Review Of Galapagos, by Kurt Vonnegut
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 1/26/11
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, and 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 that 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 how 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.
It is comments like these that make Vonnegut Vonnegut—it’s not just about humor itself or plot, but really, what is being said? Very often the humor is coating a more serious issue that often reflects the stupidity and the pathetic nature of people in general.
Galapagos is not as innovative as Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions, for the former is one of the most uniquely structured and poetic novels I’ve ever read, and the latter offers great insights into much of everything. This is what makes reading Vonnegut an experience in itself. From a critical point of view, Galapagos probably could have been cut a little in parts, but it is far from being overblown, for Vonnegut is good with brevity.
One of the negatives about Vonnegut, however, is that he tends to get repetitive. So in other words, he has a number of excellent novels worth the read (those mentioned in this review, including Galapagos) but others tend to be echoes of his better works. As example, Slapstick comes to mind as one of his lesser works, comparatively.
Due to Vonnegut’s style, it is not only somewhat difficult to give a direct plot summary of his work, but it is also kind of pointless. His characters are usually quite colorful and memorable, and they’re the ones who push the tale forward more than anything. Within the Vonnegut world, it’s not uncommon to jump around in time, travel on narrative tangents or hear some absurd back-story just so a point can be proven. Thus is why reading Vonnegut is an experience in itself—and when he is at his very best, his work is as good as Milan Kundera. Both novelists, even though they are quite different in approach, are flipsides of the same coin. One is drama, the other is comedy, but both play with structure in unique ways, they are both philosophical (Kundera more directly so) and both own a unique vision that allows them the means to comment on the culture at large. Yet I would argue that Vonnegut, despite his satire, often carries more pathos than Kundera’s drama.
So travel to the Galapagos Islands with Kurt—visit this and his other titles, including God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Who could forget about Eliot Rosewater?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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