A coworker at the restaurant and I had a brief conversation about what we’ve been reading. She was paging through Lolita, a Nabokov that’s on some people’s top five list. I told her about Bolaño, a hack writer and vicerealist from Mexico City, who has me wrapped around his finger lately. The next day, she called me over to her host table and gave me a book: Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut.
I immediately was reminded of a book I read two years ago by Nurrudin Farah. Her writing explained her philosophy of humanitarianism, that it rests in gifts. She believes every interaction between people is a series of gifts. Our gratitude for one another, the way in which we build relationships, infrastructure, symbols and tradition is all channeled through the exchange of gifts. To her, life’s meaning is rooted in the series of gifts we receive and are subsequently compelled to give.
What a nice gift, I thought, and I kept the book in my waiter’s apron to page through on the subway home.
That was yesterday, and now I’ve read the book. I just spent ten minutes staring at the mirror and looking myself dead in the eyes, trying to recede back into my ignorance: the simpler times, before I read Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut. After another five minutes of examining the mechanism that controls the dilation of my pupils, I felt myself becoming an iguana, staring into the sea. There are iguanas on this planet, you know. They stand in the sun with blank eyes that see nothing but what is immediately in front of them. There are no distractions, no occupations, no fear. Not even a survivalist fear, because they know, while only instinctually, that after ten hours of standing in the sun they can shuffle into the ocean and stuff their face full of seaweed. After consuming the seaweed, which is indigestible at this point, they return from the water and rest upon a mound of lava. They treat their stomachs as a crockpot as the seaweed boils and loses its retention of moisture. Once the seaweed in their bellies dries, it can be digested. But during this process, every few minutes, they vomit the salty water from the seaweed, and it bubbles and evaporates in front of them. The iguana peers through the smoke, seeing only what’s immediately in front of it, as it then prepares to wait for the next ten hours to repeat its fated survivalist existence.
That existence exists, on our planet. The only reason we have to neglect it as significant, regard it as meaningless or without worth, is because our big brains have convinced us to. They have evolved to the point of no return, and now, because of our big brains and their conflicting sparks of rationality, their creative outbursts that give our life any sense of meaning, we can rationalize anything. Our future relies not on the furtherance of our evolution but on the retraction of our capacities. Is it not our big brains that curse us and cause us to destroy the very host that allows us to live in the first place? So what would Darwin say? He would say that humans will discard their frontal lobe, as it is not necessary for survival. In fact, it counters survival. But for us humans now, at this point in history, we still have differences, a zeitgeist, a life that is “worth living,” an overwhelming amount of options, and enough thinking power to be overwhelmed by these options. And Kurt Vonnegut wants me to suffer for it. My coworker wants me to suffer for it. She handed me a book, innocence in her eyes, fully anticipating my enlightenment.
But what do I say to her now? She has won, because she will see me on my next shift, and she will know that I couldn’t put the book down because who could, and then she will see me discard the memory of Kurt Vonnegut and the Galapagos and Darwin and the iguanas, settle back into my suffering, become one step closer to a crosswire circuit explosion in my head, and then she’ll watch me SERVE A MOTHER FUCKING GIMLET TO THE NEXT CUSTOMER THAT ASKS ME FOR ONE.