The cover at the left is a total fraud. Vonnegut doesn’t really write science fiction, nor is this, at heart, an apocalyptic book – his work is firmly rooted in a tradition of absurdist critique. Just as Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle starts as a book about a writer wanting to write a book. And also Cat’s Cradle is war related, as the yet-to-be written book will be about the (fictional) father of the atom bomb, Felix Hoenikker. It quickly evolves into a travelogue of the protagonist visiting San Lorenzo, a fictional Caribbean island with a fictional dictator, on which the children of Hoenikker find themselves in possession of the final remnants of their father’s last invention, Ice-9, a chemical with the potential to destroy the world. And, importantly, everybody on the island is a Bokononist: a follower of a fictional religion.
Bokononism’s main creed is that truth is problematic, and that we should all just live by the harmless untruths that make us happy. Humanity’s ability to lie to ourselves is probably the most important theme in the book.
(…) the cruel paradox of Bokononist thought, the heartbreaking necessity of lying about reality, and the heartbreaking impossibility of lying about it.
Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, ‘Why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.
Cat’s Cradle is often funny, with deadpan cynicism pervading the 203-page novel. I laughed out loud several times. It’s divided in short chapters of about a page, and the pacing is generally fast and smooth. Wikipedia quotes Vonnegut himself on this: his books “are essentially mosaics made up of a whole bunch of tiny little chips…and each chip is a joke.” Nevertheless, I felt it dragged a wee bit in the middle, but it quickly found its relentless pace again.
My guess is that Vonnegut is an active nihilist. That’s not a negative. He tackles themes like the stupidity of humans, nationalism, the moral responsibility of scientists working on weapons, colonialism, soldiers being too young, the duties of artists and writers, free will and human progress extremely well, and does so without fleshed out characters, imaginative world building or an intricate plot.
He shrugged. ‘People have to talk about something just to keep their voice boxes in working order, so they’ll have good voice boxes in case there’s ever anything really meaningful to say.’
‘Sometimes the pool-pan,’ Bokonon tells us, ‘exceeds the power of humans to comment.’ Bookman translates pool-pah at one point in The Books of Bokonon as ‘shit storm’ and at another point as ‘wrath of God’.
‘Everything must have a purpose?’ asked God. ‘Certainly,’ said man. ‘Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,’ said God. And he went away.
I don’t think Cat’s Cradle is as good as Slaughterhouse-Five, since it feels as if Vonnegut is simply less involved in telling this particular tale. The book’s tone feels less personal, less written out of an internal necessity. It’s also a whole lot less absurd and outlandish than his most known book. Cat’s Cradle‘s prose isn’t as poetic as Slaughterhouse‘s either.
It’s also not as bleak, as it focuses more on the theoretical possibility of the world’s destruction, and less on Death and the horrors that have already actually happened. As such, it’s a bit less compelling. If you like satire, it’s still a great, great book though – Slaughterhouse-Five makes for impossible competition, as it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.
Readers that have enjoyed other works of Vonnegut probably won’t need encouragement or convincing. Readers new to Vonnegut that are still not convinced his books might be something for them can sample an exemplary passage from Cat’s Cradle after the jump. It’s a good example of how he is a sharp observer of human dialogue, of his pacing, and of the fact that absurdist fiction is more than able to put the finger to the human wound…
‘You know what the punishment is for stealing something?’
‘The hook,’ he said. ‘No fines, no probation, no thirty days in jail. It’s the hook. The hook for stealing, for murder, for arson, for treason, for rape, for being a peeping Tom. Break a law – any damn law at all – and it’s the hook. Everybody can understand that, and San Lorenzo is the best-behaved country in the world.’
‘What is the hook?’
‘They put up a gallows, see? Two posts and a cross beam. And then they take a great big kind of iron fish hook and they hang it down from the cross beam. Then they take somebody who’s dumb enough to break the law, and they put the point of the hook in through one side of his belly and out the other and they let him go – and there he hangs, by God, one damn sorry law-breaker.’
‘I don’t say it’s good,’ said Crosby, ‘but I don’t say it’s bad, either. I sometimes wonder if something like that wouldn’t clear up juvenile delinquency. Maybe the hook’s a little extreme for democracy. Public hanging’s more like it. String up a few teen-age car thieves on lamp posts in front of their houses with signs around their necks saying, “Mama, here’s your boy.” Do that a few times and I think ignition locks would go the way of the rumble seat and the running board.’
‘We say that thing in the basement of the waxworks in London,’ said Hazel.
‘What thing?’ I asked her.
‘The hook. Down in the Chamber of Horrors in the basement; they had a wax person hanging from the hook. It looked so real I wanted to thrown up.’
‘Harry Truman didn’t look anything like Harry Truman,’ said Crosby.
‘In the waxworks,’ said Crosby. ‘The statue of Truman didn’t really look like him.’
‘Most of them did though,’ said Hazel.
‘Was it anybody in particular hanging from the hook?’ I asked her.
‘I don’t think so. It was just somebody.’
‘Just a demonstrator?’ I asked.
‘Yeah. There was a black velvet curtain in front of it and you had to pull the curtain back to see. And there was a not pinned to the curtain that said children weren’t supposed to look.’
‘But kids did,’ said Crosby. ‘There were kids down there, and they all looked.’
‘A sign like that is just catnip to kids,’ said Hazel.
‘How did the kids react when they saw the person on the hook?’ I asked.
‘Oh,’ said Hazel, ‘they reacted just about the way the grown-ups did. They just looked at it and didn’t say anything, just moved on to see what the next thing was.’
‘What was the next thing?’
‘It was an iron chair a man had been roasted alive in,’ said Crosby. ‘He was roasted for murdering his son.’
‘Only, after they roasted him,’ Hazel recalled blandly, they found out he hadn’t murdered his son after all.’