Galápagos is the sixth book in Rachel’s Best Vonnegut Reading Order.
Well . . . okay.
That was my reaction upon finishing Galápagos. I wish I had stronger feelings about it. This post would be much more interesting if I did. But try as I might, I can’t summon up either love or hate for the book. Hopefully, you’ll be able to.
For at least the second time in Vonnegut’s writing career, he puts an end to the world. But in Galápagos, it’s able to start back up again. The fate of humanity rests in the hands of a few guests in Guayaquil’s El Dorado Hotel, awaiting a Galápagos cruise: a Japanese inventor and his pregnant wife, an American businessman and his blind daughter, an American biology teacher who was supposed to go on the trip with her husband before his untimely death of a brain tumor, and an American con man who’s thinking of making the biology teacher his eighteenth wife. But, as our narrator is unashamed to tell us, not all of these people will make it to the cruise ship. He even uses a helpful asterisk to denote those who will die soon, just to make sure we don’t get attached to anyone we shouldn’t.
And who is this narrator? We aren’t told right away. But one of the first things we learn about him is that he’s dead. And that he’s telling this story from a million years in the future, where humanity is far different than it was in 1986, the year the cruise passengers became the ancestors of all living people.
I was so confused upon finishing Galápagos (in my own defense, I wasn’t too lost until the last few pages) that I had to look up a few reviews of it to make sense of what happened. The reviewers I read believed that we were not supposed to like or pity any of the characters in the book. That’d make the book easier to read, I admit. Almost all of these people are jerks, idiots, or both. But – and I shouldn’t have expected any less from Vonnegut, who always said he never wrote villains – most of these characters’ histories make them complicated, if not sympathetic. I would have loved to indulge in simple hatred of James Wait, the con man and serial groom, but then I read this passage:
Wait would not take off his shirt – because he was so ashamed of all the scars he had from punishments inflicted by various foster parents. Later, when he was a prostitute on the island of Manhattan, his clients would find those scars, made by cigarettes and coat hangers and belt buckles and so on, very exciting.
The air went right out of my hatred after that.
And that’s what Vonnegut can do for an unlikable character. He can work magic with a character whose worst fault is gullibility. In one scene, we’re shown how Mary Hepburn, the easily fooled but well-meaning biology teacher, met her deceased husband, Roy. She’s a young woman staying the night in an Indiana state park (illegally), and he’s a former Navy man imitating the call of a whippoorwill while hanging out in the park (just as illegally). Mary, who thinks she’s heard a real bird, is none too pleased that she’s been fooled, but then Roy tells her he was hitchhiking across the country when he heard about a pair of rare birds who were allegedly residing in the park. He later found out the birds weren’t there at all but were extinct. Since Roy, like Mary, loves birds, he’s saddened by this, but, also like Mary, he still breaks the law to stay the night in the park and watch the world happen all around him.
“[The extinct birds] needed lots of peace and quiet,” said Roy, “and so do I, and so do you, I guess, and I’m sorry if I disturbed you. I wasn’t doing anything a bird wouldn’t do.”
Some automatic device clicked in [Mary’s] big brain . . . She was in love with this man.
Look me in the eye and tell me that’s not beautiful.
I don’t know if I’d recommend Galápagos to you, mostly because I’d have to know what kind of reader you are first. If you love weirdness and cynicism and can deal with not knowing what’s going on, then sure, Galápagos is great. But if you live for moments like the ones I described above, you might want to go to another Vonnegut book. The Sirens of Titan, maybe. Or even Slaughterhouse-Five. In Galápagos, those lovely human moments are definitely there, but they’re by no means the focus of the story. Whether or not you decide to read Galápagos specifically, I hope you find the Vonnegut book that’s right for you. As for me, I’m moving on to an even more strange and controversial Vonnegut. Pray for me, if that’s something you do.
Emma’s Overall Reaction: Mostly the same as my first sentence: Well . . . okay. (And are you allowed to ship people who are already married? Because I’ll go down with the S.S. Mary-Roy any day of the week.)
To read Galápagos, follow this link.