Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Cat's Cradle

Veteran's Day in America is also Kurt Vonnegut's birthday, a dubious pairing if ever there was one for a writer who survived the fire bombing of Dresden during WWII and became vocally anti-war as a result. Year after year high school students are given gateway to Vonnegut through Slaughterhouse Five with the understanding that it is a great work of Literature, that it is often censored, and that it is a satirical anti-war book crucial to the Vietnam War protests. As with most required reading, students will rarely move beyond an author's so-called greatest work and never explore further.

But for me the ultimate Vonnegut book is Cat's Cradle, a satire of science, technology, religion, and the post-Sputnik Cold War era that is both more biting and funny than Slaughterhouse Five, and no less personal to Vonnegut.

Told in jabbing short chapters, the story is narrated by John (who calls himself Jonah) who is basically writing a memoir. It was originally supposed to be about what Americans were doing on the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, but as John follows the thread to Felix Hoenikker, a physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb, and his children, John/Jonah finds himself falling down a rabbit hole of connection that leads to the fictional island of San Lorenzo, modeled on Duvalier-era Haiti. In San Lorenzo John/Jonah finds himself and the Hoenikker kids in the company of the island's dictator "Papa" Monzano who is dying of cancer and is about to hand over the island to the Hoenikkers (who uncomfortable hand over the country to John/Jonah) before killing himself with a chard of ice-nine, a chemical created by the late Dr. Hoenikker that turns all water-based cells it comes into contact with into ice at room temperature.

Yeah, it's a convoluted plot, and that doesn't even cover the cult-like religion called Bokononism that brings about a mass suicide that nearly destroys the world. John/Jonah is more like his literary kin Ishmael who survives to tell us this tale.

As for the personal element, ice-nine does exist, it was co-created by Vonnegut's brother Bernard at the GE labs where Vonnegut was working in Public Relations at the time.  

Fortunately, the real properties of ice-nine do not match those of the fictional ones.

Cat's Cradle is not only one of Vonnegut's more pointedly satirical books, poking all his sacred cows of the human folly -- war, the dangers of science, unchecked political power, religion -- I would also call this an ur-text for contemporary YA today. The short chapters, the disjointed story threads all coming together, the inclusion of poetry (from the religion - one of which became a minor hit for a band in the early 70s), all make this a far more accessible read.

I suspect that Slaughterhouse Five gets taught because it is both of-its-time iconic as a gateway to talk about anti-war movement and it's historical because it includes factual elements about WWII, but is it Vonnegut's best book? I would argue that Cat's Cradle is just slightly better and, without the yoke of having the analyze it for a class and the weight of a Great Work of Literature attached to it, more enjoyable.

Long-time readers of Guys Lit Wire might be feeling deja vu; yes, I wrote a review of this book back in 2009. I wasn't sure whether or not I had before, but having my Novemeber review fall on Vonnegut's birthday I couldn't quite help myself. And since Cat's Cradle is a book I re-read, why not re-review it? Anyone who feels cheated out of a fresh, new title, please leave a comment suggesting a title you'd recommend to a kid who just finished Cat's Cradle and wanted something else like it.

Cat's Cradle
by Kurt Vonnegut

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