It's No Sin to Like Vonnegut
Galapagos, by Kurt Vonnegut, New York: Simon & Schuster, 304 pages, $17.95
The facts of Kurt Vonnegut's literary career have been well publicized, but they bear repeating nonetheless, for they have been consistently, even perversely, misunderstood. Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis in 1922, the son of a well-known architect. He attended Cornell and the University of Chicago, where he earned a degree in anthropology. Then, like Ronald Reagan (and at around the same time), he took a job doing public relations for General Electric.
Meanwhile, nights and weekends, he wrote. He had no trouble getting into print. His short stories began appearing in major magazines like Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post within the first year of his free-lancing career. His first novel, Player Piano, was brought out in hardcover by a major publishing house (Scribner's) in 1952.
But his early novels didn't sell. Fifteen years later they would sell like hotcakes, but in the early 1950s they could find few enthusiastic readers. It wasn't long before Vonnegut was reduced to selling his novels for paltry flat fees—surrendering all rights and royalties and seeing them appear, unreviewed and unadvertised, in paperback originals.
Then times changed. Those paperback originals began finding readers and gradually became underground classics. A Vonnegut cult began forming on the nation's campuses. Finally, in 1969, one of Vonnegut's lesser works, a book called Slaughterhouse Five, which combined science fiction with a firsthand memoir of the Allied bombing of Dresden during World War II, won establishment acclaim and became a bestseller. Overnight, Kurt Vonnegut became a major American writer.
Since then, in qualitative terms, his production has fallen off somewhat. To put the matter bluntly, nothing Vonnegut has written in the past 15 years, up to now, has even approached his best work of the 1960s. Cat's Cradle and Mother Night remain his finest and most characteristic works.
The apparent decline in his powers has not gone unnoticed, of course. Critical opinion has turned resolutely, even hysterically, against him. More than a few of the mainstream literary intellectuals who hailed the freshness of Kurt Vonnegut's genius back in 1969 have since recanted and admitted publicly that they'd been wrong all along: it wasn't only Vonnegut's recent books that were second-rate, all of his books were second-rate, he never really had been any good to begin with.
And I have to confess that they almost had me persuaded. At least, they'd shaken my confidence. I'd begun to feel almost as though I had to apologize to the arbiters of literary excellence for the sin of liking Kurt Vonnegut. I should have gone back and reread Cat's Cradle or Mother Night, but I didn't.
That's why Galapagos comes as such an extraordinarily pleasant surprise. It's as good as anything Vonnegut has ever written. It is triumphant proof that he has not lost his touch.
The narrator of Galapagos is Leon Trout, son of Kilgore Trout, the hack science-fiction writer who figured in a number of Vonnegut's previous novels. Leon is a Vietnam-era deserter who flees to Sweden, becomes a citizen of that nation, settles down, and takes a job at the local shipyard. One day, while working on the construction of a new luxury ocean liner, the Bahia de Darwin, he is killed by a falling sheet of steel.
But he refuses "to set foot in the blue tunnel leading into the Afterlife." His "curiosity as to what life is all about" has not yet been satisfied.
Instead he continues to hang around the shipyard, observing what goes on in his absence. He sees the ship finished, sees it set out for South America, where it is scheduled to pick up a boatload of international celebrities and jetsetters and take them on "the Nature Cruise of the Century" to the Galapagos Islands, and resolves to go on the cruise himself, ghost though he is, to learn whatever it may have to teach him concerning what life is all about.
By the time he and the ship arrive in Ecuador, however, the cruise has been called off, due to the impending economic and political collapse of much of the world. Only a handful of passengers, none of them celebrities, have made their way to the seaside hotel from which the cruise had been set to depart. Not all of them will survive the collapse of civilization, but those who do will in fact travel to the Galapagos aboard the Bahia de Darwin just as they had planned to do. They will not be traveling on a nature cruise, however. They will be fleeing the collapse of civilization.
As their damaged ship approaches the fabled islands, Leon sees the blue tunnel once again, hovering in midair, beckoning to him. And in the mouth of the tunnel, bent on luring Leon to set foot in it at last, is none other than his late father, Kilgore Trout. The elder Trout, whose name bears a suspicious resemblance to the name of another late science-fiction author, one Theodore Sturgeon, attempts to tell his son what he wants to know—what life is all about. But his explanation bears less resemblance to the philosophy of Theodore Sturgeon than to the philosophy of Kurt Vonnegut.
"Leon! Leon! Leon!" he cries out. "The more you learn about people, the more disgusted you'll become. I would have thought that your being sent by the wisest men in your country, supposedly, to fight a nearly endless, thankless, horrifying, and, finally, pointless war, would have given you sufficient insight into the nature of humanity to last you throughout all eternity!
"Need I tell you that these same wonderful animals, of which you apparently still want to learn more and more, are at this very moment proud as Punch to have weapons in place, all set to go at a moment's notice, guaranteed to kill everything?
"Need I tell you that this once beautiful and nourishing planet when viewed from the air now resembles…diseased organs…and that the apparent cancers, growing for the sake of growth alone, and consuming all and poisoning all, are the cities of your beloved human beings?
"Need I tell you that these animals have made such a botch of things that they can no longer imagine decent lives for their own grandchildren, even, and will consider it a miracle if there is anything left to eat or enjoy by the year two thousand, now only fourteen years away?"
If he doesn't give up his foolish quest now and enter the Afterlife, Kilgore Trout tells his son, he won't have another chance for a million years. But Leon is unconvinced. He stays. And over the next million years, he at last satisfies his curiosity. He watches as humanity starts all over from the small colony on the Galapagos and evolves gradually into an aquatic species with much smaller brains than the-old-style humans used to have. In Leon's view, this is a good thing, for he feels that it was mankind's oversize brains—larger and cleverer than they really needed to be for purposes of survival—that got the old-style humans into such grievous trouble in the first place.
It may be difficult to imagine such a fable as this being entertaining, but entertaining it is nevertheless—marvelously entertaining and at times hysterically funny. In this sense, reading Kurt Vonnegut is not unlike reading Mark Twain. Twain too was a pessimist and a misanthrope, the author not only of boyhood idylls like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but also of dark, brooding works like Pudd'nhead Wilson, in which he observes that "if you take in a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you," and that "this is the principal difference between a dog and man."
As it happens, I had been rereading Mark Twain just before sitting down with Kurt Vonnegut's latest novel, and this chance juxtaposition made the altogether extraordinary similarities between the two writers impossible to ignore. Vonnegut is regarded these days by the high muckety-mucks of the literary world—they who have made major figures out of such mediocrities and nonentities as Saul Bellow, Walker Percy, and Philip Roth—as a vulgarian, a cheap anti-intellectual buffoon, and a "mere popular entertainer." Twain too was so regarded in his own time.
Vonnegut is widely thought of as unsuitable for children, and his books are always being forcibly removed from school libraries by bluenoses and busybodies. Twain met a similar fate in his own lifetime and continues to do so to this day.
Vonnegut, as the foregoing quotations on the afterlife attest, is skeptical and irreverent in his attitude toward religion. So, to the everlasting sorrow of his devout wife, Livy, was Mark Twain.
Both Vonnegut and Twain are drawn powerfully to the fantastic as a means of expressing their ideas. In Twain's case, this passion is most evident in his later works—in books like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and The Mysterious Stranger. In Vonnegut's case, it has been evident since the very beginning of his career.
Both Vonnegut and Twain are masters of a deceptively simple prose style, which, in each case, evolved from an early involvement in journalism. Dixon Webster wrote of Twain nearly half a century ago that by the end of his career he had "perfected his early journalistic manner until it became one of the great styles of American letters—easy, incisive, sensitive to nuances of dialect, rich in the resources of comedy, satire, irony, and corrosive anger." The same could be said of Kurt Vonnegut—and in identical words. In fact, with his mop of unruly hair and his bushy mustache, Vonnegut even looks a little like Mark Twain.
But more important than any of these similarities is a fundamental similarity of outlook, especially when it comes to political and quasi-political matters. Both Vonnegut and Twain stand for thumbing one's nose at authority, for a disrespectful if not downright subversive attitude toward those who like to give orders and run other people's lives for them.
"My kind of loyalty," Twain wrote in A Connecticut Yankee, is "loyalty to one's country, not to its institutions or its office-holders. The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; institutions are extraneous, they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body from winter, disease and death. To be loyal to rags, to shout for rags, to worship rags, to die for rags—that is a loyalty of unreason, it is pure animal; it belongs to monarchy, was invented by monarchy; let monarchy keep it."
For one official American institution, Twain harbored particular contempt. There is, he opined, "no distinctly American criminal class except Congress."
As for Kurt Vonnegut, one of his most perceptive critics, James Lundquist, argues that like most midwestern writers, Vonnegut affirms in his fiction such values as "individualism, self-reliance, a practical materialism, skepticism of custom and tradition unless rooted in common sense, political intransigence, and isolationism."
The isolationism, and a concomitant antimilitarism, go back a long way with Vonnegut. "I was taught that we had a standing army of just over a hundred thousand men and that the generals had nothing to say about what was done in Washington. I was taught to be proud of that and to pity Europe for having more than a million men under arms and spending all their money on airplanes and tanks. I simply never unlearned junior civics. I still believe in it. I got a very good grade."
That was in the early 1930s. A decade later, as a columnist for the Cornell Daily Sun, he was passionately defending the isolationism of Charles Lindbergh, who was being publicly vilified because of his opposition to U.S. entry into World War II. Two decades after that, he was attracting nationwide attention as one of the most articulate opponents of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war.
Vonnegut, like Twain, is an intuitive individualist and opponent of state power. But because his views are based more on intuition than on any sort of systematic reflection, it is easy enough to catch him taking positions that are inconsistent with the main thrust of his political thinking. Just as Twain, the disparager of institutions and lawmakers, put himself on record at least once as being a socialist, so Vonnegut, the champion of self-reliance and isolationism, regards himself these days as a leftist and contributes regularly to the left-liberal Nation magazine.
Neither Twain nor Vonnegut is really a leftist, however, any more than most of the hippies and antiwar protesters of two decades ago were leftists. It is no accident that Vonnegut began enjoying his first really major success during the 1960s, for it was precisely the implicit but unmistakable individualism in his books that made them appeal to a strongly individualistic generation of students and cultural radicals. And despite the best efforts to give misleading signals, through periodicals like The Nation, as to where his true political sympathies lie, Kurt Vonnegut's continuing phenomenal popularity is all the verification one should need that the baby boom generation is still out there, iconoclastic and individualistic as ever.
Contributing editor Jeff Riggenbach is an editorial writer and columnist for the Orange County (Calif.) Register.