April 27, 2008
Kurt Vonnegut: Cat’s Cradle
Cat’s Cradle was the first Kurt Vonnegut book I read, probably 15 or more years ago. It inspired me to read everything else he wrote, and as I worked my way through his output, I omnivorously ignored advice that his later work wasn’t really worth the bother. It turns out that advice was wise (though I’m still glad I found out for myself). So if you’re a Vonnegut virgin, and more susceptible to advice than I was, my tip would be to read all his books from the 1950s and 60s (particularly the likes of Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan and Mother Night), approach the 1970s books with caution, and forget the stuff from the 80s and beyond. There are a few anomalies: Galápagos (1985) is interesting; I think of his last novel, 1997’s Timequake, as a bit of a return to form; and I am possibly the only Vonnegut fan who has never been able to get on with his most famous and acclaimed book, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).
I reread Cat’s Cradle this week as it’s just been reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic – and not before time – with an incomprehensible but rather beautiful cover, an introduction by Benjamin Kunkel, and a terrific author photo I hadn’t seen before which for once doesn’t make Vonnegut look like a bag lady. It was published in 1963, which places it squarely in Vonnegut’s great period. On rereading it, I was relieved to find the theory holds: it’s a masterpiece of Vonnegut’s seductive, clear-eyed whimsy, and possibly his best book.
‘All right,’ said Dr Breed. ‘Listen carefully. Here we go.’
There’s a lot going on in Cat’s Cradle – easily too much for its skimpy length and truncated chapters (127 of them in 200 pages). Characters teem through the thing, ideas come and go, and the world ends: it’s a pocket epic, as indicated by the opening line, delivered with a wink: “Call me Jonah.” The narrator, whose name in fact is John, is a journalist who begins his journey by wanting to write a book about the day the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and ends it in a quite unexpected and worthless position of power.
There’s a lot going on, but it ultimately comes down to science and religion. Vonnegut was president of the American Humanist Association, who nonetheless felt that faith was too “important and honourable” to lose. In Cat’s Cradle it may seem unexpected, coming from a non-believer, that science is a source of destruction and religion one of consolation, but this is Vonnegut’s traditional portrayal of people as beings who will mess everything up given the chance. “My god – life! Who can understand even one little minute of it?”
John becomes interested in Franklin Hoenikker, one of the fathers of the atom bomb, and follows Hoenikker’s children to the island of San Lorenzo. He becomes a Bokononist, the religion founded by Bokonon (real name Lionel Boyd Johnson) on San Lorenzo as a response to the awful reality of life there:
When it became clear that no governmental or economic reform was going to make the people much less miserable, the religion became the one real instrument of hope. Truth was the enemy of the people, because the truth was so terrible, so Bokonon made it his business to provide the people with better and better lies.
Bokononism is unique among religions in that it knows it’s false, but the curious thing is that its rituals work, and its precepts often make sense. It is ubiquitous on the island, yet outlawed, punishable by death through impalement on a large hook (“‘If I am ever put to death on the hook,’ Bokonon warns us, ‘expect a very human performance'”). Vonnegut’s humanism crosses barriers of rationalism and irrationalism. “Science is magic that works,” says the dying president of San Lorenzo, urging his successor to pursue and kill Bokonon. But one page later he is accepting the last rites of Bokononism, delivered by a man who calls himself “a very bad scientist. I will do anything to make a human being feel better, even if it’s unscientific. No scientist worthy of the name could say such a thing.”
Throughout the book people exhibit the human need to belong, whether to a religion, geographical origins, or what Bokonon calls a karass, an association of two or more people whose fates will be flung together for reasons unclear to them. It’s a routine theme of Vonnegut’s, and is dealt with less sentimentally here than in later work like Slapstick. Vonnegut’s deep pessimism about humanity (“She hated people who thought too much. At that moment, she struck me as an appropriate representative for all mankind”) is tempered – or in some ways enhanced – by his absurdist wit.
‘The trouble with the world was,’ she continued hesitatingly, ‘that people were still superstitious instead of scientific. He said if everybody would study science more, there wouldn’t be all the trouble there was.’
‘He said science was going to discover the basic secret of life some day,’ the bartender put in. He scratched his head and frowned. ‘Didn’t I read in the paper the other day where they’d finally found out what it was?’
‘I missed that,’ I murmured.
‘I saw that,’ said Sandra. ‘About two days ago.’
‘That’s right,’ said the bartender.
‘What is the secret of life?’ I asked.
‘I forget,’ said Sandra.
‘Protein,’ the bartender declared. ‘They found out something about protein.’
‘Yeah,’ said Sandra. ‘That’s it.’
Cat’s Cradle is full of lively and deathly humour, and even the author himself is not above having fun poked at his vocation, as when characters discuss the possibility of a writer’s strike.
‘I don’t think my conscience would let me support a strike like that. When a man becomes a writer, I think he takes on a sacred obligation to produce beauty and enlightenment and comfort at top speed.’
‘I just can’t help thinking what a real shaking up it would give people if, all of a sudden, there were no new books, new plays, new histories, new poems…’
‘And how proud would you be when people started dying like flies?’ I demanded.
There are also some evergreen words on the US (“The highest possible form of treason is to say that Americans aren’t loved wherever they go, whatever they do. …American foreign policy should recognise hate rather than imagine love. Americans are hated a lot of places. People are hated a lot of places. Americans, in being hated, are simply paying the normal penalty for being people, and they are foolish to think that they should somehow be exempted from that penalty”).
I said there was a lot going on in Cat’s Cradle, and I see I have written quite a lot and haven’t even mentioned ice-nine, the deadly substance which is central to the book, or the meaning of the title (“See the cat? See the cradle?”), or granfalloons, or the epigraph from the Books of Bokonon (“Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy”), or the Hundred Martyrs to Democracy, or the slaves who were executed in public “for sub-standard zeal”. Busy, busy, busy. So in 1963 at least, we can be grateful that Vonnegut, unlike Bokonon, listened to his own advice, as expressed by the man who was horrified by the idea of the writers’ strike:
For the love of God, both of you, please keep writing!