Have you ever finished a book wondering if you completely missed the point, or read the whole story wrong? That’s kind of, kind of not how I feel about book #4 of 2015, which I just finished tonight. I read Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut, and it was weird. But I liked it. But it was weird.
So the story is told from the perspective of a ghost who’s been hanging around on Earth observing the last surviving members of mankind, a strange and unlikely group who opted to take a cruise from Ecuador to the Galapagos Islands before this World War III type apocalypse thing happened. The reason for this demise of mostly everyone boils down to the humans’ brains being too big. The ghost is telling the story from a million years in the future, and in a sort of quip-y, singsong-y way. That – combined with the fact that you don’t find out really who this first-person narrator really is until probably halfway through the book – makes it… distracting? But also interesting.
It’s a sporadic style of narration, too. Like you find out random back story details about these last humans in a non-chronological way. The entire book is really made up of the scattered details combined with the ghost narrator comparing “back then” (a million years ago) to his present day, where humans have much smaller brains, die significantly earlier, don’t have hands, and are also somehow much happier. I’d say the book is probably 45% character back story details, 50% discussion of the way things are a million years in the future, and only 5% chronological story-telling. Which is a really interesting way to tell a story, and gives it the campy feeling of a fable, or almost like an ancient myth. Or something. Clearly I can’t actually decide how I feel about this book.
I’ve read Slaughterhouse Five, and I think I’ve read Cat’s Cradle. I like Vonnegut, his writing is very quotable, easy to relate to, and smart without seeming like he’s trying. This novel of his in particular is cool because it can be taken at face value, and you can read about an apocalypse, the rare and unlikely survivors, and the circumstances they had to survive in to carry on the human race. I mean, you can kind of read those, but a lot of it is also left up to the reader’s imagination, since the narrator jumps around so much and you don’t really get concrete details about how all that worked out exactly.
But this novel was also cool because it’s clear that Vonnegut is making statements about the human race as it exists today (or in 1986, technically, when this WWIII was supposed to have taken place) and what we consider important. In one sentence, the narrator is raising the question of the meaning of life, through a drunk, ill-prepared captain in his underwear, trying to maintain dignity. It’s all such a caricature anyway, this it’s amazing that a scene like that can resonate and mean a lot more than the slapstick comedy bit that it is literally.
In 1986, at the outbreak of this war, pretty much all currency has lost any value. But this one character, who’s made a life out of getting rich by getting married and stealing, is still placing all his worth and value on his money, and others’ money. So repeatedly but in such a glib way, the narrator is raising all these crazy questions about life and what matters most in it. It’s heavy content but told in a fun way, which is rare and takes skill. I don’t know. I liked it, but I’m still somehow paranoid that I missed the full point. I’m sure after this I’ll make my way over to Google to find out what everyone else thought.
Quick side note that has nothing to do with Vonnegut and is going to be basically me bragging: I’m feeling really good about this 100-books-in-a-year-thing. I first set that goal and it didn’t really compute that that would mean reading a book every 3.65 days. I realize that’s probably obvious for, you know, all people but math’s not a strong suit of mine. Anyway, I was nervous I wouldn’t be able to do that but so far I’m on track, which makes me proud. We’re not even halfway through the first month so I hope I’m not speaking too soon, but I’m excited to see if I can do this all year. ◊
What source was there back then, save for our overelaborate nervous circuitry, for the evils we were seeing or hearing about simply everywhere? My Answer: There was no other source. This was a very innocent planet, except for those great big brains.” – Vonnegut, 9