Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

This post was first published by Suite101.

Vonnegut’s fourth novel, Cat’s Cradle began to establish him as a writer to be taken seriously. Cat’s Cradle is a book that bubbles with wit, humour, and fantastic characters. The story is “busy, busy, busy” (as the Bokononists would say) with absurd people, places and events. And while there is a certain sense in the novel of life as silly and meaningless – a characteristic of all of Vonnegut’s writing – the characters and their weaknesses are drawn with tenderness and sympathetic comedy.

Cat’s Cradle is a novel about the end of the world, and – as Bokonon tells the narrator at the end of the book – about the “history of human stupidity”. It begins with the narrator, who we are told (rather incidentally, it seems) is named John. John was trying to write a book about the creators of the atomic bomb, to be titled ‘The Day the World Ended’. His research, however, led him all kinds of ridiculous directions, and – eventually – to the real apocalypse, brought about not by an A-bomb but by a substance called Ice-9. The book John ends up writing is the story of Ice-9 and its relationship to an island named the Republic of San Lorenzo, a religion called Bokononism, a beautiful woman, a midget, and the end of the world.

Everything about Cat’s Cradle is absurd, but there are also hard grains of truth to be found within the ridiculousness. Bokononism – the religion that the people of San Lorenzo (secretly) live by – is a doctrine that promotes itself as “bittersweet lies”. It is a religion that leaves it up to humankind to look at the world that ‘God’ has created, and ascribe meaning to it. Bokononism maintains its popularity in San Lorenzo by being outlawed, its practice punishable by a terrifying instrument of execution known simply as “the hook”. “A really good religion,” Bokonon says, “is a form of treason”.

Almost nothing escapes Vonnegut’s satirising in Cat’s Cradle – war, religion, America, science and charity are all made ridiculous. Even writing itself is not sacred – Vonnegut digs at writers who take themselves too seriously:

“How does a man die when he’s deprived of the consolations of literature?” 

“[P]etrescence of the heart or atrophy of the nervous system”

One of the major themes of Cat’s Cradle is meaning, and where people find it. A central character of the novel – Newt, the son of the (fictional) father of the atomic bomb – remembers his father playing the string-game cat’s cradle when Newt was a child. The memory is bitter – a metaphor for the discovery that there is nothing where you had believed there was something hugely important. “A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands,” laments Newt, “and little kids look and look and look at all those X’s … No damn cat, and no damn cradle”. Life, for Vonnegut it seems, is intrinsically meaningless – any meaning it has is given to it by people. This, however, is not necessarily a depressing thing. As the narrator notes in Cat’s Cradle, “anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book”. Similarly, perhaps, anyone who doesn’t understand how a good life can be lived on invented meaning will not understand life.

Cat’s Cradle is a very funny, somewhat nihilistic and yet also somehow comforting novel. Its story is part fantasy, part science fiction, part absurdity. Vonnegut again shows that although life may be meaningless, it is also often very, very amusing.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. is best known for his novel Slaughterhouse-Five, a fictionalised account of his experiences during the firebombing of Dresden in World War II. He is the author of fifteen other novels, as well as short stories and non-fiction. Vonnegut died in 2007. Cat’s Cradle was first published in 1963.

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