There are times when only Kurt Vonnegut will do; times when everything you pick up feels as if it’s no more than a rehash of something written before. Of course, Vonnegut has been written before – all his books are essentially the same – but it’s one thing to be ‘written before’ by yourself and quite another to be ‘written before’ by someone else.
Vonnegut’s prime purpose is his own amusement – and nothing wrong with that. His various plots, such as they are, are merely platforms from which he dispenses his humorous asides on the human condition.
Galapagos is no exception. Here is its plot… The human race, a million years on, has evolved from a party of misfits marooned on the Galapagos island of Santa Rosalia in 1986 (a year after the book was published.) Vonnegut tells us how the party reached the Galapagos. He doesn’t tell us what happened to the rest of the world except that human life elsewhere disappeared. On Santa Rosalia, survival of the fittest ensured that humans learnt to shrink their big brains – which had done them no good when it came to surviving – and become a tiny-brained species with flippers and fins whose only predators were sharks and killer whales.
The plot has a certain charm and uneasy veracity, but you can happily forget it; just concentrate on the description of the misfits and Vonnegut’s asides. You smile, you think to yourself ‘yes, yes, how true’, you marvel at the directness of his observations and the humour in them.
One of my favourite asides, not from Galapagos, but Breakfast of Champions – which doesn’t matter because all his books are the same – comes when he is describing a woman he admired whose job, circa 1920, was to write ads for a department store in Indianapolis. The woman wrote as follows for an end-of-the-summer-sale of straw hats: ‘For prices like this, you can run them through your horse and put them on your roses.’
The excerpt at the top of the text is another aside. This is from Slapstick.
My favourite book is Cat’s Cradle. This is because it made me realise I was a closet Bokononist. I won’t attempt to convey the essence of Bokononism except to say that the first line from the First Book of Bokonon is as follows: ‘All the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.’ I could have thrown in this: ‘God never wrote a good play in His Life.’ Or even this, the title of the Fourteenth Book; ‘What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?’ The Fourteenth Book is very short.
I have one suggestion, something a prospective PhD candidate might wish to pursue: take 600 paragraphs from all Vonnegut’s books and put them in a random generator of the sort that is used to pick lottery numbers. Out would come his final volume. It could be called ‘The Complete Works of Kurt Vonnegut, Concise Edition.’ I believe the author, though deceased – ‘it is never a mistake to say goodbye,’ as Bokonon tells us – would approve.
© Michael Tobert