Monday, August 23, 2010

SF Masterworks #75: Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle

Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John.

Jonah--John--if I had been a Sam, I would have been Jonah still--not because I have been unlucky for others, but because somebody or something has compelled me to be certain places at certain times, without fail. Conveyances and motives, both conventional and bizarre, have been provided. And, according to plan, at each appointed second, at each appointed place this Jonah was there.


When I was a younger man--two wives ago, 250,000 cigarettes ago, 3,000 quarts of booze ago . . .

When I was a much younger man, I began to collect material for a book to be called The Day the World Ended.

The book was to be factual.

The book was to be an account of what important Americans had done on the day when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.

It was to be a Christian book. I was a Christian then.

I am a Bokononist now. (pp. 1-2)

Kurt Vonnegut is one of those rare writers who wrote SF, was rarely considered SF, and whose SF works could in turn be considered anthropological studies (he did, after all, earn his MA from The University of Chicago in 1971 for this 1963 novel, Cat's Cradle).  Born into a family of freethinkers, Vonnegut's experiences during World War II, especially his time spent as a PoW during the Firebombing of Dresden in 1945, are deeply etched into his writings, as seen in the opening chapter of Cat's Cradle.  In many ways, Cat's Cradle may be considered a sort of ur-text for the ideas and narrative modes that Vonnegut would later explore in novels such as Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions.

The story begins with an allusion to Ishmael from Moby Dick, as well as a nod to the biblical Jonah, who warns the city of Nineveh of impending doom.  The narrator, John/Jonah (but not Sam, mind you!), is a midget, and this factors heavily into the warped narrative that follows.  John begins his story by narrating how much his life had changed after he was introduced to the religion of Bokonism on the (fictional) Caribbean island of San Lorenzo.  John at first was interested in narrating the history of the atomic bomb and he attempts to contact a (fictional) co-creator of the bomb, Dr. Felix Hoenikker.  However, Dr. Hoenikker has died and it is his youngest son, Newt, who writes back to John, telling of his father's experiences the day that the bomb was dropped at Hiroshima:

"That was the way he was.  Nobody could predict what he was going to be intereste in next.  On the day of the bomb it was string.

"Have you ever read the speech he made when he accepted the Nobel Prize?  This is the whole speech: 'Ladies and Gentlemen.  I stand before you now because I never stopped dawdling like an eight-year-old on a spring morning on his way to school.  Anything can make me stop and look and wonder, and sometimes learn.  I am a very happy man.  Thank you.'

"Anyway, Father looked at that loop of string for a while, and then his fingers started playing with it.  His fingers made the string figure called a 'cat's cradle.'  I don't know where Father learned how to do that.  From his father, maybe.  His father was a tailor, you know, so there must have been thread and string around all the time when Father was a boy.

"Making that cat's cradle was the closest I ever saw my father come to playing what anybody else would call a game.  He had no use at all for tricks and games and rules that other people made up.  In a scrapbook my sister Angela used to keep up, there was a clipping from Time magazine where somebody asked Father what games he played for relaxation, and he said, 'Why should I bother with made-up games when there are so many real ones going on?'" (p. 11)
In the events that follow, from the interviews with the Hoenikker children to the discovery that Dr. Hoenikker had developed a second, potentially more lethal substance called "ice-nine," which would turn water into ice at room temperatures whenever water would come in contact with the substance, to the travels to San Lorenzo where the local dictator has managed to gain control of this substance, the narrative tilts toward the strange and bizarre.  There are seemingly throw-away discussions on music, on religion (the fictional creole religion of Bokonism and its emphasis on the harmless untruths of other religions plays a vital role in shaping the final chapters of Cat's Cradle), and the cruel ironies of life that Vonnegut deftly weaves back into the narrative toward the end to create a very powerful and sad reflection on the failings of humanity to rise above itself. 

As a novel, Cat's Cradle can take a little bit of time before those unfamiliar with Vonnegut's writing will be able to follow not just what is happening on page, but also behind those narrative accounts of the tenets of Bokonism, calypso singing, and so forth.  But by the halfway point in this roughly 280 page book, the reader will begin to connect the narrative dots and form their own understanding of the sad truths that underlie the convenient untruths that have plagued human societies since their inceptions.  By the end the final page is reached, the growing horror that John has narrated so blithely is revealed in its full splendor, as not just the catastrophic effects of ice-nine are revealed, but so too are the connections between dictatorship and religious worship.  All of this combines to create a cautionary tale that is also hilarious in several places, without ever losing its power to make strong, biting commentaries about human societies and the destructive powers inherent in them.

Vonnegut several times over his career cited Mark Twain as a sort of literary patron saint for him (he went so far as to name his only son after Twain) and in Cat's Cradle there certainly is a kinship with Twain's latter writings, namely in the way that humor is used to underscore the terrible realities present in everyday life.  In this novel, Vonnegut develops his story brilliantly, rarely wasting space, even when it might seem at first that certain narrative events might be too bizarre for comprehension.  Everything is focused toward setting up the conclusion and that conclusion is executed almost perfectly.  This is perhaps one of Vonnegut's two or three best novels for prose, theme, and narrative execution and it certainly is worthy of being considered a "Masterwork" for how well it utilizes SF tropes on nuclear end-of-earth settings to convey a strong and clear message about ourselves and our ways of life.  It is, when looked at in an anthropological fashion, a sort of ethnologue of our lives, our dreams, and how easily we can self-deceive ourselves.  It is an enduring work, one that has lasted far past the MAD years and one that still contains some terrible truths that we still need to confront nearly a half-century after its initial publication.  So it goes.

1 comment:

  1. Cat's Cradle is one of my favorite books. I read it for the first time while I was in high school, and didn't understand it one bit, except that my reading it seemed to impress adults.

    It's been 15 years, and my well loved copy is near falling apart, and I have marked my favorite passages. I have purchased new copies of Cat's Cradle as gifts for special friends and inscribed them "we are in the same Karass, enjoy".

    Cat's Cradle was my second Vonnegut, and put me on the lifelong path of reading everything of his I can get my hands on.