Well this is my first book of the year, my first book read on my new Kindle, my first post for the blog, and also my first foray into Vonnegut. I refer to him simply as Vonnegut in order to buy some whit of credibility with any scholarly types who might read this. Though, my admitting this is my first of his works read surely undermines my efforts. Well apparently my attempt at creating something of meaning ended up being a foolish illusion…much like John, the protagonist of the tale.
Let me start with a brief summary of the story. John, an aspiring author, is seeking to write a book about America’s reactions on the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. This leads him to begin investigating the life of the late Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the primary minds behind the atomic bomb. The book however, ends up being the MacGuffin (albeit a symbolically relevant one) that introduces John to Hoenikker’s three children: Newton is a genius midget; Angela is emotionally cold whose only catharsis to lifes traumas is furiously playing the violin; Franklin is socially awkward, fascinated with miniature models and disappears after high school only to resurface as the second-in-command to a dictator of the small Caribbean Island of San Lorenzo that recently began advertising itself as a travel destination for American Tourists.
Naturally, John travels to San Lorenzo and soon encounters Bokononism, the dominant yet illegal religion whose teachings are admittedly lies and whose scriptures (quoted throughout the book) are simple, pithy rhymes set to a quasi reggae rhyme scheme. Oh, and I almost forgot that the Hoenikker children each possess a sliver of Ice 9, there father’s final invention that, when it touches water, will instantly and catastrophically cause it and all moisture in the vicinity to freeze solid.
Despite what you must be thinking, such a silly premise does actually create a wonderful forum for Vonnegut’s acerbic wit and pointed satire. It is important to be aware of Vonnegut’s extremely difficult childhood which had him growing up in during the Depression, experiencing his mother committing suicide as well as witnessing the fire bombing of Dresden and other WWII atrocities. This childhood resulted in a man who, though cynical of most everything, seems to express his cynicism in an optimistic and wryly humorous fashion.
Cat’s Cradle takes aim at and succeeds at skewering pretty much every tenet of modern American existence: religion, science, technology, politics, family, and love. Through this deconstruction of the American life, Cat’s Cradle firmly establishes its modern day relevance despite being written almost half a decade prior to Post-Modernism gaining the grip it has on our culture. Vonnegut, maybe sensing he was ahead of the populous, plainly provided his thesis in the page between the dedication and the table of contents:
Nothing in this book is true.
“Live by the foma* that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”
* Harmless untruths
Though I disagree with the conclusions fundamentally, I do appreciate them. For, sadly, without knowing the true God, he is making the proper conclusions. He pierces the veil that many who don the moniker “Christian” in this country so easily use to cover their eyes from the truth: apart from knowing God through Jesus, this world is an absurd, meaningless mess, survivable only through (self-aware or not) placating lies. In the case of Vonnegut, funny, funny lies.