I’ve been a big fan of Vonnegut for a while. Galápagos is actually re-read, one I picked off the shelf because I wanted something easy to read that I’d enjoy.
[SPOILER ALERT: I think you can read this review and still enjoy the book – the plot isn’t crucial – but I will be talking about the major plot points, and the conclusion].
On re-reading, I think this isn’t actually my favourite Vonnegut.
It has some of his trademarks. There’s the wry, affectionate tone as he both identifies, and forgives, the failings of frail humans. There’s the easy tone he has as a writer, something that I think may have been quite hard to write. There’s the philosophical underpinning, as he thinks about what it means for humans to bumble through a material universe that doesn’t give a shit.
I think what was missing for me was the plot. There is one, in a sense. Galápagos tells the story of a group of humans, crashed on an island after a global virus wipes out the rest of humanity, who evolve over a million years into a very different – and he argues, better – version of humanity.
But the real hero in his story is evolution, and the real villain is the human brain. It’s an interesting approach; a reifying of all our thought processes: tracing back the horrible, thoughtlessly cruel human things do, and blaming it on the grey matter we carry around.
Vonnegut tells us explicitly who the villain is:
And why was such quiet desperation such a widespread malady back then, and especially among men? Yet again I trot onstage the only real villain in my story: the oversize human brain.
And the saviour? It’s evolution, which over a million years (I have no idea if that’s a realistic time-frame – my intuition is it’s on the short side) evolves humans into something very different.
When my tale began, it appeared that the earthling part of the clockwork of the universe was in terrible danger, since many of its parts, which is to say people, no longer fit in anywhere, and were damaging all the parts around them as well as themselves. I would have said back then that the damage was beyond repair.
Thanks to certain modifications in the design of human beings, I see no reason why the earthling part of the clockwork can’t go on ticking forever the way it is ticking now.
If some supernatural beings, or flying-saucer people, those darlings of my father, brought humanity into harmony with itself and the rest of nature, I did not catch them doing it. I am prepared to swear under oath that the Law of Natural Selection did the repair job without outside assistance of any kind.
I think it’s possible to try and poke holes – many of the things he highlights, where humans hurt one another, may occur in crueler fashion in species without our cognitive capacity. But that’s easily forgivable, I think, for the sake of a story.
But that’s the challenge, I think. The story itself follows a selection of characters, but in a basic sense, they’re peripheral. They take no significant action – at best it’s haphazard and the crucial consequences are unintended – and really, they’re representatives of the larger set of faults that Vonnegut has cast as his antagonist, the shortcomings of the human race.
The real protagonist is evolution – ‘the Law of Natural Selection’. There are three ways that Vonnegut highlights it, although I don’t think in the final reading they come together brilliantly.
The premise for the story is a nature cruise, touring the Galapagos Islands. This gives him a chance to wax rhapsodical about evolution, Darwin, and the Beagle, but it doesn’t drive the narrative strongly.
With his characters, he frequently interjects. Points out how a particular action or behaviour is the product of a brain, which has an evolutionary heritage. Perhaps he mentions one or two other evolutionarily driven traits, but they don’t spring to mind. While it has oracular value, it doesn’t make for a strong narrative.
Finally, he concludes with humans, living effectively as seals, on an island network a million years from now. It’s here that the writing feels most comfortable; but it also doesn’t make for much of a plot point to arrive there.
There is one other plotline, though, that I found fascinating. He tells the story through the eyes of the son of Leon Trout, son of Vonnegut’s sort-of alter-ego Kilgore Trout. It’s interesting to read Leon’s reflections on a father who he’s idolised, and then realised is largely a failure. It made me wonder whether it was Vonnegut criticising himself, or sympathising with his son, or something else entirely. One of the happiest moments in the book is when Leon breaks down in a doctor’s office. Not because he’s been offered asylum and escape from conscription as a Marine in Vietnam, but because he’s found someone who knows his Dad’s writing – a validation of all that smoking and tinkering at a keyboard.
I don’t think this is my favourite Vonnegut. I wouldn’t recommend starting with it, but it’s a decent read if you’ve enjoyed some of his other pieces.