by Kurt Vonnegut
It’s hard to describe Cat’s Cradle to someone who hasn’t read anything by Kurt Vonnegut. This is my second foray into Vonnegut’s world, having been inexplicably assigned Slaughterhouse-Five in a college survey of Shakespeare. I can’t remember my professor’s reasoning for assigning a dude not named Shakespeare in a Shakespeare class, but I do recall being a bit underwhelmed. If you haven’t read it, Slaughterhouse-Five is a war story that somehow becomes a science fiction tale in which our hero ends up in an alien zoo. Not really what I expected, and at the time I didn’t think I understood it, though I might eventually give it another go.
Knowing this, and having read a bit more post-war American literature, I went at Cat’s Cradle with (what I hoped was) a better attitude. After all, I’d thought Catch-22 was one of the funniest books I’d ever read, despite its incredibly pessimistic story. And I know how polarizing Lolita can be, even today, considering its subject matter and Nabokov’s writing style. I think Vonnegut is similarly polarizing, and Slaughterhouse-Five had made a negative impression on me.
But being on the ‘wrong’ side of literary criticism does not sit well with me, and I thought it might not be fair to dislike someone so quickly. And I admit, I enjoyed Cat’s Cradle, much more than I did Slaughterhouse-Five. I still think it might not be for everybody, and I can think of several groups that might strongly dislike it. For one, those who think any amount science-fiction is a tough pill to swallow might choke on one of the plot devices here. And I myself have a limited tolerance for cynicism, which oozes from Cat’s Cradle, in the form of black humor. Still, even these shouldn’t be significant obstacles to enjoying the story, which I guess I should get around to describing.
The narrator, who I think is named John, starts out wanting to write a book about the atom bomb and the people who created it. Dr. Hoenniker, despite being dead, becomes the focus of the narrator’s research, and the Hoenniker children are contacted in an effort to get to know the ‘father’ of the bomb. This book is put on hold, I believe, while the narrator visits San Lorenzo, a poor Banana Republic ruled by a dictator nicknamed “Papa.”
That’s kind of the story, but I don’t think it goes very far towards describing the book. Throughout Cat’s Cradle the narrator drops references to things that have not happened yet. Ice-9, a substance with the capacity to destroy the world, is introduced early on, but its impact within the novel is only revealed incrementally. Bokononism, also, is slowly described by the narrator, but its origin and relevance to the reader are not obvious until the end.
Bokononism, I think, is one of the greater things about Cat’s Cradle. This completely fabricated religion is based on several ideas, one of which is that everyone is part of a karass, a group of people with a unifying set of purposes. This is not to be confused with a group with similar ideology or vocation; the example given by the narrator of a false karass is Hoosier (Indianans). Within Cat’s Cradle, every character is a member of the narrator’s karass, which actually makes the ideology perfect for, say, a novel. The rest of Bokononism is essentially a set of practices, beliefs, and poems that are admitted by Bokonon himself to be a meaningless pack of lies. Talk about cynicism.
But while I complain about cynicism, I should remind you that as cynical as Cat’s Cradle is, it wouldn’t work if it was not cleverly so. I could never tell when reading whether Vonnegut was making a serious point about ideology or technology or religion, but he certainly relishes in demolishing them in funny and interesting ways. Anyway, if you find yourself laughing about the end of the world, or at least thinking about it in a different way, I think that he’s produced something worthwhile in Cat’s Cradle.
Maybe it doesn’t seem so from my admittedly poor description, but Cat’s Cradle is actually very accessible, and you should be able to find out whether it’s your cup of tea pretty quickly. I liked it, and I would recommend it over Slaughterhouse-Five, for sure.