Book Title: Cat’s Cradle
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Style: Chapter Book
Target Audience: Adult
Genres: Fiction, Dystopian, Darkly Comic, Sci-Fi
Page Count: 306
Format: eBook (library)
Reading time: 3 hours
Date Finished: 1/23/17
Click here to find it on Amazon (New window)
My impressions: Now that’s more like it! I was afraid after reading A Clockwork Orange I might not enjoy other popular novels that were written contemporary to it. Fortunately, I loved Cat’s Cradle, the first book I’ve read by Kurt Vonnegut. It was entertaining, but it was also thoughtful; it had morally repugnant characters, but kept them likeable; the prose was readable, but still clever; the story was substantial, but not overly complicated. This is exactly the sort of book I can read in one sitting, and had real life not called to me here and there throughout the day to put the book down, I likely would have.
The story is about a young writer named Jonah who starts off trying to develop a book about the day the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, but who instead becomes embroiled in a story about the children of one of the fathers of the atomic bomb, (the fictional character) pure research scientist Felix Hoenikker. Hoenikker’s a barely functioning person whom the story likens to being closer to a Martian than a human being; he’s curious about everything, but has very little desire to interact with people, including his three children.
His sudden death leaves them orphaned, and they fade into obscurity, only tracked down by Jonah after his investigations lead him to a strange, impoverished island nation called San Lorenzo, which is host to the odd religion of Bokononism, a faith that proclaims everything it teaches is a lie and that Bokononists should embrace the idea of foma, the term for harmless untruths. All of the islanders are Bokononists, but none of them will admit to it, since the official state religion is Christianity and Bokononists are put to death. This juxtaposition between the outer appearance of one’s life and the actually lived life plays a central role in the characters’ interactions, and many of the characters who appear to be one thing outwardly are quite different as their persona is developed.
(The main character, for example, who is invisible and indistinctive for so much of the story, is handed a position of great power and prestige for no other reason than he’s the convenient person to take it, and he winds up being the cause of an even greater calamity later on.)
The titular cat’s cradle is another theme of the story – it’s a child’s toy that brings fascination to Dr. Hoenikker, and yet which fails to excite his young son Newt, who complains it’s a silly trick that reveals no cat and no cradle. To Newt’s father, the string is an endless source of fascination, because he sees something in it that makes him curious. To his son, it’s just a mechanical way of producing a lot of X’s with a piece of string. That distinction is important when you consider that Dr. Hoenikker is a scientist who winds up creating the atomic bomb and the superweapon ice-nine; Newt is an artist who is plagued by searching for meaning in the cat’s cradle in his expressionist work as an adult.
The substance ice-nine plays further importance in the story, and while I won’t spoil it here in case anyone reading wants to try this book out, the idea is very interesting, and the execution of it (and impact on all of the characters’ lives) leads to a fantastic ending that’s both satisfying and contemplative.
I’ve had Slaughterhouse Five on my “to-read” list for awhile, but I’m actually glad I started out my Vonngeut reading with Cat’s Cradle. I went in having zero expectations or knowledge about the plot and absolutely loved it.