This week’s selection: Cat’s Cradle (1963) by Kurt Vonnegut.
In brief: Vonnegut’s apocalyptic Cold War satire is an easily digestible exercise in absurdist humour, though the whole is scarcely greater than the sum of its parts. The novel, while consistently amusing, stops short of delivering on its thematic promise to examine science and religion at the end of the world in moral, humanistic terms.
(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Cat’s Cradle, keep reading below.)
Cat’s Cradle begins as one writer’s inquiry into the life of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, fictitious co-inventor of the atomic bomb, and what he and his family were doing the day the bomb fell on Hiroshima. Somewhere along the way, this writer ends up in the Caribbean banana republic of San Lorenzo, an impoverished island with no export market, a dictatorship hell-bent on demonstrating its loyalty to the United States, and an outlawed but universal calypso religion called Bokononism.
This is a Kurt Vonnegut novel, so I am simplifying things by the very nature of trying to wrap everything neatly in a summary of events. Cat’s Cradle may be alternatively, and perhaps more accurately, described as a series of 127 vignettes, each one or two pages in length, that sketch absurd little scenes that invariably finish with an ironic or anticlimactic punch line. That’s just how Vonnegut works: the identity of a given novel of his is really all a matter of degree, lying somewhere along a spectrum of sociopolitical relevance that extends from the historical consciousness of a Slaughterhouse-Five to the shallow but gratifying hilarity of a Breakfast of Champions.
Cat’s Cradle lies somewhere in the middle. It has the typical plainspoken charm of a Vonnegut farce, but intellectually speaking, it seems more content to flag certain ideas than explore them in full.
Nominally, this is a book about scientific ethics that delves into the familial legacy of a researcher completely detached from human affairs, when it’s not busy being a book about the consolation offered by a made-up religion proud to be an opiate of the masses.
So on one hand, we encounter scientists in the purest sense—dedicated to research unguided by any force other than individual curiosity—like Asa Breed, who says: “New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become.” (I’m quite sympathetic to this belief, to tell the truth.) Bokonon, the elusive spiritual father of Bokononism, will have none of it: his religion admits to being an outright lie (to the point where its persecution by the San Lorenzo government is also fabricated), and doesn’t much care.
Bokononism, by the way, revolves around the idea that everyone has a teleological social network consisting of members that lead each other to their common destiny, “teams that do God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing.” A genuine one is called a karass; a false one, like a nation-state, is called a granfalloon. Bokononists bond by kicking off their sandals and playing footsie.
All of this is well and good up to a point, but what that point is, I’m not sure. As far as I can tell, there isn’t much of a lesson to be drawn from all the satirical digressions, unless that grand observation is, in simple terms, the wackiness of any and all competing presumptions that human existence has a knowable, dedicated purpose. One could argue that this insight is the very heart of absurdism, but Vonnegut’s application of the absurdist method to the motivations behind scientific and religious thought has long since been outstripped by the likes of Douglas Adams, if not by Vonnegut himself in his later works.
It seems as though the properties that make Cat’s Cradle a fun read are also responsible for its inherent limitations. The book moves along quickly due to its condensation of action and exposition alike into rapid-fire packets of cleverness arranged in bite-sized scenes. Memorable witticisms stand out on every page because isolated sentences routinely take centre stage. The tradeoff, however, is that this leaves most of the characters reduced to concentrated balls of neuroses, their speech so terse that it exudes a suffocating odour of apathy. As the story barrels towards its inevitable Strangelovian apocalypse, nobody seems to care—so why should we?
On the upside, a lot of Vonnegut’s Cold War humour remains refreshingly intact and applicable to the present day. The idea of a state of absolutely no international consequence bending over backwards to befriend the nearest superpower is something we can all imagine without trouble, even though most don’t go quite as far as declaring war on Japan and Nazi Germany hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, piling a hundred conscripts into a boat that sinks before it ever leaves port, and from then on memorializing the sacrifice of the Hundred Martyrs to Democracy. The developing world’s desperation for foreign investment and the lip-service buzzword treatment of the democratic ideal have as strong a partnership today as they did in the 1960s, and San Lorenzos are everywhere to be found.
One only wishes that the exuberant cleverness of Cat’s Cradle appeared on a scale grander than that of the sentence, paragraph, or page. Certainly it aspired to be more than yet another dramatic reenactment of how amoral truth-seekers bring about the destruction of the planet, and how moral liars condition us to accept it.