Cat’s Cradle: A Novel by Kurt Vonnegut (New York: Dial Press, 1998; originally published in 1963. 304 pp)
Kurt Vonnegut was a fourth-generation German-American who lived in easy circumstances on Cape Cod (while smoking too much), who, as an American infantry scout hors de combat, as a prisoner of war, witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, “the Florence of the Elbe,” a long time ago, and survived to tell the tale. Vonnegut blended black humor, satire, and science fiction into a unique contribution to American letters. He died in 2007.
Men and Women of a Certain Age
For men and women of a certain age, mutual assured destruction is not an answer on a history quiz but a fearful reality. From the end of World War II, when the globe encountered two of the most terrifying explosions in human history, to the demise of the Cold War, many lived on the edge of their seat. One aggressive move from a nuclear power and it’s the end of the world as we know it.
While I am a Cold War kid, I have no recollection of the true depths of fear from the nuclear arms race. Conceptually, I am aware of what horrors such a device inflicts, but I have no real-world reference to this destruction, unlike previous generations. I recognize humanity is capable of destroying the world, but I’m not worried about it… currently.
Given these ideas, I approach Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle from a different perspective.
A Memoir of Mutual Assured Destruction
Vonnegut, a veteran of World War II, is best known for his sci-fi satirical novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, a narrative from which he draws on his personal experiences during the bombing of Dresden. World War II was a violent era. There’s a large portion of a generation missing from earth because of it, and I imagine these experiences influence that generation greatly.
Cat’s Cradle, then, plays off these fears, imagining life under the auspices of mutual assured destruction. It tells the story in a meta-narrative form as the unnamed protagonist and narrator writes a memoir telling a story about his personal faith in an obscure religion called Bokononism and his post-World-War-II circumstances tracking down the scientist behind the nuclear bomb:
“We Bokononists believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass by Bokonon, and the instrument, the kan-kan, that brought me into my own particular karass was the book I never finished, the book to be called The Day the World Ended” (2).
Through much travel and interviews, the narrator learns many surprising things about the nature of humanity.
And in a typical Vonnegut black humor twist, the entire world turns upside down underneath the narrator’s philosophical pursuit of truth in the wake of World War II.
On Bokononism and Black Humor
Bokononism represents the most fructuous portion of Cat’s Cradle. Vonnegut’s make believe religion is a sort of nihilism which represents the position of a Caribbean Island holy man named Bokonon. The narrator, writing from the end of the novel, is up front from the beginning about his conversion to this religion.
Bokononism is a rather grim theology. Vonnegut writes,
“And I remembered The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon, which I had read in its entirety the night before. The Fourteenth Book is entitled, ‘What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?’
It doesn’t take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period.
This is it:
Clearly pessimistic, Bokononism represents the fear and despair many felt in the post-World-War-II era. Living through such carnage and massive loss of life, such philosophies seem to make more sense.
Vonnegut, however, stays true to his his keen sense of humor. Consider this example:
“’What is the secret of life?’ I asked.
‘I forget,’ said Sandra.
‘Protein,’ the bartender declared. ‘They found out something about protein.’
‘Yeah,’ said Sandra, ‘that’s it’” (25).
Much like the answer “42” from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Vonnegut’s quest for the meaning of life leads him down the pathway to the absurd.
I’m not from the generation fearful of the Red Menace and for this reason, I believe I’m not the best person to accurately assess Cat’s Cradle. For certain people, the end of the world was mutually assured. I’m just not there.
Having said that, Cat’s Cradle, while somewhat slow and difficult to read given the obscene amount of short chapters, is a book with considerable gravitas. It’s worth your time, eventually.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5
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