Scientific literature does indeed have a place in the American literary canon, and is most heavily represented by the author Kurt Vonnegut. His most commonly taught and anthologized work is Slaughter-House Five (1969) which deals with time-traveling aliens (among many other concepts).
For my assertions, I chose to focus on his novel Galapagos (1985), not only because it deals with natural selection, a scientific concept that is much more prevalent in reality than time-traveling aliens, but also because it puts on display several of the qualities of Vonnegut as an author that allow him to be canonically anthologized. In his essay “Changing of the Old Guard: time Travel and Literary Technique in the Work of Kurt Vonnegut,” Daniel Cordle points out that Vonnegut “details, not only in Galapagos but in much of his fiction, human failings and the meaninglessness of human existence” (Cordle 166) as well as pointing to his unique writing style, particularly as it is employed in the novel Galapagos, where certain events are told out of chronological order. Another such unique motif he points to is when “A similar defamiliarizing effect in relation to narrative development is achieved with the placing of an asterisk next to the name of characters who are about to die in Galapagos. This defuses suspense, short-circuiting the reader’s expectations of narratives” (Cordle 166).
For my reading, I assigned chapter 10 of Galapagos, because it packs into just a few pages several of Vonnegut’s unique writing strategies that make him an important American literary figure, as well as a brief examination of the concept of extinction (the antithesis of evolution of which most of the novel deals with). The chapter begins with the narrator asking “How many Galapagos islands were there a million years ago?” The era “a million years ago” that the narrator speaks of, is in fact the relative present, and the time period in which most the novels actual action and dialogue takes place. Just by having the narrator ask that question in the context that he does, Vonnegut has successfully thrown the chronology of the novel through a loop. In the very next section, separated from the first by three dots, Vonnegut’s dark sense of humor that seems to disregard the human condition is put on display. A character named Roy lies on his deathbed, and any mention of him has an asterisk placed next to his name, as mentioned by Cordle above. As his death draws nearer, he humorously verbalizes that he will soon be “extinct” and goes on to list several creatures that have already met their extinction, though without any sort of intuitive common theme among them to make his list compelling (he cites Tyrannosaurus Rex, George Washington, and Smallpox, the last of which cannot be considered “extinct” since it was never technically alive in the first place; a humorous incongruence that requires basic familiarity with science ). By making this character’s death a subject of humor, Vonnegut is de-emphasizing the significance of the human condition and any emotion tied to human death. Vonnegut’s tendency to downplay the meaningfulness of human existence is a theme common among virtually all of his works, and it is one of the unique aesthetic qualities of his writing that led him to placement in the American canon.
An interesting fact: The character Roy alludes to the eradication of the Smallpox virus, a scientific undertaking that is the focus of one of the novels of the other author I explore in this presentation, namely Richard Preston’s Demon in the Freezer.
A visual interpretation of Vonnegut’s humorous rendering of *Roy’s death. These three things have absolutely nothing in common other than their extinction.