A Series of Accidents #16: Galapagos

A Series of Accidents is a chronological read-through of the books of Kurt Vonnegut. You can check out earlier articles in the series here.

Note that there are some mentions of sexual assault and suicide in this one.

Galapagos is an apocalyptic novel, Vonnegut’s second after Cat’s Cradle. (Although several others could be called apocalypses of the human spirit.) The story is about a world where humanity is wiped out by a virus that eliminates human fertility, with maybe a little bit of nuclear war thrown in for spice. The only survivors are a small group shipwrecked on a distant island. The island becomes a haven of rape and incest, and it is through these depravities that the human genome survives, but in a much-diminished form. A million years later, humans are simple, fur-covered creatures incapable of higher reasoning.

Despite all this, the tone of the story is upbeat. The narrator, the ghost of Kilgore Trout’s son Leon, narrates it all from on high, and assures us that this is a happy ending for the human story. It was humans’ big brains that caused all of the problems in society, and with their shrunken craniums the new race can live in an animalistic serenity. When you look at things on a grand scale, it’s all for the best.

Writing about Deadeye Dick last time out, I commented on how weird and depressing Vonnegut’s work was getting. Galapagos is a very different book, but is just as weird and just as depressing. Like the previous novel, it feels as though it spends an eternity building up to an event which it then describes in only a cursory fashion – in this case, the post-apocalyptic survival of humanity on the South American island of Santa Rosalia. One knows that all of these people are doomed even as they fritter about trying to find meaning. Vonnegut even helpfully adds an asterisk to the names of the characters that are going to die next, to increase the sense of fatalism.

Most of Galapagos concerns the shipwrecked people who re-constitute the human race, and what lead to them taking a fateful cruise originally intended for the famous Galapagos Islands – the “Nature Cruise of the Century”, as it’s called. The cruise is originally conceived as a grand venture, with Jackie Onassis and a host of other famous people, but they all pull out once host country Chile falls into economic turmoil, leading to political instability and a burgeoning military conflict with neighbouring Peru. (Here, again as in Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut draws on the long history of turmoil in Latin America, largely caused by American intervention. This is true nowhere more than in the real-life 1980s Chile, where CIA-installed right-wing dictator Pinochet kept a death grip on power.)

The few who end up on the cruise are our actual cast. There’s Mary Hepburn, a widow from Ilium who becomes an amateur geneticist; the Hiroguchis, a Japanese family who invented a famous translator; financier Andrew MacIntosh and his blind daughter Selena; hustler James Wait; inept ship’s captain Adolf von Kleist and his brother Siegfried; and a group of girls from the reclusive Kanka-bono tribe. All of the men die except for Adolf, who ends up alone on an island full of women and bearing children with all of them.

This might come off as a male fantasy, but how it plays out is desperate and sad. Mary becomes Adolf’s lover and uses his semen to impregnate the others, including underage girls. Adolf understandably takes this as a massive betrayal, and becomes a solitary figure until his slow death. Hisako and Selena become a more-or-less-explicit lesbian couple, raising their fur-covered daughter Akiko. Because of Mary’s “experiments” they later have a son named Kamikazi, who carries on the human race by chasing down and raping his half-sisters. Hisako and Selena later commit joint suicide once they are no longer needed to raise their children. So it goes.

But, for all this violence, Galapagos is a story of regeneration. Following Darwinist principles, mankind evolves into a species that is better at surviving and reproducing: namely, a species that is much stupider. This is a thought that everyone, or at least everyone who has had mental illness, has had flit across the storm clouds of their mind: wouldn’t life be great if you weren’t burdened with the need to constantly think about everything? I know that I’ve frequently wished I could have a kind of transparent mind, with some Platonic ideal of thought taking place without all the moods and inexplicable heaviness that gets in the way.

Vonnegut had attempted suicide in between the releases of Deadeye Dick and Galapagos. He had come to feel increasingly under siege, whether it be from critics, his wife Jill, or the relentless march of time and disease that was claiming more and more of his contemporaries. He was hospitalized for overdosing on pills. Biographer Charles J. Shields frames this incident as more of a cry for help than a serious effort to die, but in any case it speaks to the bleak state of mind that was dominating Vonnegut’s thoughts.

Galapagos was written on an upswing, with Vonnegut feeling newly reborn and reinvigorated following his moment of crisis. The idea came from an actual visit to the Galapagos islands. The novel suggests that, after thought and introspection brings the species close to self-destruction, there is hope in embracing one’s animal nature. But I’m wary of imposing too narrow a biographical reading. For one, I don’t want to frame suicide as a moment where one can find wisdom. And anyone with mental illness knows, too, those sunny manic periods where you feel like you’ve found the solutions to your problems that will keep you happy forever, and how they never last.

The 1980s were full of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories. This was the era of Threads and When the Wind Blows, of Mad Max and Fist of the North Star. The assumption seemed to be that after a nuclear war, if humanity survived it would be as violent tribes fighting over the scraps of the previous world. Vonnegut’s previous novel, Cat’s Cradle, was similarly negative, depicting its post-apocalypse as a slow dying-out of humanity. But Galapagos seems to suggest that there was a hopeful component even to the end of the world. After all, the term “apocalypse” refers to revelation just as much to destruction. As the old world is destroyed, a new one is created.

Ultimately, I’m not willing to part with my big brain just yet, no matter how many issues it causes me. Neither was Vonnegut. But, after years of agonizing about what was coming next, Galapagos suggests the author at least temporarily found peace with the idea of the end.

Next time out, I’ll be looking at Bluebeard, where Vonnegut revisits pretentious abstract artist Rabo Karekian.