Reading Vonnegut’s Novels in Order: Cat’s Cradle

by corey on January 18, 2011

Welcome to the fourth post in an ongoing series of blog entries in which I read and react to Kurt Vonnegut’s novels in their order of publication.  My previous posts in this series cover Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan, and Mother Night.  Because these articles represent just one man’s opinion, feel free to disagree with me in the comments section below.  What is literature without debate, right?

Just the Facts

Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut’s fourth novel, was published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston in 1963.  Because his first three novels had not made much money, Vonnegut was (according to some sources) on the verge of giving up writing before the release of Cat’s Cradle.  Thankfully, this novel’s financial success allowed him to continue along his chosen path.  Cat’s Cradle was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1964 but lost to Clifford D. Simak’s Way Station.  The novel earned Vonnegut his Master’s degree in Anthropology from the University of Chicago (the school had rejected his original thesis as “unprofessional”).

In 2001, Vonnegut collaborated with musician/composer Dave Soldier on an album called Ice-9 Ballads with lyrics taken from Cat’s Cradle.  Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way production company acquired the rights to make a film version of Cat’s Cradle in 2005, but it doesn’t appear that any real traction has been made since then.  The novel has been adapted for the theater several times, most recently in 2010 by Kathleen Akerley, but also in 2008 as a calypso musical by Edward Einhorn and Henry Akona.

Plot Summary

The narrator of Cat’s Cradle, John (or “Jonah” as he asks us to call him), begins the novel attempting to write a book called The Day the World Ended about what “important Americans” were doing the day the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.  One of the important people he wants to profile in the book is Dr. Felix Hoenikker, a scientist who helped create the first atomic bomb.  Unfortunately, Dr. Hoenikker is dead.  So, John sets about interviewing the scientist’s co-workers and family members, hoping to piece together how Dr. Hoenikker spent that terrible day.  Through his research, John learns that Dr. Hoenikker was a distant, unloving father and husband as well as a “pure” scientist who only cared about discovering truth, never concerning himself with how his discoveries might be used or misused.  While interviewing Dr. Asa Breed (Dr. Hoenikker’s supervisor at the General Forge and Foundry Company), John learns of something that Dr. Hoenikker invented that was even more deadly than the atom bomb – a theoretical substance called ice-nine.  Dr. Breed explains that ice-nine would behave much like regular ice, except that its melting point would be 114 degrees Fahrenheit instead of 32.  In addition, ice-nine would act as a seed crystal, transforming any water with which it came into contact into more ice-nine.  Dr. Breed assuages John’s fears about ice-nine by assuring him that the substance never actually existed.

Through a series of unlikely events, John finds his life entangled with the lives of Dr. Hoenikker’s three adult children, Angela, Frank, and Newt.  (Unbeknownst to John, the three siblings each possess a fragment of ice-nine, which their father had, of course, actually synthesized before his death.)  John and the Hoenikker siblings all end up on a fictional Caribbean island called San Lorenzo, which is ruled by “Papa” Monzano, a despot who is attempting to court American tourists to the extremely poor island.  The natives of San Lorenzo tolerate their poverty well thanks, in part, to their religion, Bokononism, which openly acknowledges that it is based on lies.  If a person chooses to believe the lies of religion, Bokononism claims, then that person will have a more pleasant life.  On San Lorenzo, it seems to be working.  Officially, the government of San Lorenzo has outlawed the religion, and Bokonon, its founder, must hide in the jungle to avoid being impaled on a giant hook.  In reality, however, everyone on the island, including “Papa” Monzano, is a practicing Bokononist, and the ban is just a way to lend the religion a sense of glamour.

As it turns out, “Papa” Monzano is dying of cancer and has chosen Frank to marry his daughter and become his successor.  Frank passes the buck to John, though, who becomes the new dictator after “Papa” Monzano commits suicide by ingesting Frank’s fragment of ice-nine.  When a plane crashes into the royal palace during a celebration, “Papa” Monzano’s body falls into the ocean, triggering a chain reaction that turns all of the Earth’s water to ice-nine.  John and his new wife survive the initial holocaust, but she kills herself when they discover a mass Bokononist grave.  John survives for a few more months with the male Hoenikker children, an American industrialist, and the industrialist’s wife, which gives him time to complete his memoirs (revealed to be the text of Cat’s Cradle itself).  Later, John meets the dying prophet Bokonon who says that the time has come to write the final sentence of The Books of Bokonon.  The prophet suggests to John that he should take his memoirs, climb to the top of Mount McCabe, lie on his back with the book for a pillow, and poison himself with ice-nine.

My Take

Quote from Cat's Cradle on a wall at the KVML.

When reading Cat’s Cradle, a person familiar with Vonnegut’s first three novels can clearly see what he learned from writing those books and what he chose to carry forward from each one.  In some ways, Cat’s Cradle reads like a synthesis of the best of his first three novels; he starts with the distrust of scientists and pure research he exhibited in Player Piano, he adds a heaping spoonful of the satirical, sci-fi elements that he included in Sirens of Titan, and then he filters the mixture through a first-person narrator like he did in Mother Night.  The result is his best novel so far.  I can see why this was the book that first brought his writing to the attention of many readers.  The novel is easy-to-read, but profound, which probably lead to its popularity amongst young people upon its release.  Vonnegut’s decision to build the novel from a series of very short chapters with punchy titles makes the book fly by.  I read the book even more quickly than I normally would have because of this structure.  Just when I’d tell myself it was time to put the book down, I’d think, “But the next chapter is called ’Julian Castle Agrees with Newt that Everything is Meaningless’ and is only 2 pages!  I have time for one more chapter, right?”  Of course, one chapter would turn into two, which would turn into three, which would turn into four….

Cat’s Cradle is a novel comprised of two distinct halves.  The first half explores the idea that science, in its amoral pursuit of absolute truth to the exclusion of all else, may be a dead-end for humanity, ultimately providing us with the means for our own destruction.  The second half examines religion, which is often seen as the antithesis of science, and tries to discern if the foma (harmless untruths) that religious people agree to believe as a way of dealing with the world around them actually end up helping or hurting them.  Is it better to believe in truth or lies?  There are no easy answers presented.  At first, the relatively happy Bokononists seem like a viable alternative to the cold scientists of the first half of the novel – even if they do have to periodically impale one of their own members as a way of keeping their religion interesting.  At the end of the novel, however, it is a practicing Bokononist who destroys the world through his casual use of ice-nine.  Maybe Vonnegut is saying that the destructive power of science combined with the willful ignorance encouraged by many religions is what will most likely lead to the end of the world.

The first line of Cat’s Cradle (“Call me Jonah”) blatantly references the story of Jonah from the Bible, but it also echoes the famous first line of Moby Dick (“Call me Ishmael”).  Moby Dick is about Ahab’s quest to kill a whale, although Ahab’s obsession with the whale ultimately claims his life.  Ishmael, who is a member of Ahab’s crew, witnesses Ahab’s death, but survives the sinking of their ship.  Jonah also, escapes death by a whale; he is swallowed by the sea creature, but is then vomited out, unharmed, on dry land.  If John in Cat’s Cradle identifies himself with both Ishmael and Jonah, then why are we left to assume that he is ultimately killed by ice-nine (Dr. Hoenikker’s whale)?  Shouldn’t he survive?  I’m not sure how this all ties together, so maybe you readers can help enlighten me.

In the novel, Dr. Hoenikker is shown to be a terrible parent, holding his children at arm’s length and never giving them the love they need to be happy.  Oddly enough, however, his legacy to his children (ice-nine) affords each of them the opportunity to obtain what he or she thinks will bring him or her happiness.  Angela and Newt trade their ice-nine for love while Frank trades his for a position of respect.  Of course, none of them stay happy for long – and, in fact, Frank’s relinquished sliver of ice-nine destroys the world – so I suppose their father’s lack of affection failed his children in death as well as life.

One of the more famous elements of Cat’s Cradle is Vonnegut’s invention of Bokononism, a made-up religion that openly admits it’s composed exclusively of lies.  This admission that religion only exists to provide succor to meaningless life actually seems to lend Bokononism some measure of credibility in the novel.  The ongoing battle between the government of San Lorenzo and Bokonon is like a never-ending morality play writ large for the comfort of the impoverished residents of the island.  All of the residents of San Lorenzo actively take part in the game, turning two ordinary men, Earl McCabe and Lionel Boyd Johnson (Bokonon), into real-life versions of the Devil and the Holy Prophet, respectively.  These lies are important because they keep the people happy and occupied, never dwelling on how horrible their lives actually are.  I mentioned in my discussion of The Sirens of Titan that I was surprised no one had decided to start The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent as an active religion.  I am even more shocked that there isn’t an actual Church of Bokonon claiming tax-exempt status in this country.

As mentioned earlier, Cat’s Cradle is made up of two halves.  That, for me, is the novel’s biggest flaw.  At times, the book seemed like two separate novels stapled together rather than a unified whole.  The first part – when John is traveling across the country interviewing people about Dr. Hoenikker – reminded me of Citizen Kane.  Then, after John sees a newspaper photograph of Frank living happily on San Lorenzo, his quest to write The Day the World Ended is pretty much abandoned.  Instead, a magazine sends him to San Lorenzo where his story can more easily intersect with that of the Hoenikker children.  The shift in tone from investigative journalism to wacky satire of Banana Republic politics and religion was noticeable and, for me, not entirely successful.  The series of coincidental events that lead John and the Hoenikker children to the island was also hard for me to accept, even if Vonnegut does try to explain away the coincidences as part of Bokononism.  Later, John returns to the idea of writing a book, but he abandons his first book and decides to write the narrative that becomes Cat’s Cradle instead.  It’s interesting that the allegorical name he had chosen for his book on the atomic bomb (The Day the World Ended) would have been literally appropriate for the story he finally does write.

The eagle-eyed Vonnegut fan can find a few references to some of Vonnegut’s earlier novels within Cat’s Cradle, hidden like literary Easter eggs.  Most obvious, perhaps, is the fact that Dr. Hoenikker’s place of research is in Ilium, New York, the same fictional town that serves as the location for Player Piano.  A less obvious connection comes in Bokonon’s history when he is described as having worked as a gardener and a carpenter for the Rumfoords on the Rumfoord Estate (from The Sirens of Titan).  A third connection is that Ambassador Minton and his wife are described as a duprass – or “a karass composed of only two persons” – which is very similar to how, in Mother Night, Howard describes his relationship with his wife as “a nation of two.”

-Corey

Next time: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Jay Carr January 19, 2011 at 7:32 am

Hi Corey,
I’m really enjoying tagging along on your journey through Vonnegut’s novels! Reading this post has made me want to read Cat’s Cradle again, and – as you mention- one can blow right through the novel in a few hours. Cat’s Cradle was the first Vonnegut book I read, and now that I’m with a little more knowledge of – and experience with reading – him, I think it would be time well spent.

I agree with several of your points, especially your speculation about the combination of the destructive power of science and the willful ignorance of religion combining to form a more dangerous world than either of the two would individually.

I also felt the “disjointedness” of the book when I read it, but that hardly detracted from my enjoyment of it. And yes, it is surprising/interesting that no one has attempted to organize the tax-exempt Church of Bokonon…

-Jay

Sue McGoo January 19, 2011 at 9:28 am

When reading Vonnegut, I never have questions in my mind that I think or hope he’s going to answer, I always have the feeling that it’s the questions occurring to me, that he is shooting for, along with the realization that answers are a bit of an illusion. I could be wrong, I’m whimsical when I read, which is an awfully nice feeling even if it DOES make me feel a bit goofy when discussing the books later.

One of the things that really sticks in my mind is the way the Bokononists prayed (or was that sexual? It’s been a few years) with the soles of their feet together. There’s something about it that’s just so oddly sweet. -And I feel like the disjointedness is purposeful, an illustration of \Dancing lessons from God\.

Corey Michael Dalton January 19, 2011 at 11:48 am

Jay: Happy to have you tag along on my journey! I always enjoy reading your reactions to my reactions. And I hope I didn’t overstate the disjointedness of the two halves of the book in my discussion; the structure certainly didn’t ruin the novel for me or anything! I just wish the novel could have felt a little more unified. Still, when one half of your book is about science and the other half is about religion, perhaps a bit of shift in tone is required!

Sue (great name, by the way): I agree with you that the questions Vonnegut raises in his novels are more important than any answers he could possibly provide. I guess, as a reader, I’m just always curious to know where the author stands on the issues he raises. I wasn’t sure what Vonnegut’s ultimate conclusion was in this book. I like your notion that “answers are a bit of an illusion,” though, so I’ll just repeat that to myself!

Charles Nelson January 26, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Corey,

Really enjoy your thoughts on Vonnegut’s works. You seem very passionate about the his works, which make for great reads.

I have just finished reading Cat’s Cradle again, and would like to lend a few of my thoughts for your consideration…

At one point you asked for some help from your readers in regard to this:

“If John in Cat’s Cradle identifies himself with both Ishmael and Jonah, then why are we left to assume that he is ultimately killed by ice-nine (Dr. Hoenikker’s whale)? Shouldn’t he survive?”

You must remember that this is Vonnegut, a great practical jokester. I find it very much fitting to Vonnegut’s work, especially for his work at the time, that we are left to assume John dies — especially in the manner in which we are left to believe he dies — thumbing his nose at You Know Who.

Maybe, as you say, their isn’t answer a satisfying answer to the Ishmael and Jonah connection. Perhaps it was just utterly convenient, in a literary sense, for Vonnegut (or in this case his readers) to draw that parallel.

Always fun to read/discuss Vonnegut. Keep up the good work!

- Charles

Corey Michael Dalton January 27, 2011 at 4:09 pm

Thanks for the insightful comment, Charles! I think maybe you’re right that Vonnegut was just having a bit of fun with the Moby Dick/Jonah allusion as well as with the ending of Cat’s Cradle. Although, now that I think about it, Mother Night had what I consider to be an ambiguous ending for the main character (Howard) as well. Like John in Cat’s Cradle, Howard said he was going to kill himself, but we don’t really know, for sure, that he went through with it. I suppose in a first-person narrative that it’s hard to get “evidence” of the storyteller’s suicide after the fact – considering that he/she is dead and all – but it’s still an interesting parallel between the two books.

I look forward to “hearing” more of your thoughts in the future!

Adam February 23, 2011 at 11:30 am

Corey,
I join everyone else in thanking you for embarking on this project. Cat’s Cradle sticks with me more and more every time I read it. I just wrote a paper about the Crusades for school, and toward the end of it, I started writing about how *foolish* it is that so many groups feel that they are doing the will of God when they kill each other in His name. As I was writing that bit of the paper, the following passage from Cat’s Cradle naturally stuck in my head, and I concluded my paper with it.

“I once knew an Episcopalian lady in Newport, Rhode Island, who asked me to design and build a doghouse for her Great Dane. The lady claimed to understand God and His Ways of Working perfectly. She could not understand why anyone should be puzzled about what had been or about what was going to be.
And yet, when I showed her a blueprint of the doghouse I proposed to build, she said to me, “I’m sorry, but I never could read one of those things.”

“Give it to your husband or your minister to pass on to God,” I said, “and, when God finds a minute, I’m sure he’ll explain this doghouse of mine in a way that even you can understand.”

She fired me. I shall never forget her. She believed that God liked people in sailboats much better than He liked people in motorboats. She could not bear to look at a worm. When she saw a worm, she screamed.

She was a fool, and so am I, and so is anyone who thinks he can see what God is Doing, [writes Bokonon].”

As my instructor is something of a stickler, I don’t think she’ll understand the point I was trying to make by including that passage, but it doesn’t hurt to try, right? I am really looking forward to your take on Slapstick. Not only is it my favorite Vonnegut novel by several miles, it is my favorite novel of all time. Thanks again for sharing your project with us!

Corey Michael Dalton February 23, 2011 at 12:06 pm

What a great passage to quote, Adam! Hopefully your teacher will get it. If she doesn’t, well, her loss, really! And I’m glad you’re enjoying my journey through Vonnegut’s work. It has been fascinating for me (as an aspiring writer of fiction myself) to see how his novels developed throughout his career. I’m really looking forward to reading Slapstick, although I’ve still got Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions to read/write about before I get to it. It will be fun for me to re-read Slaughterhouse-Five, too, though, because I haven’t read it since high school (which is in my rear-view mirror quite a few years now). I wonder how my perception of the novel will have changed?

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