This week, Lorrie Moore discusses her life as a reader in By the Book. In 1985, Moore wrote for the Book Review about “Galápagos,” Kurt Vonnegut’s novel about a group of survivors stranded on the Galápagos Islands because of an apocalypse.
Yes, American culture is more smart than wise. But Kurt Vonnegut, that clown-poet of homesickness and Armageddon, might be the rare American writer who is both. He dances the witty and informed dances of the literary smart, but while he does, he casts a wide eye about, and he sees. He is a postmodern Mark Twain: grumpy and sentimental, antic and religious. He is that paradoxical guy who goes to church both to pray fervently and to blow loud, snappy gum bubbles at the choir.
Mr. Vonnegut has probably always been a better teller than maker of stories. One continually marvels at the spare, unmuddied jazz of a Vonnegut sentence and too often despairs of his ramshackle plots.
But Mr. Vonnegut seems eventually to get where he wants, shining his multicolored lights and science fiction “what ifs” on the huge spiritual mistake that is the Western world. He wants to tell us things: It is not the fittest who survive — it is merely those who happen to survive who survive. The earth is a “fragile habitat” that our big brains have failed to take care of. We must hope for flippers and beaks — or nothing at all. We are all, finally, being too mean to one another. “I’ll tell you what the human soul is,” a character in “Galápagos” says. “It’s the part of you that knows when your brain isn’t working right.”