Review: Cat's Cradle
May contain spoilers.
This is my second Kurt Vonnegut novel after reading Slaughterhouse-Five, well, five years ago. A journalist, in his quest to write a book about one of the creators of the atomic bomb, finds himself on the fictional Caribbean island nation of San Lorenzo. In typical kooky Vonnegut fashion, the journalist goes there after finding out that one of the scientist's sons, who used to work at a hobby shop making model trains, is now a Major General in San Lorenzo.
For such a short novel, Vonnegut managed to fit in a huge cast of wacky, colourful characters. There's "Papa" Monzano, the dying dictator of San Lorenzo. Hazel Crosby never fails pounce on Indiana residents discussed in conversation, and insists on everyone else calling her "Mom". Her husband, H. Lowe Crosby, is a cartoonish American capitalist who goes to San Lorenzo in search of cheap labour. Julian Castle left the sugar business to set up a humanitarian hospital on San Lorenzo, but turns out to be a cynical asshole in person. And, of course, there's Bokonon, the holy man who started a fake/real religion and a fake/real war with the state of San Lorenzo, and whose calypsos pepper every chapter of the story.
To me, the most powerful message in Cat's Cradle is how poorly equipped we humans are to handle the power of technology. This book was published soon after the Cuban Missle Crisis; reading it at the time must have been a horrifying experience. Now it's a quietly uncomfortable read, reminding us in between absurd punchlines of the knife's edge on which our geopolitical climate is delicately poised. We learn early on that after the war, Felix Hoenikker, the scientist whose children accompany our journalist narrator on San Lorenzo, developed ice-nine, a solid form of water that causes liquid water to crystallise into more ice-nine on contact. Felix Hoenikker is a caricature of the Man of Science, a scientist who seems to lack a human soul, and it is his ice-nine that destroys the world in a moment of slapstick comedy. Instant destruction, in much the same way the atomic bomb levelled Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Science without humanism and ethics to guide it, and without art to lend it context, can be a mindless and destructive machine. Scientists have a moral obligation to consider the ethical implications of their work. They cannot claim to be objective and rational beings who have no stance on how the fruits of their research are used.
Vonnegut is a true wordsmith with the ability to churn out delicious turns of phrase. I find his writing as poetic as it is simple. His prose flows naturally, and his humour never fails to entertain. To be sure, there are some awfully dated slurs, and he doesn't treat people of colour, women, and possibly people of short stature very well in his writing.
The novel is made up of short, punchy chapters, which Vonnegut has described as a series of jokes making up a mosaic. Here's a non-exhaustive list of bits I enjoyed:
- National Chairman for Poets and Painters for Immediate Nuclear War
- "Papa's" death rattles being amplified by a microphone
- "Papa" being referred to as "Papa"
- Every single one of Bokonon's calypsos
- Bokononist terms such as "duprass" and "karass" and "granfalloon"
- "Dynamic tension", a concept in Bokononism, being a term used by a mail-order bodybuilding instructor to describe isometric exercises
- Death by hook being inspired by Madame Tussauds, and turning from a fictional punishment into an actual one
- The Hundred Martyrs to Democracy getting wiped out before leaving the San Lorenzo harbour
- McCabe and Bokonon pretending to be enemies, then becoming actual enemies
- Bokonon declaring himself an outlaw
- Dr Vox Humana being named after the church organ that killed his mother
- Everyone on San Lorenzo, including Papa, being a Bokononist--on the island where Bokononism is outlawed and its adherents sentenced to death on the hook.
Though not as uniformly depressing as Slaughterhouse-Five, this story is no less bleak and pessimistic. The titular cat's cradle is referenced by Newt, who asks the narrator: where is the cat? And where is the cradle? Our existence is meaningless, in spite of our propensity to divine meaning from a tangled mess of string. It may simply be the naivety that comes with my age, but I just can't bring myself to agree with Vonnegut's nihilistic view that humans are fundamentally cruel and stupid--understandable as that may be given his wartime experiences. To be fair, he does offer humour as a way to cope, but the laughter contains just a bit too much bitterness for my taste. As absurd as the world may seem--and believe me, 2020 has done a great job of driving that home--the answer can't be to lie down on a hilltop, eat some ice-nine, and die while defiantly flipping off the heavens with a smile. Sure, I don't have the answers, but for now it seems enough to take each day as it comes and find joy in all the small things.
- His pores looked as big as craters on the moon. His ears and nostrils were stuffed with hair. Cigar smoke made him smell like the mouth of Hell. So close up, my father was the ugliest thing I had ever seen. I dream about it all the time.
- My soul seemed as foul as smoke from burning cat's fur.
- The words were a paraphrase of the suggestion by Jesus: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's." Bokonon's paraphrase was this: "Pay no attention to Caesar. Caesar doesn't have the slightest idea what's really going on."
- ... the brainless ecstasy of a volunteer fireman.
- It posed the question posed by all such stone piles: how had puny men moved stones so big? And, like all such stone piles, it answered the question itself. Dumb terror had moved those stones so big.
- Perhaps, when we remember wars, we should take off our clothes and paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs. That would surely be more appropriate than noble oratory and shows of flags and well-oiled guns.
Day 7 of #100DaysToOffload