Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut

This is the only book that had made me laugh out loud, since Tom Sawyer, which I read about 8 years ago. Literature usually doesn’t make me laugh because I take all work of literature seriously by default; so when a book makes me burst out laughing, it is pretty darn funny. In a good way, otherwise I’d just throw it out the window.

Cat’s Cradle is quite a unique work of writing art. It mixes satire, humor and tragedy in a homogeneous form, making readers laugh, or think or even quite pissed off. The plot, as ridiculous as it is, is one of serious nature, disguised quite naughtily by the book’s light and fast-paced tone. It is definitely a fascinating read for everyone; I mean, who doesn’t enjoy an absurd adventure with some make-believe science (that actually sounds more convincing than one might expect), splashed with humor and a mocking tone now and then, topped with eccentric characters and unexpected events that will definitely keep you hooked? What’s more? The book is a wake-up call for those dreaming about a heroic evolution that will magically end with everyone living happily ever after.

The book follows the adventure of a book writer who was working on his book about the day the US dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. He focuses his book on Hoenikker, the scientist who helped develop nuclear weapons in the Manhattan project, and his family and colleagues. As the plot proceeds, it departs from factual accounts and evolves into a science fictional world with a made-up country and religion. The plot switches scale, from a personal anecdote style into a historical recount style and transports the readers into an incredible world that somehow is astoundingly similar to ours and ends with a final note of mockery and satire to sum up the fascinating journey of the author-turned-president.

Cat’s Cradle is sparkling with wit and fun; Vonnegut is masterful at making fun of science. He made me burst into laughter with the explanation of ice-nine, an absurd scientific phenomena (a fake one, hopefully) that I dismissed as a joke, but to my surprise, became the element of eventual tragedy. Vonnegut makes us laugh at the obvious, then turns right around and reverse the joke into a serious disaster. This is a subtle and striking metaphor of technology and science: humans play with science and believe that we have mastered the laws, but we are actually just kids, toying irresponsibly with things we do not know. “What hope can there be for mankind, […] when there are such men as Felix Hoenikker to give such playthings as ice-nine to such short-sighted children as almost all men and women are?” (Chapter 110). Any product of science, TNT or the atomic bomb for example, is comparable to ice-nine in Vonnegut’s fictional world: dangerous toys for us children of men.

Religion is the second major theme satirized by Vonnegut. Mimicking true events in our world that happen to some noble men, the founder of the Bokonon religion in San Lorenzo is an outlaw, hunted by the government and wanted by the dictator. And when the truth comes out about the real story behind Bokonon, readers are left quite stunned with the stupidity of the story. Yet we live everyday knowing real people in our world do the same thing, believe in figures and end up killing each other and themselves. Vonnegut emphasized with intense mockery the worthlessness of it all, and offers his view on religion: “When it became evident that no governmental or economic reform was going to make the people much less miserable, the religion became the one real instrument of hope. Truth was the enemy of the people, because the truth was terrible, so Bokonon made it his business to provide the people with better and better lies.” (Chapter 78) In addition to the lie of Bokonon, the symbol of “cat’s cradle” highlights the hollowness of religion; it is a search for something that does not exist, yet fueled with incredible faith and hope.

The third major subject of satire in “Cat’s Cradle” is the American society. Vonnegut straightforwardly pointed out that “Americans are forever searching for love in forms it never takes, in places it can never be.” (Chapter 44) He seems frustrated with the frugality and superficiality of the society, and later in the book (Chapter 68), uses a metaphor of 100 men from San Lorenzo dying worthlessly in a war against Germany and Japan after the Pearl Harbour to mimic the idea of “martyrs to democracy” – fruitless sacrifices that Americans make for the country in the name of nobility. I feel as though Vonnegut is so disappointed int he mess that the American society created that he had to express his views of that society by escaping from it and creating his own imaginary world – equally as corrupt and broken, but at least at a smaller scale. 

The book is actually indeed quite sad; after all the humor and fun that Vonnegut paints, the plot ends tragically, and offers the last bit of explanation to what happened to Bokonon. When I finished the last paragraph, I saw a troll face staring back at me from the page, feeling like all the emotions and laughter I invested in this book is quite pointless. But then again, it is just as pointless as the protagonist’s journey, or as Bokonon and his religion, and finally, as the world we live in, which will perhaps converge at some point unexpectedly.

“If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.”