Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
Published in 1963
“Call me Jonah.”
Cat’s Cradle is a story of satirical strangeness and absurd action. A man who calls himself by another name writes in retrospect regarding his research for a book about the end of the world and unwittingly finds himself present at the subject of his novel. Fraught with sarcasm and sardonic criticism of science, religion, technology, war, and many other topics, Cat’s Cradle showcases Kurt Vonnegut’s knack for the nearly nonsensical. (I need to lay off on the alliteration…yeesh)
The book begins with the narrator, John, describing his attempts to write a book about the day that the atom bomb was dropped over Hiroshima; he decides to research Dr. Felix Hoenikker, who was regarded as one of the fathers of the bomb. Through his research, Hoenikker’s strange personality and life story are revealed as John is thrust into a journey that will lead to the end of the world as we know it (If you feel inclined to listen to the R.E.M. song , go ahead. I’ll wait).
As is often found in Vonnegut’s writing (he said, having only read two of Vonnegut’s books), the characters that inhabit the story are quite eccentric and eclectic. Dr. Hoenikker’s children make up three of the biggest contributors and each does so in their own way. Angela is the oldest and is described as “…a woman to whom God had given virtually nothing with which to catch a man…”, which is a clever way of saying she was rather homely. Franklin is the middle child and inherited his father’s social awkwardness and love for spending time researching rather than interacting with other people. Newt is the youngest and is a dwarf painter (a little person who paints, not someone who paints little people or pictures of them), to whom John initially reaches out due to their shared alma mater.
John’s inquiries take him to the island of San Lorenzo where Franklin has become the major general of a dictator who impales all who oppose him upon a giant hook and is known as “Papa” Mozano. While researching his destination, he learns about the lack of interest in the island by most, if not all, major world powers. The inhabitants speak a barely recognizable form of English dialect and follow the tenants of Bokononism, which is a cynical religion created by a calypso singer who roams the jungles of San Lorenzo.
Much of the humor in the book comes about through the contradictions and ridiculous practices of Bokononism. Harmless lies abound and the closest form of spiritual union can be found by putting the soles of one’s feet against those of another. Many of the poems (called Calypsos) have simple rhyme schemes and paradoxes that all coincide with the idea that the universe is interconnected. There is also a prophecy that a landlocked golden dingy will set sail again at the end of the world. Through no fault of legitimate prophecy, this does happen near the end of the book.
The outlook of Cat’s Cradle and its characters could be considered by some as very bleak. The title is an allusion to the string game which is mentioned twice in the book. The first time is when Newt recalls the day the atom bomb dropped and his father made the cat’s cradle with a piece of string, and the second is when Newt and John talk about more philosophical topics later in the novel. Newt comments on the absurdity of the game’s name because there is no cat or cradle visible. John later says that Angela seemed to be in a good marriage, to which Newt replies, “See the cat? See the cradle?” It seems the idea is that just because you label something, that doesn’t mean it is accurate to what exists. Then again, I could be wrong. What do I look like, someone who studied literary analysis? (don’t look at my About page…)
A recurring item in the story that is foreshadowed and comes to its payoff in the end of the novel is ice-nine, a substance Felix Hoenikker created that freezes all water it touches. The possible outcomes of ice-nine being released into the world are alluded to and warned about throughout and it is not until the climax of the novel that we truly see the destructive power that Hoenikker released upon the world…again. It is also revealed that as Hoenikker’s legacy, ice-nine caused all three of his children to enter into relationships fueled solely by their possession of this dangerous chemical. Angela marries a handsome Don Juan type, Franklin becomes the major general of San Lorenzo, and Newt has a short (pun woefully unintended) with a female dwarf from Soviet Russia. All three of these relationships are due to ice-nine and work to bring about the end of the world.
Vonnegut’s voice rings loud and clear through the humor and outlook of the characters in the book. There is a lot of sharp whit and cleverness juxtaposed with dimwitted people. As stated earlier, the outlook is bleak and the ending of the book is rather disconcerting in the conclusions reached and the way people behave in the face of the end of the world. However, there is some hilarity in the attempts of the survivors to go back to normal as though it was the natural progression of things which, according to Bokononism, it may have been.
Cat’s Cradle is only for the light of heart and those who will see the humor present in the terrible events and lively people described within. Vonnegut’s fourth novel is a masterclass in the use of satire and sarcasm to lampoon the most serious of disciplines in such a way as to show their ridiculousness.
Verdict: 5 chips of ice-nine out of 5
Recommended for: Cynics, nihilists, sarcastic people, fans of just plain ‘ol good writing, and you!
Not recommended for: Those with cheery outlooks on life, devout followers of Bokononism, Mona Monzano, John, basically most of the main characters in the book or innocent bystanders.