Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Review: Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
The story is told by John, in the first person, as he attempts to write a novel titled The Day the World Ended. The novel's opening line establishes its struggle with nihilism: "Call me Jonah." This is an obvious reference to Moby-Dick's opening line, "Call me Ishmael." Except in this case, the main character isn't really named Jonah, but John, suggesting he has a desire for a name fraught with Biblical meaning instead of a common name with no meaning.
John's quest is to learn everything he can about the father of the atom bomb, Felix Hoenikker. Felix is dead, but he has left behind three children: Frank, who has disappeared; Angela, who was forced to live much of her life as a caretaker of her father; and Newt, who was born a dwarf and has artistic aspirations. John writes letters to Newt in order to learn what it was like at the Hoenikker house the day the bomb was dropped. Turns out it was just an ordinary day. John also visits Dr. Breed, Felix's supervisor, and from him learns about a mythical weapon Felix imagined called Ice-Nine. Ice-Nine would be capable of freezing all bodies of water at once, depriving the world of what it needs to sustain life. What Dr. Breed didn't know was that Felix actually did create Ice-Nine.
Just as Vonnegut makes up an alien species in Slaughterhouse-Five, he makes up a religion in Cat's Cradle. This religion is Bokononism, founded by Bokonon, whose purpose is to show that people can be made to feel good by a religion based on lies. The Book of Bokonon warns that its teachings and writings are nothing but lies, but John, much like the rest of the followers of Bokonon, glaze over that part. Bokonon teaches that all people have a karass, which is a group of people connected by some force, and that each karass is driven by two wampeters, one waxing and one waning. The supreme act of Bokononist love and peaceful meditation is to touch the naked soles of your feet to those of another person, and this is called boko-maru. Vonnegut makes up many other Bokononist words as well, and defines them, though they sound meaningless. Perhaps that's the point.
Also made up is the island of San Lorenzo, which serves as the setting for the novel's second, and most entertaining, half. San Lorenzo is where Bokonon developed Bokononism, and it's also perhaps the only place in the world the religion is simultaneously outlawed yet practiced by all the people. Most of the important action happens on San Lorenzo, as it's the place where John meets the majority of the important characters. There's Mona, daughter of San Lorenzo's president, whose beauty was a huge inspiration for John's visit. Other very interesting events occur there, but I don't want to spoil the novel.
Cat's Cradle is a book that perhaps sometime in the near future I will have to visit again. I was not too impressed by the first half of the novel. There's a lot of background story, and then John happens to randomly run into people related to those he is interested in. When he comes upon Dr. Breed's son at a graveyard, it feels too much like Vonnegut is pulling the strings rather than letting the pieces fall naturally together. Maybe a second reading will change what I think of this first half, especially because the second half is so wonderful. It's where the book truly comes to life, making me laugh and feel depressed all at once.
There is a subtle undertone of anger reverberating through the novel. Many of the characters seem angry about something. Newt is angry about his small stature, and Angela is angry about her tall, unattractive stature. Dr. Breed is angry about John's seeming inability to truly understand science. John seems angry about the mass destruction that has been carried out with the aid of advanced science. Only the Bokononists on San Lorenzo aren't angry. They seem at peace, though they also seem apathetic. Vonnegut turns some surprising events on the island into great use as satire of a people's apathy towards governmental affairs. This is sad, funny, and scary all at once.
The title itself is the biggest clue regarding the novel's nihilism. Felix Hoenikker loved to make a cat's cradle out of a piece of string, but as Newt points out in one of the novel's most passionate lines, "There is no cat. There is no cradle." The cat's cradle is just a big fib. It's name has absolutely no connection with the design it creates - so why call it the cat's cradle? Newt has grown disillusioned by the magic of the world. Perhaps that's why religion is important, even the lies of Bokononism (and the rest of them, as Vonnegut seems to be suggesting), because it keeps magic alive in people's hearts. The atom bomb may have destroyed much of this magic because it portends the end of a world that humans have spent hundreds of thousands of years surviving and making meaning out of. All of it threatens to come crashing down by a single weapon that is the product of the knowledge passed down through humanity's history. Instead, let's follow the example of Bokonon: let's remove our shoes, sit down, and press the soles of our feet together in peaceful boko-maru.