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What I thought of Galapagos

February 17, 2021

I love Galapagos. It’s in my top five Vonnegut books, alongside Slapstick (or Lonesome No More), Timequake, Bluebeard, and Mother Night. (I love pretty much all his books, but those are my favourites). I’ve read Galapagos about six times, and I never get bored with it.

Galapagos follows a handful of disparate strangers who become stranded on a small Galapalos island. Together, they form the gene pool which eventually saves the human race from extinction, when bacteria prevents the rest of the world population from reproducing. The novel speculates about how these remaining humans might evolve in those unforgiving conditions, where all food has to be caught in the sea, and ingenuity is no longer a tool to aid survival. The era of the Big Brain is over.

Vonnegut’s best books are all beautifully constructed. I’ve read pretty much everything he wrote that made it into print, (so many of his talks, essays and short stories are anthologised, you don’t need to dig too deep to find even his most obscure articles), but I don’t recall reading anything that explains how he plotted his novels. I assume he created a chapter by chapter plan of what would go where before sitting to write the text, a comprehensive catalogue of which revelations would appear at any given stage in the telling. One of Vonnegut’s great skills is divulging the plot points before they happen without detracting from the engagement of the reader. The overall plot is only a part of the story’s appeal. In that sense, like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five, the reader becomes unstuck in time, able to view the entirety of the story arc from beginning to end while honing in on individual moments to understand what is happening to the characters. And like Billy Pilgrim, the reader is unable to do anything but get angry or be saddened by the human frailties that drive the plot.

Galapagos, like Mother Night, uses Vonnegut’s favourite technique, where he builds the narrative of each chapter to set up a pay-off or punchline in the final paragraph, as if he were writing an episode of a TV serial and needed to give the reader a buzz of satisfaction so they’d switch on the following week or, in the case of his novels, to turn the page and embark on the next chapter.

There are a dozen themes running the Galapagos which speak to the world as it is at the moment: the world is at the mercy of a microscopic virus; as a human race, we have taken huge liberties with the natural world, and we will no doubt suffer for it; we are three or four missed meals away from anarchy; greedy people will drive us to ruin; we are still prone to promote charismatic people to positions of power, where their incompetence puts other people in jeopardy; charisma can be bought through the tutelage of expensive schools; we are still infatuated by beautiful people, and will give them crazy proportions of our wherewithall in order to get their patronage; the world of property and wealth is a confidence trick which can fall apart at any given moment; some people think of nothing but their own personal aggrandisement; school teachers are wonderful people; when times are hard, some country’s reaction will be to declare war on its neighbours.

And there are things that regularly crop up in Vonnegut’s books: for someone who saw unimaginable death at scale in Dresden, he is always ready to destroy the human race, except for a few stragglers, who he leaves to cope; he simultaneously holds the human race in contempt and reverence; he was a humanist who regularly created an after-life in his books.

I am sure I’ll read Galapagos again in a few years time. I’m sure I’ll be astounded by his plotting, dismayed by the behaviour of his characters, flabbergasted by the story’s audacity, and I’ll rally behind his concern for humans and the planet. And I’m sure I’ll re-read his other books, and feel exactly the same way. In fact, it’s maybe time to re-read Wampeters, Foma and Grandfaloons. I haven’t read that one in a while.

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