Review of Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

This is my third or fourth reading of this book over the course of the past 40 years or so, and I find it amazing how much of it I still enjoy, how much more clearly I understand it all this time and how much the clarity diminishes my general favor for the book. Actually, I still love Vonnegut’s writing in Cat’s Cradle as much as ever, but it’s also evident that with this book, he was on the cusp of his greatness as a writer and thinker rather than having arrived altogether.

The story is wonderfully imaginative. A journalist named Jonah sets out to write about what a famous scientist/inventor from his Upstate New York town was doing on the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima makes his way to a Caribbean island. There, he finds the scientists’ three children in various stages of eminence in a nation beset with poverty and starvation and where everyone all but openly adheres to a cynical religion known as Bokononism, which holds nothing sacred except for Man. It is named for an unlikely “saint” who washed up on the island naked years earlier and now is said to hide out somewhere in the jungle.

The characters are delightful, if not all lovable.  I found myself with this reading making a certain observation about great writing by an odd comparison with the detestable Atlas Shrugged.  For, I often found myself being reminded of Ann Rand’s book as this unlikely character or that unloaded curious philosophies about life or descriptions of their fellow humans. Why, I asked myself, did I find Vonnegut’s portrayals compelling and hilarious, but Rand’s so despicable.  The easy answer is that Vonnegut knew he was creating caricatures and he knows his readers will know they are reading, essentially, a cartoon. They’re not expected to think that something like this could literally happen, but they can gather various nuggets of truth out of the satire.  Rand didn’t realize her characters are cartoons, and she expects her readers to believe that the nonsensical situations she invents could actually occur.  Her book is laughable, not funny. Vonnegut is the other way around.

Which is not to say I’m all in with Vonnegut’s curmudgeonly misanthropy. In fact, the conclusion of Cat’s Cradle is disappointingly juvenile, and his overall philosophy that science is a bane to human existence is cynically simplistic. But, I also get a sense beneath the surface of all his stories that he actually likes people more than he lets on. He loves humanity, even if he doesn’t think much of people. And maybe he likes individuals, but not mankind.

Anyway, here are three reasons I love this book in spite of my misgivings:

From Chapter 74, Cat’s Cradle:

He is talking with Newt Hoenikker about a dark painting the little man has just completed, featuring scratches in a sort of spider web. He calls it “Cat’s Cradle,” after the string game that children know.

“Newt remained curled in the chair. He held out his painty hands as though a cat’s cradle were strung between them. ‘No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s bewteen somebodyu’s hands, and little kids look and look and look at all thos X’s …’
” ‘And?’
” ‘No damn cat, and no damn cradle.’

From Chapter 99, Dyot meet mat.

I’d like this to be said at my own funeral:

“God made mud.
“God got lonesome.
“So God said to some of the mud, ‘Sit up!’
” ‘ See all I’ve made,’ said God,  ‘the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars.’
“And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around.
“Lucky me, lucky mud.
“I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done..
“Nice going, God!
“Nobody but You could have done it, God! I certainly couldn’t have.
“I feel very unimportant compared to You.
“The only way I can feel the least bit important is to think of all the mud that didn’t even get to sit up and look around.
“I got so much, and most mud got so little.
“Thank you for the honor.
“Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep.
“What memories for mud to have!
“What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met!
“I loved everything I saw.
“Good night.
“I will go to heaven now.
“I can hardly wait …
“To find out for certain what my wampeter was …
“And who was in my karass
“And all the good things our karass did for you.

From Chapter 118, The Iron Maiden and the Oubliette

In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness.
And God said, “Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done.” And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close as mud as man sat up, looked around, and spoke.  Man blinked. “What is the purpose of all this?” he asked politely.
“Everything must have a purpose?” asked God.
“Certainly,” said man.
“Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this.” said God. And He went away.

So, this is a wonderful book on the whole. Even if you can’t buy all its intellectual grousing, you can’t escape the allure of its inventiveness and its heart.