What will become of the human race in a million years? Will humans be reflecting on how much smarter (or bigger brained) they once were? Galapagos is arguably the last good novel Kurt Vonnegut wrote. As the book stands, I’d rank it below Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions, yet it is definitely one of Vonnegut’s classics worth reading.
Told from the point of view of Leon Trout after his death, the narrative offers a humorous reflection on humanity, the animal species of our race and all the failures in between. Reading Vonnegut is an interesting experience because he breaks a lot of the rules that are encouraged by generic MFA workshops. For one thing, he uses short sentences. When examined up close, it is not as though one is going to be rhapsodized by his lyrical, fluid style; instead, when one pulls back and views the larger canvas, it becomes easier to see how innovative Vonnegut is when it comes to story-telling structure. While his humor can appeal to readers on a shallow level, much of the observation requires one to take pause and, in many instances, reread.
On a cruise to the Galapagos Islands, a myriad mix of characters are tossed in — funny, unlikely and absurd, all of them with back stories, which readers are given glimpses of, as all are relayed through the narrator telling us the tale. That’s right — we are being told what is happening, rather than generically shown, and while neither technique is better than another, for some reason editors and publishers today have the idea that telling is somehow wrong and showing is better. In reality, it just depends on how each technique is used within its narrative structure, and Vonnegut shows us that 1) telling a story with what we can pretty much bet is an unreliable narrator is a perfectly effective way to disclose a tale and 2) short sentences can be used well, and it is through this technique that Vonnegut is able to create his humor with such success.
Include within all of that a social commentary and we’ve got ourselves an entertaining and smart work. Here’s an example of a good exchange, where after a character dies, the narrator notes: “Oh well — he wasn’t going to write Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony anyway.”
The narrator continues with:
“This wry comment on how little most of us were likely to accomplish in life, no matter how long we lived, isn’t my own invention…”
The narrator then goes on to inform us as to where he heard the expression, and several instances within this short exchange, the phrase is repeated for humorous effect, but also to stress the point with regard to human beings and the fact that most of them are average and forgettable and won’t be accomplishing much anyway. So in other words, their death is not really any loss for themselves and the greater good of the culture.