Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut



Summary (Amazon): Cat’s Cradle is Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical commentary on modern man and his madness. An apocalyptic tale of this planet’s ultimate fate, it features a midget as the protagonist, a complete, original theology created by a calypso singer, and a vision of the future that is at once blackly fatalistic and hilariously funny. A book that left an indelible mark on an entire generation of readers, Cat’s Cradle is one of the twentieth century’s most important works—and Vonnegut at his very best.

My Summary (Spoilers!)

Executive Summary: weird

Yet another book I read at the suggestion of Among Others.  I had never read any Vonnegut, and I figured that this was a good one to start with (this opinion was verified by the cashier at Brown Bag Deli who saw my book and said that it was the best one to read). With that in mind, I think it will be a while before I read any of his other stuff. It’s kind of like how I feel about the Beatles–I appreciate it, but I just don’t like it.

General premise of the book is that the narrator, John, decides to write a book about what important Americans were doing on the day when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He begins by investigating Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the “fathers” of the atomic bomb. Dr. Hoenikker had died, but his three children were still alive, and John tries tracking them down, but only gets a response from the youngest, Hugh, who is a midget and was very young at the time of the bomb. He writes John a letter saying that he remembered very little, but he remembered playing on the floor when his father, totally out-of-character for him, showed Hugh the cat’s cradle made of string. He asked Hugh if he could see the cradle where the pussycat slept, and Hugh became afraid and cried.

John then went to the town of Ilium where Dr. Hoenikker had worked and spoke to his supervisor, Dr. Breed. Dr. Breed was only a supervisor in technicality. Dr. Hoenikker essentially did whatever sparked his interest. Dr. Breed tells John a story of how a Marine general approached Dr. Hoenikker to do something about mud. Mud made it difficult to do battle, and finding a way to get the Marines out of the mud would be a huge help. Dr. Hoenikker suggested that there could be a way to create some sort of way to make a crystal that, introduced to mud, would cause the water atoms to freeze solid. John suggests that there would be consequences for using such a thing as all the world’s water supply is connected, and Dr. Breed assures him that this “ice-nine” thing does not actually exist, and escorts John out.

Throughout the book, the reader is slowly introduced to the “religion” of Bokonism but it doesn’t really connect until John sees a copy of the Sunday Times, where he sees Dr. Hoenikker’s other son, Franklin, in a picture with regard to the republic of San Lorenzo. John decides to go. Not only to talk to Franklin, but also because he had apparently fallen in love with the adopted daughter of the dictator of the island, Mora, who was also in the photograph.

John flies to San Lorenzo (flying in the 1960s sounds utterly amazing) and meets a variety of misfits on the airplane. He meets Horlick and Claire Minton; Horlick is the new US ambassador for San Lorenzo. He also meets H. Lowe and Hazel Crosby, of Indiana, who are moving to San Lorenzo to start a bicycle factory, and he also meets Newt Hoenikker and his sister, Angela. He finds that they are going to San Lorenzo for their brother’s wedding, to the lovely Mona.

Horlick (seriously, what a terrible name) gives John a copy of “the only sort of scholarly book about San Lorenzo” which was written by Philip Castle, the son of Julian Castle. John discovers the odd history of Bokonon and San Lorenzo. Through a convoluted story, a Marine deserter named McCabe approached Lionel Johnson, aka Bokonon, to sail him to Miami from Haiti. En route, the weather turned bad and the two washed ashore naked on the beach of San Lorenzo. They took control of the island rather easily as no one really wanted to control it.  Castle Sugar, the former ruler, withdrew with no complaint. All the many other rulers had gone in with lofty expectations but the land was sterile and the people could not be bothered.

They landed in San Lorenzo and see a sign saying “Anybody practicing Bokonism in San Lorenzo will die on the hook” and another saying that Bokonon was wanted dead or alive.

They’re greeted in grand gesture, due to the Ambassador, by the dictator himself. And as the ceremony completes, Papa Monzano collapses. John checks into his hotel and receives an urgent call from Papa’s right hand man, Franklin Hoenikker, asking him to come right away. John goes to Franklin’s house but only finds Newt there. Newt is painting, and the black scratchy mess apparently was a painting of the cat’s cradle. John asks him to explain, and Newt essentially sums up the entire book at this point.

“No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hand and little kid’s look and look and look at all those X’s…and…no damn cat and no damn cradle”

Angela and Julian Castle arrive. John asks about Papa’s condition, but Julian has no news. However, he gives more information about Bokonism. When Bokonon and McCabe arrived and took over San Lorenzo, they removed the priests, and Bokonon created a new religion for them. The main tenet of Bokonism was to “live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.” (foma being harmless white lies) This provided the people with hope as the truth was far too unbearable, and eventually Bokonon forced McCabe to outlaw his religion to make it more enticing and he disappeared into hiding. Everyone on San Lorenzo was a devout Bokonist.

Frank still hasn’t appeared at dinner but phones John to tell him that he must stay because it’s his fate. After dinner, the power goes out, and eventually everyone goes to bed. They are awakened by the power returning, and John, Angela, and Newt, race out thinking that they were in danger. John has his passport, wallet and watch with him whereas both Angela and Newt have identical red thermoses. Frank appears as he has been the one to return the power, and he has his urgent meeting with John. Frank wants John to be the next President. John instantly says no, but then he finds out that the future president gets to marry Mona, so he changes his mind. (Men, seriously…) John and Mona perform the “Boko-maru”, which is an intense Bokonist “religious” experience of putting the soles of your bare feet against the other person’s. Now that John is going to be her husband, he forbids her from performing the Boko-maru with other people. She tells him no because Bokonon says that it is very wrong to love people differently.

John and Frank go to meet with Papa, who is still alive but it is only a matter of time. When they see him, he continues to say “Goodbye” interspersed with “Ice”. The doctor says that Papa has been given ice water but he refuses it. They perform the Bokonist last rites on him and wait.

In the meantime, John prepares a speech to announce his presidency. He plans to do it in conjunction with the fly over ceremony honoring the Day of the Hundred Martyrs to Democracy. The day arrives, and before the time for the speech, Papa’s doctor rushes out. Papa has committed suicide by way of a vial of something that he had kept around his neck. The mysterious substance has turned the former leader into stone. John and the Doctor go into Papa’s room, and the Doctor tries to rinse the substance off his hands, but the water freezes into  a large ball around his hand. He sticks his tongue to it, and he also dies. Ice-nine was not a myth. John gets security to bring in the Hoenikker children.

He finds that at Felix’s death, the children divided the remaining ice-nine in thirds. Frank used his to get in a position of power in San Lorenzo. Angela used hers to grab herself a handsome husband, and Newt used his for romantic times with the Russian midget dancer (who has presumably since used hers for a position of power in Russia). Felix himself died by accidentally ingesting the ice-nine too. Frank decides that they need to clean up the mess, and they begin scraping all the little frozen pieces into a pile to burn. The plan is to burn Papa’s body in a funeral pyre during an official ceremony, so they leave him where he is. They go out to watch the flyover, and one of the planes has an accident causing it to crash into the castle thereby releasing Papa’s body which crashes into the water forcing all water to freeze.

John and Mona go into an underground hideout and they remain there for a week before resurfacing. When they did, they found everything was hard and quiet, but they did not see any dead anywhere. As they went looking, they eventually found them on the mount where only Bokonon had previously gone along with a note from Bokonon himself. The people had apparently brought him there asking him what to do, and he had told them that God was surely trying to kill them so they should have the good manners to die. So they did. Once John and Mona finish reading the note, Mona also takes the advice of the note and touches the ice-nine to her mouth.

Frank is rescued by a car carrying Newt, Hazel, and H. Lowe and go to Frank’s house. The five of them continue to live out their lives as the last people potentially in the world. One day driving around, John sees Bokonon sitting on the sidewalk. They stop the car and John goes to speak to him. Bokonon is thinking of the final sentence for The Books of Bokonon and he shows John what it is:

“If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.”

Verdict: 3.5 stars

This book has a lot of points to make about a lot of things. But in general, I found it a bit depressing, and I felt it dragged in the middle. Essentially nothing matters and we fool ourselves with harmless lies of religion or with the false security of science, which intrinsically has no morality as can be seen with the development of both the atomic bomb and ice-nine. I like reading to escape real life, not to ponder whether life itself has any meaning or purpose. Anyway, like I said in the beginning, I appreciate this book, but I don’t like it.


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Filed under 3.5 stars, Book Review

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