Saturday, October 25, 2014

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Back in the tumultuous 60s, I tried Kurt Vonnegut, because everyone had one or another of his books at the ready for spare moments of reading.  Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five, and Jailbird seemed to be popular titles.  I read Mother Night, and a little later, Breakfast of Champions, but didn’t care for them at all.  About this time, I began to develop my love for the works of John Updike, so Vonnegut faded from my reading radar.  Recently, a friend suggested Cat’s Cradle, and I owe hearty thanks in that direction.

Kurt Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1922.  He passed away in 2007.  He is known for his dark humor and imagination.  Graham Greene declared, Vonnegut “was one of the best living American Writers.”  I remember him as a writer everyone read, but no one would admit to owning any of his books. 

Cat’s Cradle is a peculiar book in style, structure, and story-line.  About 125 chapters make up the story, and most are only a page or two.  This fragmented reading can cause some confusion, but large chunks of the book can be digested in each reading.  The narrator, Jonah, wants to write a biography of a scientist involved in the Manhattan Project who had peculiar habits at best.  He wanted to stay working at a small foundry, where his numerous patents were shamefully exploited by his employers.  He also wanted to work with the construction of the bomb, but he wanted to work alone.  When he died, his children scattered, and the narrator must track one of them to a near mythical island in the Caribbean, San Lorenzo.  The islanders all adhere to a mysterious, Zen-like religion, Bokononism, which the dictator has outlawed.  The islanders all follow this religion in secret, because the punishment for practicing it is a slow and painful death on “the hook.”  This tyrant, known as “Papa” Monzano, is near death, and the heir apparent is Frank Hoenikker, son of scientist Dr. Felix Hoenikker the subject of the biography.  Jonah becomes entangled in the politics and religion of the island.
Vonnegut, was, to say the least as peculiar as some of his novels.  Sampling his style here might leave my listeners as bewildered as I was while immersed in the story.  Vonnegut’s moments of humor are as dark as a reader might expect, and those are to be savored.  Here is a small sample, so good luck.  As “Papa” lies dying, he asks for the last rites from his doctor, a shadowy former SS doctor.  Vonnegut writes, “‘I am a very bad scientist.  I will do anything to make a human being feel better, even if it’s unscientific.  No scientist worthy of the name could say such a thing.’  /  And he climbed into the golden boat with ‘Papa.’  He sat in the stern.  Cramped quarters obliged him to have the golden tiller under one arm.  /  He wore sandals without socks and he took these off.  And then he rolled back the covers at the foot of the bed, exposing ‘Papa’s” bare feet.  He put the soles of his feet against ‘Papa’s” feet, assuming the classical position for boko-maru” (219-220).

Cat’s Cradle becomes another novel I have added to the list of works which need to be experienced, rather than merely read.  Readers tend to two extreme views of Vonnegut: either, “I read all his books when I was in college; I love him,” or “Too weird for me!”  I now place myself in the middle of these two extremes.  If you read Vonnegut in the heady days of the 60s – or if you didn’t – he is certainly worth a re-visit.  5 stars

--Chiron, 10/17/14

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