galápagos – kurt vonnegut

Rating: 4/5

Galapagos is my math teacher’s favorite book, which, having finished reading it, makes perfect sense. This is my first Vonnegut novel, and even though I was very apprehensive at first, I can definitely say that it won’t be my last.

There are a lot of things to unpack in this book, all of which I can’t possibly touch on one by one throughout this review (but I’ll save for my future discussion with my math teacher on Monday), so here are the few points that I will talk about: 1. the conflict between religion and science and 2. the conflict between self-mockery and redemption.

From the very first few chapters, our narrator sets the evolutionary stage that humans come so far on. He tells us about how different scientists speculated on different methods animals used to reach the Galapagos islands, how Darwin formed his theory of evolution when visiting the islands, and how “modern day” (the actual time in the story is a million years later) humans have evolved to have significantly smaller brains, and flap on the beach like seals.

modern-day humans

However, as we progress through the story, we find that the narrator is the ghost of Leon Trout, who was accidentally decapitated in an accident, and who after dying, chose to stay on earth and observe the human race instead of go into the Blue Tunnel of the Afterlife.

Now, in our “modern day”, we’d find a contradiction forming within the pages – How can the afterlife and ghosts exist at the same time as evolution and science? How can science and religion coexist peacefully, without ever seeming to doubt each other?

Which brings me to my second point: Throughout Galapagos, Vonnegut constantly refers to modern times as the “Era of Big Brains” and shows us exactly how much inconsistencies our big brains have had us think. The narrator laughs almost sadly at humans and Just How Important We Think We Are, as he lives through a million years of human evolution on the Santa Rosa islands. Even though Leon, our friendly narrator ghost, constantly points out the inconsistencies of human behavior, and ponders whether evolution would’ve served us better if we weren’t so Goddamn Smart, he eventually reveals that him and his mother’s favorite quotation remains this:

“In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.”

– Anne Frank

Here, we see the same type of inconsistency Leon’s Big Brain has caused him to make: while he reflects upon evolution and Darwin, he is quite literally about to step into the Blue Tunnel of the Afterlife, and as he jokes about how stupid humans really seem, he still watches them evolve, quite literally, for a million years, trying to understand humanity.

Therein lies the question for me: Does Vonnegut resolve the question he poses in Galapagos, which is the gargantuan question of (at least as I read it) What is humanity? Does every human have humanity? Is there a universal understanding of what humanity is, or is humanity just a mix of confusion mixed together?

It seems to me that Vonnegut is of the third opinion, that life is a mess and nothing is ever crystal clear, but even though he comments on humanity with such cynicism, he still seems to find certain moments of beauty that make it redemptive, and that’s enough to make it all worth it.

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