POST #50! Arbitrary Numbering is exciting!
Kurt Vonnegut does what Kurt Vonnegut does. This is to say that you know what you’re getting when you pick up one of his novels. The question is really whether or not he will be “on” in this one or not. There are some devout Vonnegut fans that would say he is always “on” and that he doesn’t have a weak novel in his entire oeuvre. I don’t agree so far, as I was devastated by Breakfast of Champions, which I expected to really love because it starred Kilgore Trout, my favorite character in Slaughterhouse-Five. Oh well.
I like returning to Vonnegut after reading massive works. After reading Gravity’s Rainbow I went to Slaughterhouse-Five, and after finishing Infinite Jest a second time I went to Breakfast of Champions. Vonnegut is good for that. He is a simple read, but he is doing interesting things and keeping it real at all times. My favorite part of Vonnegut, and this is probably cliche, is simply his ability to make me laugh at something that is absolutely horrifying. His voice is so finely tuned and crafted that as a reader you just trust him. My critique is this: that as good as he is, and he is terrific, he is really doing the same exact thing over and over again. It’s the same trick. Mind you, the trick is phenomenal and he is like a magician with card tricks in that it’s still wonderful to experience every time, but nonetheless you sometimes want something else. You know precisely what you will be getting with Vonnegut. That’s not a bad thing always. Obviously.
So assuming any of you are still here after I have potentially insulted a massive amount of people’s favorite writer in Kurt Vonnegut, what did I think of Cat’s Cradle? I thought it was a return to form. After reading Breakfast I needed Vonnegut to more than the writer of Slaughterhouse-Five. I had been warned against Breakfast by other readers of Vonnegut, to be fair, but I had my mind made up. Oh, bother.
Cat’s Cradle is about a man, call him Jonah, his real name doesn’t matter, who writes a book about the end of the world. It begins as a biography of the father of the atomic bomb and ends up becoming more of a memoir of his attempt to write the memoir of the father of the atomic bomb. In the book Vonnegut is primarily obsessed with, as usual, truth and who decides it. Those in the vein of science, espousing scientism at every turn and explaining that it is humanity’s only hope for finding real truth in the world are dismissed. Vonnegut makes them the crazy ones, the close-minded ones, the ones that are out of touch with the world. But he doesn’t tell you that. You just feel it in how they are presented. Meanwhile, in the religion that Vonnegut creates that so many of the book’s characters are involved with, is totally and completely based on lies, with even its founder telling everyone that it is just that: A bunch of lies! You, the reader, are told repetitively that what you are reading is not true. But in the end, what ends up being the more damaging thing for the people in the novel? The science or the lies?
Cat’s Cradle is a fascinating little book that I would recommend to anyone. Vonnegut will make you laugh at so many horrible things in the span of the novel, and each time you will pause and ask why you thought that was so funny. At some points you can answer such a pondering:
“I once knew an Episcopalian lady in Newport, Rhode Island, who asked me to design and build a doghouse for her Great Dane. The lady claimed to understand God and His Ways of Working perfectly. She could not understand why anyone should be puzzled about what had been or about what was going to be.
And yet, when I showed her a blueprint of the doghouse I proposed to build, she said to me ‘I’m sorry, but I never could read one of those things.’
‘Give it to your husband or your minister to pass on to God,’ I said, ‘and, when God finds a minute, I’m sure he’ll explain this doghouse of mine in a way that even you can understand.’
She fired me. I shall never forget her. She believed that God liked people in sailboats much better than He liked people in motorboats. She could not bear to look at a worm.When she saw a worm, she screamed.
She was a fool, and so am I, and so is anyone who thinks he sees what God is doing.
Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut
At other points you’re really not so sure. Such as the moment when everyone on the island is dying of the black plague and the doctor gestures to all the dying people and tells his son, “One day, all this will be yours.”
Recommended to: Everybody. How can you not recommend a Vonnegut book that is clearly Vonnegut at his best?
Avoid as if it’s a locker room dispute between Kevin Love and Lebron James: Nobody. If you know of a good Vonnegut book, take time and read it.