Cat’s Cradle (1963) by Kurt Vonnegut

CatsCradle1st“No damn cat. No damn cradle” (ch. 74).

When listless Newt Hoenikker, son of the dead co-creator of the atomic bomb, makes this statement, I can only settle back in comfort, knowing that this is a writer who gets me. He’s right. That arrangement of string doesn’t remotely resemble a cat’s cradle, and what the hell is a cat’s cradle anyway?

Obviously, the story is about more than just the string, but it’s a cynical idealist’s response to a world that wants us to see something that just isn’t there. The atom bomb will create peace. Patriotism is family. Religion is truth.

John, but call him Jonah, tells the story about a time he attempted to write a book about the creation of the atomic bomb. His research first leads him to Ilium, New York (Troy, perhaps) to visit with the children and former coworkers of Felix Hoenikker, co-creator of the atom bomb. In his research, he learns that Hoenikker may have also toyed with the idea of creating a world-destroying device called ice-nine, which has the potential to turn any moisture, including entire oceans, to solid ice. John follows his research to the impoverished Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, where the people are ruled by an inept monarchical president, and whose infrastructure is primarily financed by an American overseas sugar company. The people of San Lorenzo follow a curious religion called Bokonism, outlawed on the island, punishable by death, but popular among the locals regardless of, and probably due to, its prohibition. The president passes his rule to John just before his suicide by ice-nine, which spurs a series of events that lead to an apocalypse of frozen oceans and wormy tornadoes.

catscradle4It’s no shocker that Vonnegut’s story espouses political commentary– that’s what he’s known for, and it’s why I was drawn to his stories during my most politically active years. But he also excels at the craft of storytelling. His characters are rich studies of American idiosyncrasies, ranging from the educated to the ignorant, and everyone in between. In Cat’s Cradle, John is an anti-hero in the classic sense, someone just floating along on the tides of the tale, casting amused conversational reflections to the stronger personalities around him, but not really committing to one opinion or another.

Those stronger personalities convey Americanism at its most eccentric ends. We meet Claire Minton, wife of a diplomat and professional book indexer, who advises, “’Never index your own book,’” while she explains in another place, “’it’s a shameless exhibition—to the trained eye’” (ch. 55). And H. Lowe Crosby, a hopeful bicycle mogul of San Lorenzo, who hates “pissants” and knows exactly how to identify them (ch. 59). And don’t forget Crosby’s wife, Hazel, who makes all Hoosiers call her “Mom.” Then, there’s Phillip Castle, sugar heir, reluctant next president of San Lorenzo, and unabashed Bokonist, who shares the story of a ship carrying wicker furniture and rats that crashed ashore, moralizing that “… some people got free furniture, and some people got bubonic plague” (ch. 73). Castle happens to be a pissant.

Vonnegut knows Americans, and he characterizes them well. I have encountered every one of the people described above. On the other hand, his native islander characters are rather bland and underdeveloped. President “Papa” Monzano, not nearly as bloodthirsty as his likely namesakes, (Haiti’s “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” Duvalier), greets his visitors, gets sick, bequeaths his presidency to John, and commits suicide. We learn little of his personality and motives. His adopted daughter, Mona, the San Lorenzan beauty and xylophone virtuoso, has a strange purpose in the story, existing only as a siren to lure John to the island. Her role later expands, yet she remains a quiet enigma for the rest of the book, except for the occasional Bokonist philosophizing. Vonnegut won’t explain her– Mona is just as untouchable and mysterious to the reader as she would be to any black sock & sandal-wearing American male tourist. It would be nice to see Mona with more depth, but her role is designed to perplex John, and her ambiguity suits the story.

catscradle5And even for most modern male (and female) writers, giving Mona depth would mean strapping a gun to her leather-clad thigh. I’ll pass.

If John is a classic anti-hero, Bokonism is the anti-religion: floaty, nebulous, unconcerned. For a 200-page novel, Vonnegut’s Bokonism is one of the richest religious constructs one can encounter in SF. Not only does it feel real and convincing, while also being humorous, it’s likely to convert the reader to its practical sophisms. I’m surprised the sixties didn’t breed a bunch of Bokonists, sprouting churches on every street corner. (I’m surprised my own parents didn’t become Bokonists.) I could go on about Bokonism, and with its karasses, granfalloons, wampeters, and boko-maru, but you’d be a pissant if you didn’t read it to find out for yourself.

It’s a 4- to 6-hour read, with nearly as many chapters as pages (127 very short chapters!), so it’s worth a glance some weekend afternoon when you want to read something brief and brilliant, playful and insightful.

It’s Kurt at his best. And it’s another book that deserves an annual reread.

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19 thoughts on “Cat’s Cradle (1963) by Kurt Vonnegut

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    I loved this one as well. Was unable to review it — so, I applaud your courage! My fiancé has been trying to get me to read Mother Night for years as well… Her favorite of his works.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      If you like Vonnegut, then maybe I’ll like Malzberg 🙂 (I’ll give him a try sometime this year.)

      Vonnegut was the cool kids’ author when I was in high school and college, and a bunch of us read and swapped his stuff. Now, all I can remember is just wisps of scenery and emotion. The main reason I started this blog was to force myself to process the books I read before it all turns to ether. I’ll have to check out Mother Night– I have no idea if I read that one.

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      • fromcouchtomoon says:

        And by “cool kids”, I mean “90’s proto-hipsters.”

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      • Joachim Boaz says:

        You didn’t think I’d like Vonnegut? He is miles ahead most other SF writers (and yes, I consider at least his early stuff SF because it was all published in the normal SF magazines etc) in terms of quality of prose etc.

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        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          Some people don’t like his jokey tone. (I think I saw that on a recent comment on your blog, actually 😉

          I think once I get past the beginner’s level of vintage SF I’ll have a better grasp of what you like.

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  2. I love Mother Night! You have to read it.

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  3. Anton says:

    I love Cat’s Cradle. It’s probably my favorite Vonnegut book.

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  4. Haven’t read this one yet, but I love Vonnegut’s writing so I’ll get to it eventually. Read Slaughterhouse 5 in high school and it blew my mind. Great review!

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  5. Anna C. says:

    Great review! I’ve wanted to read this book ever since I saw that Vonnegut himself rated it an A+. I’ll track it down sooner or later.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Thanks! I read his stuff so long ago that I don’t remember much, but Cat’s Cradle stands out prominently as my favorite over Slaughterhouse-5. I need to revisit that one, too.

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  6. CIE says:

    Hi. I read both Slaughterhouse 5 and Cat’s Cradle reciently and I think they are fascinating. But same as Joaquim, I didn’t think I would be able to write something coherent about them, so thanks for doing it so well!

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Oh, thanks! For something as delightful as Cat’s Cradle, only a slobbery promotion is appropriate. And I’m so happy to see this post attract the like-minded Vonnegut fans– a cyber karass, if you will 😉

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  7. […] Cat’s Cradle (1963) by Kurt Vonnegut […]

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  8. […] by John Brunner– a pre-Zanzibar book that’s actually pretty interesting, with echoes of Vonnegut’s 1963 Cat’s […]

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  9. […] more accurate and nuanced depiction of Latin American culture than White SF typically offers, where even Vonnegut’s incisive humor fails to look under all of the rocks, Squares recognizes the roots of colonialism in modern Latin American society: class resentment, […]

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