BOOK REVIEW: “Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut (1963)

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I love Kurt Vonnegut for a bunch of reasons, not the least of which is his irritation factor. Kurt loved to sort of bug people in ways they couldn’t really do much about. Much like Harlan Ellison, his real 24/7 job was basically being himself, and the writing flowed from that. Back in Indiana of the 1950s, for instance, Kurt started inviting black people to fancy dinner parties. Why? Well, lots of reasons, but in large part he’s admitted that he just liked to make his very white, very Midwestern hosts uncomfortable in a social surrounding where they couldn‘t do anything about it. As a very white, very Midwestern guy myself, I can appreciate that. There’s a lot of snooty upper-crust types I’d like to pull that off if I could.

Kurt himself occasionally expressed confusion about how he was labeled. When he started out, he was called a Science Fiction writer because, as he put it, “I wrote books that admitted technology existed.” Later, when he made a name for himself amongst the more pretentious classes, he was told he wrote literature, even though he told the same kinds of rambling, screwball tales he’d always done, technology included. He seemed to enjoy bugging his audience: Back in the 60s and 70s there were people who insisted he was something that he wasn’t simply so they could justify their own enjoyment of him. I’m always amused by people who jump through self-created mental hoops to do that sort of thing, rather than just read the darn story and take it for what it is, but, eh, live and learn. I’ve never been an upper-class pretentiously artsy 1960s Liberal Democrat. Perhaps that kind of behavior makes sense in context.

In any event, because Kurt got Co-opted by the patchouli-wearing cloves-smoking beret-owning yellow-dog Democrat set, he’s become one of those guys that *our* people tend to avoid and talk down about. This is really a shame, because he’s a really good writer (About 60% of the time) and while he was undoubtedly on the liberal side of the spectrum politically, he’s the kind of liberal that “The Left” couldn’t control. He’s the guy they bragged about, but didn’t really want on their team because he was unpredictable, and because he was smart, and because, as likely as not, he’d take a poke at them. Too left for the right, too free-thinking for the left, he’s ultimately the guy no one wants on their team, and yet, on his good days, he’s a hell of a read. “Cat’s Cradle” catches him on one of his good days.

WARNING: If you are a Christian, under no circumstances should you read this book! The ending can only be considered sacrilegious at best, blasphemous at worst, and much leading up to it is pretty deliberately offensive. You’ve been warned.

That said, I was actually *required* to read this book in Bible College thirty years ago. Yeah, I went to Bible College, flunked out, went to state and did swimmingly. Go figure.

I’m not really sure why the required me to read it. My theory is that they were trying to get some of our more sheltered students (Half the campus perhaps?) a little exposure to different ways of thinking, different ways of storytelling, different outlooks in literature. They needed to at least represent the middle of the 20th century in some way, right? Or else we’re just jumping from James Joyce to random Star Trek novels with nothing in between. Hardly worth a $40,000 education for that, right? I dunno, but if that’s the case, this was probably the least blasphemous of the blasphemous subversive novels of the period. As “Gateway Drugs” go, this is a good one. It’s funny.

PLAY BY PLAY

Our unnamed protagonist is writing a book about what happened on August 6th, 1945, the day Hiroshima was nuked. He’s collecting stories about what people were doing, a sort of collage of mediocrity surrounding a not-at-all mundane event. It is some time in the first half of the 1960s. This leads him, eventually, to come into contact with the Hoenikker family, who’s late (Very autistic) father was regarded as one of the creators of the atom bomb. They’re a dysfunctional family, consisting of a midget boy, a Sarah-plain-and-tall daughter, and a more-or-less normal son who just sat around building train dioramas and looking at dirty magazines all day. Eventually the father died, and they went their separate ways: The daughter ended up in a loveless marriage to a scientist who wanted access to her father’s notes. The Midget ended up betraying his country to the Soviet Union for a few nights of passion with a post-menopausal Ukrainian midget woman. The diorama-builder ended up as the general in charge of the armed forces of the Republic of San Lorenzo, a tiny country in the Caribbean. It’s all fairly complicated, but endlessly funny. Here’s a random scene from early on when our protagonist visit’s the late Dr. Hoenikker’s lab and is taken for a tour by one of the receptionists:

>>While Miss Faust and I waited for an elevator to take us to the first floor, Miss Faust said she hoped the elevator that came would not be number five. Before I could ask her why this was a reasonable wish, number five arrived.
Its operator was an ancient Negro who's name was Lyman Enders Knowles. Knowles was insane, I'm almost sure - offensively so, in that he grabbed his own behind and cried, "Yes, Yes!" whenver he felt that he'd made a poing.
"Hello, fellow anthropoids and lilly pads and paddlewheels," he said to Miss Faust and me, "Yes, yes!"
"First floor, please," Miss Faust said, coldly.
All Knowles had to do was close the dor and push a button to get us to the first floor, but he wasn't going to do that yet. He wasn't going to do it, maybe, for years.
"Man told me," he said, THat these here elevators was Mayan architecture. I never knew that till today. And I says to him, 'what's that make me--mayonnaise?' Yes, yes! And while he was thinkig that over, I hit him with a question and that straightened him up and made him think twice as hard, yes yes!"
"Could we please go down, Mr. Knowles," begged Miss Faust.
"I said to him," said Knowles, "That this here's a re-search laboratory, re-search means 'look again,' don't it? Means they're lookign for something they found once and it got away somehow, and now they got to re-search for it? Come they got to build a building like this, with mayonaise elevators and all, and fill it with all these crazy people? What is they're tyring to find again? Who lost what? Yes, yes!"
"That's very interesting," sighed Miss Faust, "How could we go down?"
"Only way we can go is down," barked Knowles, "This here's the top. You ask me to go up, and wouldn't be a thing I could do for you, yes, yes!"
"So let's go down," said Miss Faust.
"Very soon now. This gentleman hee been payin his respects to Dr. Henikker?"
"Yes," I said, "Did you know him?"
"Intimately," he said, "You know what I said when he died?"
"No."
"I said, 'Dr. Hoenikker - he ain't dead,'"
"Oh?"
"Just entered a new dimension. Yes, yes!"
He punched a button, and down we went.
"Did you know any of the Hoenikker children?" I asked him.
"Babies full of rabies," he said, Yes, yes!"<<

Presently our protagonist ends up on the island of San Lorenzo, surrounded - entirely coincidentally - by Dr. Hoenikker’s now-adult children, in the middle of a poorer-than-dirt third world country, embroiled in a kind of simmering struggle between the utterly incompetent government, and a weird-ass openly fraudulent cult. No sooner are we introduced to the local strong man despot than he starts dying, and people begin madly casting about for a new leader. Dr. Hoenikker’s train-obsessed son eventually begs our protagonist to take the job, since he doesn’t want it, and once he discovers the job will require him to marry the only really attractive woman on the island, he agrees.

Before he can really do anything about it, though, the world ends, and we get several chapters of him trying to make sense of this before, you know, he sort of ends himself.

The End. Really. Of Everything.

OBSERVATIONS

Yeah, it’s a downer, it really is, but it’s a hoot to read. Fast, funny, and lacking in the navel-gazing self-importance you’d expect in a book about the end of the world. True, Kurt was a bit of a misanthropist, but he was just so darn affable about it, it’s hard not to like him when he goes on about how petty, vicious, and evil we are. It’s hard not to laugh at what an idiot everyone in the book is, but at the same time you kind of feel sorry for them, particularly the love-spurned Hoenikker children.

The world ends because of a super weapon that Dr. Hoenikker thought up more-or-less randomly as an intellectual puzzle, built, and then never bothered to tell anyone in authority about. I won’t spoil it here, but it really is one of the cleverest total-extinction plot devices I’ve ever read. Yes, it’s total doubletalk, it wouldn’t work, but it’s such plausible doubletalk, so frightening and simple and dreamlike, it’s hard not to be wrapped up in it.

The writing is, as ever, economical, clear, funny, well-paced, and not at all showy. Well, I say “As ever,” but that’s not really true: Kurt’s writing falls into “Really Good,” “Interestingly mediocre,” and “Holy crap, that’s awful!” categories, and this book is in the “Really Good” end of the spectrum, as is more than half of his oeuvre. It’s always important, I think to qualify where something fits in the larger scheme of an artist’s work, and he’s really at the top of his game this time out.

The entire plot revolves around the unlikeliest of coincidences, which the protagonists recognizes are insanely unlikely. This, in turn, is tied into the ongoing conflict in the book between the weirdass cult - “Bokononism” - and the more traditional religious viewpoints; in a larger sense there’s a conflict between faith and science that pervades things. The original intent of Bokononism was to provide a religion that would give honest, rational answers and thereby free the people of San Lorenzo from their unhappiness, backbreaking poverty, and priest-enslaved minds. This worked not at all well, and the self-proclaimed prophet Bokonnon realized that rational answers can’t really give meaning to life. Thereafter he preaches open lies, with his only real concession to rationalism being that he openly admits he’s a liar. The sloppy conflict between Bokonnon’s followers (Pretty much the entire island) and the official state-sponsored Christianity (Itself rather vague and cultic on this island) is, itself, basically a deliberate fraud to add a little drama to the cult. “Every good religion is a form of treason,“ as Bokonnon says. Alas, this has gotten a bit out of hand of late, with both sides of the faux conflict going a bit unhinged.

What’s weird about this premise, what separates it from your normal ’there is no God and religious people are all just a bunch of fools’ kind of thing you’d generally expect, is the recurring theme that God is actually driving all this. The impossible coincidences are taken by the protagonist as proof-positive that he, and the Hoenikkers, and a few others, are being shepherded towards some divinely-appointed destiny. He can’t make sense out of this until he converts to Bokonnonism himself, despite having extremely little apparent regard for it (At one point the refers to the prophet Bokonnon as “That jigaboo bastard.”). From this he learns that his entire life has been a role he was intended to play, effectively as the unwitting angel of death, or something like it.

Why? Well, God, as depicted in the book, never explains Himself, and our hero isn’t happy about it at all. The last line in the book, his own presumed last action, is a total and disrespectful defiance of God. Presumably, however, this, too, was all part of the plan from before time began. Here, and in Slaughterhouse 9, and in Sirens of Titan, Kurt has always favored predestination. The irony - which I can’t really go into here because it’d spoil the surprise - is that when the end comes, people’s exteriors basically become physical representations of destiny, aft…nope, nope, sorry. I can’t really spell it out. It’d spoil too much. Sorry.

Anyway, after all that’s said, I find the notion that God can use anything for His ends interesting, and even strangely comforting. He grabs the deliberate lie that is Bokonnonism, and twists it, manipulates it, subverts it until it becomes actual real truth, if only for a few days. Is that offensive? I don’t think so. “We know that all things God works together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose for them,” as the Apostle Paul says in Romans 8:28. Jesus Himself said some deliberately subversive things, intentionally tossing common wisdom on its ear. I have no problem assuming God can and does do this sort of thing - changes lies to truth - when He wishes. As openly anti-Christian novels go, this one is oddly Christian. Maybe that’s why they made me read it in Bible college? Or maybe my professor was just looking to get fired. A lot of them were, you know. It’s not an enjoyable job.

The timing of this book is absolutely perfect. It was written at the exact cusp in history when things were changing rapidly, but where change hadn’t *quite* become frightening yet. We see a polite, educated, stately, optimistic 1950s-styled world just transitioning into hedonism and chaos. This is underscored by some oddly sympathetic scenes involving a small-town prostitute, and the odd sexual dynamics of the other characters, not to mention the rather chaste promiscuity of the Bokonnonists themselves. There’s an energy in that period of transition between postwar optomisim and baby boomer self-obsession, and the book catches it perfectly.

Ultimately the conflict is between faith and science, between meaningful lies and meaningless truths. One brings death, the other doesn’t really prevent death, but it makes one’s life more bearable leading up to it. Unless, of course, you’re the unwitting angel of death.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?

Nope. Nope. Absolutely not. And I reiterate: Fundamentalist Christians should stay away from it.

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