(First published 1963.)
Vonnegut is not for everyone, and I suspect many would find him far too cynical to truly enjoy. His world view has always seemed to me to be without illusion, though sometimes lacking in joy or hope. That being said, his books are always interesting and thought-provoking.
“Cat’s Cradle” starts with the narrator, John, describing a book he plans to write on the inventor of the atomic bomb, a character called Felix Hoenikker. John decides to speak to people who knew Dr Hoenikker personally in order to get some idea of what he was like. This leads him into a series of interractions with Hoenikker’s children and others, which in turn leads him away from his book and into a real apocalypse.
In this book, Vonnegut seems to be using a very basic plot only as a hook on which to hang a number of themes. He talks about the stupidity of people, the falsity of religion (and everything else), the inevitability of self-destruction, and the lack of free will. The Cold War was still well and truly underway, and the fears of nuclear destruction loomed large. So of course Vonnegut addresses this issue, by putting the weapon of annihilation not in the hands of government or military, but in the hands of Hoenniker’s children, three extremely neurotic and damaged individuals who are the last people anyone would trust with a weapon of mass destruction. One of these puts his weapon in the hands of a crazy dictator of a banana republic, who naturally decides to take the world down with him. Vonnegut seems to be saying that the end is inevitable, no matter what you do. Fighting against it is futile.
The title comes from a story a character tells about his father, who shows him the children’s game called ‘Cat’s Cradle’. The character finds this ridiculous as the string pattern that is made has no resemblance to a cat or a cradle.
No damn cat, and no damn cradle.
It becomes a symbol for the falsity of everything, which is a central theme of the book.
The religion, Bokonism, is admitted by its founder to be based on lies. He calls them ‘foma’ – harmless untruths, and says that living in this way makes you healthy and happy. While insisting from the outset that everything he says is a lie he nevertheless gains a devoted following – the last few pages in the book illustrate the full irony and tragedy of this belief. Vonnegut was obviously an atheist and his feelings about religion are made quite clear in this aspect of the book. As a person of faith myself I cannot entirely relate to this, though I would suggest that the habit of people to use religion for their own ends can distort what truth is in faith into something quite unrecognisable. Bokonon’s ‘lies’ meanwhile, have a certain truth in them:
“Maturity,” Bokonon tells us, “is a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists, unless
laughter can be said to remedy anything.”
The republic of San Lorenzo is a mish-mash of stereotypes of Latin American countries, including a dictator called ‘Papa’, a poverty stricken populace, an army equipped with American cast-offs, and a beautiful young girl who is beloved of the people. The author has been quite deliberate in choosing to depict the place in this way instead of more realistically. In a way, the entire situation is being seen through a veneer of American parochialism, which is aptly illustrated by the American businessman who wants to build a bicycle factory because he imagines it will be cheaper. With no infrastructure to speak of this seems unlikely, but the man is not deterred, believing as fervently in his own assumptions as the Bokonists believe in theit lies:
The people down there are poor enough and scared enough and ignorant enough to have some common sense!
He means, of course, that he expects to be able to exploit them, as happens frequently where multi-national businesses build factories in poor countries. He never gets to find out if he’s right. He and the rest see the country through their own false assumptions, and therefore cannot reach understanding.
Much of Vonnegut’s commentary on human foolishness comes by way of the characters he invents. Hoenikker senior, from what we know of him second-hand, comes across as a psychopath, devoid of feeling or morality. The narrator wants to know how he felt when the bomb was dropped, and according to his children he didn’t feel anything. He is described as dead by someone who knew him:
Sometimes I think that’s the trouble with the world: too many people in high places who are stone-cold dead
His children, damaged by his emotional abuse and apparently not inheriting much of his intelligence, are stunted emotionally and apparently incapable of understanding the magnitude of their mistakes. Frank in particular sells his part of a lethal weapon to the crazy ‘Papa’ for a position in his country, and seems indifferent to the utter stupidity of his action. It seems that the other two have also traded part of their ‘inheritance’, Angela to a husband who ran a factory making weapons for the government, and Newt to a woman who turned out to be a Russian spy. They show no regret for their actions and seem unable to comprehend why they should. The narrator ends this revealing scene by quoting the ‘Fourteenth Book of Bokonon’ which sums up the sheer stupidity of everyone involved.
What can a thoughtful man hope for mankind on Earth, given the experience of the past million years? …
The beautiful Mona is in reality a quite apathetic person. She agrees to anything that is suggested and appears devoid of passion. She is fatalistic – she doesn’t argue or assert herself because she believes that whatever happens is meant to be. The narrator has fallen in love with a face, as have most of the men in San Lorenzo, but finds the person behind the face unfathomable. Julian Castle, who created a hospital in San Lorenzo, is seen as saintly, but according to his son reacts to death and suffering by giggling, which puts his motives into a more questionable light. So Hoenikker is not a great man, Frank is not a general, Papa is not a ruler, Mona is not an angel, and Castle is not a saint. The conclusion we must reach is that people themselves are false.
I find this book to be almost nihilistic, as it seems to lack belief that there is anything meaningful in life. Its commentary on the self-delusion and ultimately self-destruction of humanity is unsurprisingly still relevant. We always seem to be on the brink of disaster, whether it be nuclear or environmental catastrophe. Nothing changes because people tell themselves lies to justify greed before common sense. Consequently “Cat’s Cradle” may as well have been written yesterday.
The hand that stocks the drug stores rules the world. Let us start our Republic, with a chain of drug stores, a chain of grocery stores, a chain of gas chambers, and a national game. After that we can write our Constitution.