and days of airport protests against the Muslim banning executive order signed on the 27th. Even as I write this, a scientists’ march in defense against the wave of anti-science decisions being passed down from the new White House is being organized. These mighty movements are birthing a network, a conscious, organized force to be reckoned with that isn’t going away anytime soon.
Countless reports, and many people I know, have commented that they’ve never done anything overtly political. In their entire lives, they’ve never been moved to participate in the system, sometimes including voting at all. But on the morning after the inauguration, several million brave, powerful men and mostly women rose up and decided to strike down apathy and inaction.
They said that progress can’t simply be reversed in one election.
They said that attacking the weakest among us awakens the strongest among us.
They said that this can be overcome, but overcoming takes work.
And so again, I come to my literary spirit animal, Kurt Vonnegut. When I feel catatonic, broken by the onslaught of this-can’t-really-be-happening-here horror, shocked into paralysis, I say, “You were sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do.”
Because there is so much work to do.