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Book Review: Galapagos Regained

By (January 26, 2015) No Comment

Galapagos RegainedGalapagos Regained

by James Morrow

St. Martin’s Press, 2015

Even readers who’ve been impressed for decades by the marvelously acerbic science fiction James Morrow has been writing all along will be surprised and impressed by his latest work, a big fat historical novel called Galapagos Regained that has all the hallmarks of being a lifetime masterpiece. The intelligence and searching inquiry of Morrow’s weird previous books is here in its usual abundance, but this time around it’s matched by a kind of rhetorical plenitude that tends to happen when a writer settles down to write That Book.

It’s the story of willful, endearingly idiotic out-of-work Victorian actress Chloe Bathurst, who, fallen from grace on the stage, has taken a job on the estate of the late Charles Darwin taking care of his great vivarium of exotic animals. It’s through this connection that Chloe becomes aware of the Percy Bysshe Shelley Society and its Great God Contest, which offers a sizable cash prize to anybody who can definitively either prove or disprove the existence of God. Intrigued, Chloe starts to think Darwinian transmutationist philosophy – that things change by virtue of random mutation and natural selection – might be the key to the Prize, and through a series of events that Morrow renders as believable as they are improbable, she soon finds herself voyaging all over the world on her way to the Darwinian locus, the Galapagos Islands.

Along the way, she sees (much as a young Darwin saw during the his voyage on the Beagle) the depths to which human society can sink under poverty and despotism, and Morrow has a good deal of fun sending poor Chloe’s convictions all over the map as she comes to doubt her Darwinian beliefs:

“I don’t demean the man,” Chloe insisted. “I love the man. But his theory now repels me, for I apprehend it will authorize the masters of the world to further exploit the downtrodden. ‘Don’t feed the starving multitudes,’ the Darwinists will say, ‘for such misguided charity encourages them to produce descendants doomed to compete for increasingly scarce resources.’”

These doubts reach their peak much later in the book when Chloe, taken to her bed and suffering from malaria, “opens her heart to Heaven”:

At first Chloe did battle with her revelation. A self-respecting transmutationist will always take the field against a sickbed epiphany. But then the implacable fact of infinity wore her down, and a putative truth shone forth.

A divine, benign, provisionally unknowable Presence lay behind the multifarious facades of the universe. A numinous, luminous, unimaginably magnificent something. Call it the flesh of infinity. The light of eternity. The essence of the all. The song of the morning stars. Call it God.

Within her reeling brain a basso profundo voice arose, intoning, “Chloe, Chloe, why persecutest thou me?” Why indeed? Why mock the cosmos when she could meld with it? “Infinity!” cried the lapsed transmutationist, forcing the word through the rattling portcullis of her jaw. “Eternity!” shrieked the erstwhile antichrist, lurching into an upright posture and then toppling back into the salty fen of her bedclothes.

In such an excerpt – and there are a great many of them in Galapagos Regained – we can see almost all the signs of a very seasoned writer indulging himself, and it’ll be up to each individual reader whether those signs are welcome or dreaded. This book is an unapologetic romp of ideas, all filtered through a Candide manque who might grow tiresome to readers of brisker expectations when it comes to things like unified plot structure and the like. Or perhaps it’ll inspire those readers to, as it were, evolve.