Book review: Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut

Short version: ?!!??!?!?!?!???!?!??!??!?!??!?!??!?!?!!

Long version: I did like it, even though it took standard narrative structure and stomped on it. I would recommend, if you are going to read it, don’t pick the Flamingo edition. Not only does it have quite a few spelling mistakes, the back blurb seems to have been written by someone who didn’t read the book.  I spent the entire story waiting for events that never happened.

Note that this review contains major spoilers. I couldn’t work out a way of writing the review without them.  Also, if you think I’m wandering around the point in this review, wait till you read the book.  I’m just giving you a taste of what it’s like.

Galapagos asks what would happen if the human race was almost wiped out and a small sub-population carried on evolving. Are there particular features, like our brains, which might not in fact be an asset in the long term? The answer, as communicated by a dead American narrator so annoying that he frequently made me want to punch him in the face, is yes. Also, Vietnam.

I note that Vonnegut breaks a number of Twain’s rules governing literary art (see his riff on Fenimore Cooper).  In the spirit of giving minor corrections, I have noted them down:

1) The book certainly ends, but the ending felt like stepping off the edge of a cliff. Stuff was happening, and then suddenly it wasn’t.

2) Twain says that you should be able to tell the live characters from the dead characters. I didn’t realise until nearly a third of the way through the book that it was in first person rather than omniscient, and I didn’t realise the narrator was dead for even longer. This required a certain amount of rethinking.

3) Why is the narrator there? He does not, honestly, seem necessary at all, particularly as I didn’t notice his existence for the first third of the book.

4) I could swallow an economic meltdown. I could almost swallow a random virus breaking out at the same time that makes all women infertile. What I couldn’t swallow is that the child of one of the women we were following would be born covered with hair, for absolutely no reason at all. Then I’m asked to believe that one of the characters has a disease whose symptoms are completely implausible? No. No way. Maybe this is why I read so little magical realism.

5) I was not attached to any of the characters. In fact I frequently wished that they would, in Mark Twain’s words, ‘all get drowned together’. Actually, a lot of them do drown or get eaten by sharks so I suppose I got my wish.

6) I think it’s generally best to have a specific reason for telling something out of chronological order. Galapagos jumps around by a million years and leaves infuriating gaps in your knowledge that you spend half the book waiting to fill.

Having said all that, I read the book in three days and at no point was I tempted to leave it unfinished. Vonnegut’s writing and characterisation is excellent, even if I found many of the characters repellent. The lack of structure could have been fatal but instead left me wanting to know how the pieces fitted together.  It turns out you can break as many rules as you want if it works.

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