Sunday, January 16, 2011

Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle (1963)

'Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John' (p. 1). Cat's Cradle sees Kurt Vonnegut gesture towards the unreliable narrator of Melville's Moby Dick ('Call me Ishmael') and the biblical references that both texts play with. His limpid 1953 novel deluges the reader with a flood of allusive, elusive meaning from the first page, and is unquestionably a worthy entry into the SF Masterworks series.

'"New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become". Had I been a Bokononist then, that statement would have made me howl' (p. 29). Part detective story, part religious satire, part prolegomeon to the study of how humanity could be just clever enough to destroy itself, Cat's Cradle achieves a fine balance between being an anthropological exemplar and a knock-about farce. 'I agree with one Bokononist idea. I agree that all religions, including Bokononism, are nothing but lies' (p. 155).

The subject of the novel's inquiry, Felix Hoenikker, 'father of the atom bomb' (p. 92) bears more than a passing resemblance to J. Robert Oppenheimer, who famously declared himself to 'have become Death, the destroyer of worlds'. Outvying his real-world counterpart, Hoenikker's unpropitious science extends beyond experiments in nuclear fission, namely in his discovery of ice-nine, 'the gift [he] created for mankind before going to his just reward' (p. 35), that during the course of the novel turns a certain something from a 'moist green' to a 'blue-white pearl' (p. 184).

In the midst of the cataclysmic change that plays out within the work's fictional world, the author quietly insists that the reader reflect on 'the heartbreaking necessity of lying about reality, and the heartbreaking impossibility of lying about it' (p. 200): 'My God - life! Who can understand even one little minute of it? Don't try... just pretend you understand' (p. 127). The act of contemplation in itself furnishes those who meditate upon it with nothing resembling an answer, but does at least remind them of the futility, in several senses, of their remaining 'busy, busy, busy': 'Busy, busy, busy is what we Bokononists whisper whenever we think of how complicated and unpredictable the machinery of life really is' (p. 46).

The attitudinal disposition Vonnegut's narrator commends to the reader for their consideration can as easily be interpreted as act of benediction and release than as a curse of nihilism and despair. Success is illusory, life is fleeting, and happiness is transitory; however, it is the latter that is to be aspired to at the expense of all else in light of the first two observations. As for everything else, let it ride: if nothing really matters it is impossible to fail in any meaningful way assuming, that is, that during the course of your existence you did not make some apocalyptic scientific discovery that will blight the planet that you are lodging upon subequent to your demise. '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: 'Nothing'' (p. 173).

Keep busy, busy, busy.


theoncominghope said...

I just read Cat's Cradle and absolutely loved it. Great satire, great writing, and most of all, great fake religion.

My thoughts are here:

Andrew Spong said...

Grovelling apologies for not having posted the comment you were kind enough to have left ages ago. I don't have a redirect set up for this account - I must attend to that!

Thanks for sharing the link you your ace blog - I very much enjoyed your precis of 'Cat's Cradle'.

You just have to love KV. As far as religions go, I'd be pretty happy to be guided by the reoriented acronym 'WWKD?'

theoncominghope said...

WWKD would be a superb idea!

As the militant atheists are being rightly pilloried for their complete insensitivity, it would be wonderful to see a return to Vonnegut's secular humanism.

A beautiful thing.