Friday, January 17, 2014

Galapagos, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

It's been a while since I read a Vonnegut novel, so it was fun to fall back into his wide-open storytelling style: dramatic tension? Nah. Good guys and bad guys? To him, we are all both. Mysteries solved by the characters? He deflates those by telling us right away what they do not know: how it turns out, who did it, etc.

Vonnegut does offer up a real mystery, about the Galapagos Islands ecosystem, without pretending he knows the answer:  How did the creatures documented by Charles Darwin on the islands get there? A thousand miles of deep water separate the islands from mainland South America. No land bridge, no evidence that they were ever part of the continent. They are volcanic in origin, which suggests they formed by erupting from the sea floor. Some evolutionary biologists have posited that animals floated over there on rafts of vegetation, and Vonnegut states this theory in a way that would make you squirm if that were your explanation. He just leaves you to ponder. This calls to mind lines from Cat's Cradle: "Fish got to swim, bird got to fly, man got to sit and wonder why, why, why."

What he does tell us is who's going to die, when and where. Which they do. Having laid bare the fates of his characters from the very start, he then shares their defining moments of life so we can appreciate them anyway. He weaves the twin species drivers of sex and death into an often funny story, whether he's describing the mating dance of the blue-footed boobies or the way one character met her husband-to-be.

In brief, a cruise ship runs aground on one of the Galapagos Islands. Some of the dozen people on board repopulate the world with vastly-modified descendants while everyone on the mainland is rendered sterile by a virus invading their reproductive systems.

As in previous stories, Vonnegut shows little respect for intelligence, finding it cause for misery far oftener than benefit. He calls us big brained creatures, making clear that this is no compliment:
"If I may insert a personal note at this point: When I was alive, I often received advice from my own big brain which, in terms of my own survival, or the survival of the human race, for that matter, can be charitably described as questionable. Example:  It had me join the United States Marines and go fight in Vietnam.
Thanks a lot, big brain."

His characters have no more consistency in their behavior or judgment than any batch of humans you could assemble: the retired school teacher heroine marries a con-man who stalks wealthy widows then disappears with their money. She believes the lies he tells, including his made-up name. But he dies before he can do her any harm, thus bringing her happiness. And the ship's captain, an arrogant racist, is the father of the only surviving branch of the human family, though he doesn't even know it. The fertile females, members of a primitive tribe rescued from starvation in the rainforest, are able to communicate among themselves but with no one else among the shipwrecked. I'm sure Vonnegut took special joy in launching this stone-age tribe past modern technology and culture (all doomed) to give birth to our future.

In Happy Birthday Wanda June, Vonnegut took us to Heaven where everyone dead is hanging out, including Hitler - and they're all happy and getting along wonderfully. In this writer's cosmos we are all good and evil, no matter our sins. He faults our brains, which are as attracted to creating havoc as to helping one another, and our fecundity, which keeps us from acknowledging the precariousness of life.  Your big brain may very well enjoy this book. Just keep in mind that the world as you know it could change drastically in an instant. And when you figure out how those land tortoises got to the Galapagos, let me know!