April 27, 2008

Kurt Vonnegut: Cat’s Cradle

Posted in Penguin Modern Classics, Vonnegut Kurt at 10:17 am by John Self

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).

Cat's Cradle

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!

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23 Comments »

  1. OK – I promise to read the small pile of Vonnegut fiction sitting in the shelves downstairs. I’ve never really got past the short story Harrison Bergeron – whose film adaptation I’m prone to rave about.

  2. John Self said,

    Oh yes, ‘Harrison Bergeron’ is terrific, though I’ve never seen the film. Anyone unfamiliar with it can read it here – the version I have in Welcome to the Monkey House/Palm Sunday is only seven pages, so it won’t take long to read!

    What Vonnegut titles do you have Alan?

  3. Paul Raymont said,

    Whew, what a relief! I started with his late novel Bluebeard and didn’t see what all the fuss about Vonnegut was about. I’ll go back to his 60’s books.

  4. John Self said,

    Yes, Bluebeard is one of his weaker efforts, Paul – though not the worst of his 80s output (I’d give that unwelcome accolade to Deadeye Dick).

  5. Adr. said,

    Another terrific review, John. There was an interesting article about this book in last Saturday’s Guardian:

    http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/sciencefiction/story/0,,2276354,00.html

  6. John Self said,

    Thanks Adr. The piece you’ve linked to is in fact the introduction to this new Penguin Modern Classics edition! I suspect it may expire after a few weeks as I discovered with another time the Guardian did this.

  7. herschelian said,

    I was introduced to Vonnegut’s writing by my dad way back in the mid 1960s. He was/is a huge SciFi fan, and has all KV’s books. The only two I have are Penguin originals of Slaughterhouse Five, and Cats Cradle, but I haven’t read either of them for years – think it’s about time I dusted them off.Harrison Beregeron is a terrific story for classroom discussion with kids in their early teens, I wish more teachers would use as a basis for talking about rights, equalities and so on. There are moments when I think our own beloved government is working for the Handicapper General.

  8. chartroose said,

    “I am the Emperor!” I love Vonnegut, although I haven’t read him in years. He and I were sympatico re: Nietschean dystopias, epecially “Slaughterhouse-Five,” and I felt horrible when he died.

    Hopefully, his prophetic novels will live on forever.

  9. Tony S. said,

    First I read some early Vonnegut, Player Piano I believe, which was good, but I didn’t consider it great. Later I read Breakfast of Champions which still sticks in mind as the most pathetically poor book I’ve ever read, along side a book by RS Johnson. Then I read Slaughterhouse Five which I also thought was good, not great. Sounda like Cat’s Cradle might be worth reading, though science fiction is not one of my favorite genres

  10. Adr. said,

    “The piece you’ve linked to is in fact the introduction to this new Penguin Modern Classics edition! I suspect it may expire after a few weeks as I discovered with another time the Guardian did this.”

    Yeah, they did the same thing with Pynchon’s introduction to 1984. Pity, because it was a great intro.

  11. John Self said,

    Well Tony, funny you should say that as I first read most Vonneguts in my late teens/early 20s and I did wonder if Cat’s Cradle would stand up. First time round, Breakfast of Champions was one of my favourites but I reread it a few years ago and found much of it hard to take (it’s a 1970s title, hence my ‘approach with caution’). I do rate Player Piano though, so maybe Vonnegut just isn’t for you.

    I can’t find RS Johnson anywhere: could it be BS Johnson, British experimental novelist of the 60s/70s? I enjoyed his novel Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry and to a lesser extent his earlier novels Albert Angelo and House Mother Normal but their experimental qualities are definitely the most interesting things about them. Johnson believed that fiction was a sort of literary crime – “telling stories is telling lies” – which restricted him somewhat.

    The whole question of whether Vonnegut is ‘real’ sci-fi is a whole other topic. It would be hard to deny that something like The Sirens of Titan is full-fledged SF. Cat’s Cradle though I’m less sure about. Or at least I’m sure it’s not what most people think of as SF: it has a sole feature (ice-nine) which couldn’t exist in our world, so by that token I suppose Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is SF as well. Really this is more a question of readers’ perceptions and prejudices (including my own) rather than literary qualities.

    herschelian and chartroose: I hope you’ve been inspired to return to the old fellow. Incidentally he has a new collection of essays out shortly, Armageddon in Retrospect, which I’m not expecting to be life-changing, but a completist like me can hardly resist it.

  12. Steerforth said,

    I prefered Galapagos to Slaughterhouse Five. That may be because my expectations of Galapagos were much lower, but I suspect that Slaughterhouse Five has been acclaimed because of its anti-war message rather than on purely literary merit.

    It’s a long time since I read Galapagos, but I still remember the image of the seal-like creatures, which mankind evolves into, lying on a beach, laughing when one of them farts. In Vonnegut’s world, that is the fate we deserve.

  13. John Self said,

    I suspect that Slaughterhouse Five has been acclaimed because of its anti-war message rather than on purely literary merit.

    I agree Steerforth. John Carey in his book Pure Pleasure, where he set out to select his “50 Most Enjoyable Books of the 20th Century,” said:

    I wondered, briefly, whether I ought to include books for their historical significance – reflecting the agonies and ecstasies of our catastrophic century. But that seems just another way of not trusting your own judgement. Books are not better for being about big events, often they are worse. … This led me to omit books which gain power from their subjects more than their writing (Kurt Vonnegut’s account of the Dresden bombing, Slaughterhouse Five, for example).

  14. Matthew said,

    My intro to his work was Slaughterhouse-Five, which was a bookclub selection. The clash of religion and science in Cat’s Cradle might be more enjoyable to me. Thanks for the heads up.

  15. Paul Raymont said,

    Here’s Vonnegut talking about Cat’s Cradle among other things:

    I just finished reading Cat’s Cradle and loved it. It was quite funny, especially the descriptions early in the book of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, where one finds Vonnegut’s masterful satire of the supposedly innocent scientist full of child-like curiosity and wonder.

  16. John Self said,

    That’s a wonderful link Paul, thank you so much for posting it. Vonnegut in it looks a little like a Felix Hoenikker-style mad scientist. Well, Hoenikker wasn’t mad of course, the people who acquired his discovery were, but you know what I mean. I love his summary of the book: “…and, not to leave you in suspense, the world ends.”

  17. Kerry Hubers said,

    John,

    Great site.

    I liked this review for a number of reasons, not least because Cat’s Cradle is my favorite Vonnegut. I prefer it to Breakfast of Champions, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Timequake. I once read, I do not know where, someone commenting that Cat’s Cradle was great for teens, but adults would do better with some of his other work (Slaughterhouse-Five, etc.). I thought my taste was too underdeveloped. I have not re-read Cat’s Cradle since my college days, for fear it would not stand up. Thanks for a great review and reminding me of so many little things I loved about it the first time through.

    Thanks for a great website. I’ll be back.

  18. John Self said,

    Thanks for your kind words Kerry.

    I too read Cat’s Cradle as a teenager, and worried that it wouldn’t stand up. In fact I think I enjoyed it more this time. Certainly it fared better on reread than Breakfast of Champions did (which once I would have cited as my favourite Vonnegut; not any more). I do really think it’s hard to beat his earliest works: Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan, Mother Night. And I still can’t get on with Slaughterhouse-Five.

  19. A friend at school gave me Cat’s Cradle to read saying ‘this is your kind of book – I don’t like it’ – that was nearly 40 years ago. How right she was – I loved it then, have just re-read it for the nth time and I’ve recommended it to my teenage sons who also enjoyed it. I really think it’s his best book, so understated and tight, and brilliantly constructed. It certainly stands up to adult rereading! Slaughterhouse 5 is a close second but I agree his later works are lax. I didn’t get on with Player Piano but will try it again now. It’s heartening to stumble upon this literate literary website.

  20. John Self said,

    Thanks Eleanor, it’s interesting you rate Slaughterhouse Five (in common with many readers of Vonnegut), as it’s the one famous book of his I’ve never been able to get on with. Perhaps time for a revisit. Evidently your friend’s loss was your gain – and I envy you reading a modern classics like Cat’s Cradle when it was a newly published title!

  21. amanda said,

    You say that “John becomes interested in Franklin Hoenikker, one of the fathers of the atom bomb” but I believe you meant Felix Hoenikker not Franklin (his son).

  22. abd baba said,

    that’s a great review,
    it helps to come up with my thesis on the book.

  23. […] is entirely devoid of Shute’s consoling patina of civilisation), and with Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle: the world is ending, with ice, and there’s no getting out of […]


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