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:

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.


Day 7 of #100DaysToOffload

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