Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

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Cat’s Cradle attempts to satirize just about everything wrong with the mid-twentieth century in less than three hundred pages. Its arguments are often funny, convincing, and depressing. Vonnegut writes with a sharp sense of irony which carries the story through even its most nihilistic passages. Cat’s Cradle has a nice range of strange, memorable characters, though none of them are terribly complex. It confesses to being a testament to human stupidity, but its lack of strong characterization prevents it from being a fully honest look at the human condition.

Cat’s Cradle has a twisting, divergent plot. We start with author stand-in John, who’s attempting to write a book about what important people were doing the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Soon, John has a different mission – he’s flying to the Caribbean Island of San Lorenzo to profile a wealthy philanthropist. From there, the plot takes further right turns which it would be a shame to spoil.

It’s not that the plot is careless or incohesive – Vonnegut unites his storylines with a clear thematic vision. His adhesive of choice is Bokononism, a fictional religion native to San Lorenzo. From the beginning, we know that John will eventually become a convert. The entire narrative is thus sprinkled with Bokononist insights and theology. Bokononism is a self-aware religion, meaning that part of its dogma is that it’s a lie. But that doesn’t matter. People follow it anyway. Its doctrine holds that we’re all part of a Karass, a team of individuals who carry out God’s work in ways unknown to them.

Bokononism is a clever satire on religion, on our desire to attribute meaning and purpose to the crazy and often inexplicable events of our lives. John interprets his involvement in world-changing events, his tendency to be at the right/wrong place at the right/wrong time, as God’s will. Of course, he also knows that such attribution, based on Bokononist dogma, is consciously constructed.

Here we have an interesting commentary on our ability to hold conflicting ideas. Bokonon can outwardly say that his religion is a lie, and people will listen, but they’ll follow its tenets anyway. Vonnegut is making the case that no matter what evidence is presented against a religion, it can still maintain force as its followers irrationally cling to their belief in spite of contradictory information. Bokononism is an extreme is this regard, but its nature is satirical.

Cat’s Cradle’s insights on the arms race were more pressing at the time of publication, but they’re still relevant. It was released in 1963, not long after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when fear of incoming apocalypse reached its zenith. We don’t feel the threat of the mushroom cloud as acutely anymore, but more countries than ever before are in possession of nuclear weapons. Vonnegut’s argument is that humans are simply too stupid to control such overwhelming force.

Some of the book’s more important characters are the Hoenikkers. The patriarch, Felix Hoenikker, was one of the ‘fathers of the atomic bomb.’ Felix is an emotionally indifferent scientific genius who approaches his studies with childlike wonder. He’s not so much immoral as he is amoral. He symbolizes science. Near the end of his life, he creates ice-9, a compound with the potential to freeze every drop of water on Earth. A compound with apocalyptic potential.

Vonnegut avoids the obvious anti-nuclear argument by barely dealing with arms race as it relates to conflict between two superpowers. Instead he focuses on chaos and human error. We never know when we’ll have a stroke, when an earthquake might hit, or when a plane will crash into a cliff. We never know when a mentally unbalanced individual will come into possession of a world-shattering substance. Humanity is simply too unpredictable and incompetent to be trusted with something like ice-9. No matter how careful we are, catastrophe can still strike.

Vonnegut’s presentation of this argument is convincing in large part because of its simplicity. Of course the book exaggerates, it’s satire. But the fundamental point, that humanity has built something which it might be incapable of safely holding back, represents a valid concern. It’s also a classic literary theme. The idea isn’t so much that science is bad, just that science has the potential to get ahead of us. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is another classic example of this type of story.

Cat’s Cradle has a rather cynical epistemological outlook. Bokononism holds that the pursuit of knowledge is often futile, that our desire to understand can only ever be a vain and unfulfilled quest. This ties back to the book’s scientific theme in that Felix Hoenikker’s simple desire to know has destructive consequences. According to Newton Hoenikker, Felix’s dwarf son, we overlay cohesive identity onto the world’s fundamental meaninglessness in a way similar to how a tangled collection of string is supposed to represent a cat’s cradle. Thus the book’s title, which is an ever-recurring symbol for that which falsely purports to have meaning.

Cat’s Cradle’s sense of irony is illustrated by the following passage, in which Philip Castle describes why he doesn’t want to follow in his father Julian’s footsteps to become a philanthropist doctor:

“He couldn’t stop. He walked out into the night with his flashlight. He was still giggling. He was making the flashlight beam dance over all the dead people stacked outside. He put his hand on my head, and do you know what that marvelous man said to me?” asked Castle.

“Nope.”

“’Son,’ my father said to me, ‘someday this will all be yours.’”

Vonnegut is generally more interested in characterizing Bokononism than in the actual people who inhabit his story. Newton, the well-adjusted nihilistic dwarf, is one of his more memorable creations. But ultimately the narrative is dominated by John’s voice and observations. Most of the other characters are somewhat broadly sketched.

The Crosbys, for example, are stereotypes. The husband is a myopic capitalist looking for some poor workers to exploit. The wife is a naïve Hoosier desperately looking for others Hoosiers with whom she can bask in their group identity. Characters like this are often funny. After all, Vonnegut isn’t attempting to write in a realist style. He’s taking various human flaws and exaggerating them, allowing them to define certain characters. But Cat’s Cradle, which metafictionally calls itself, “A history of human stupidity,” would have been better served by portraying humans who are slightly more nuanced. It would’ve needed to be a longer book, but as is, it’s incredibly short.

Another example is Mona, the exotic beauty with whom most San Lorenzen males are infatuated. Vonnegut spends a bit of time detailing John’s feelings for Mona, but there’s ultimately little payoff. She’s not really a character in her own right. She stands in for a certain naïve, simple tendency. She’s not a love interest whose story offers a human touch, and the passages dealing with her don’t have the thematic depth of other sections.

For its length, Cat’s Cradle is ambitious in its thematic density. It mostly succeeds, presenting simple arguments about religion and technology and how they can both fulfill and destroy us. It’s a funny book. It handles depressing topics with wit and hilarity. It’s not perfect. Sometimes its sense of focus is off, and its handling of character is lacking. But I can see why it’s largely considered a classic, and why so many love to rave about Vonnegut.

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One Response to “Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut”

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