• The 1st Edition of Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle (1963)

    Cat’s Cradle

  • Author:  Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)
  • Rank:  #91
  • Published:  1963
  • Publisher:  Holt, Rinehart and Winston
  • Pages:  191  (Laurel paperback)
  • First Lines:  “Call me Jonah.  My parents did, or nearly did.  They called me John.”
  • Last Line:  “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.”
  • ML Edition:  None
  • Film:  None
  • Acclaim:  Hugo Award Nominee
  • Read:  Summer, 1994

The Novel:  Cat’s Cradle is an utterly unique book.  Of course, many books are, but how many books are used to earn a Masters degree in Anthropology?  The quote from Time Magazine on the cover of the Laurel paperbacks of Vonnegut’s novels calls him a combination of George Orwell, Dr. Caligari and Flash Gordon.  A more accurate description would be that he combines the simple language and sentence structure of Hemingway with the plot stylings of pulp Science Fiction magazines to create an utterly unique style.  Irwin Shaw once said “If (young writers) become enthusiastic, it’s about someone like Kurt Vonnegut, who is uncopyable.  If they try to copy him, they’re in for disaster.”  In a profession where the members usually try to tear each other apart, this is rather an insightful comment, as insightful and true comment as I have ever heard one writer make about another with the possible exception of the wonderful elegy for Scott Fitzgerald in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.  For Vonnegut is indeed uncopyable.  He is a true and unique voice and you must not attempt to write him.  Anyone else trying to write like him just ends up sounding like a jackass (for that matter, Vonnegut himself had that problem in some of his novels, most notable Breakfast of Champions).

So what do we have here?  What is it in this novel that would convince so distinguished a school as the University of Chicago that it was worth a Master degree in Anthropology?  Well, it is remarkably insightful about human behavior.  Like many of the Vonnegut novels that would follow, it deals with a rather off-base, yet charmingly naive narrator who enters a situation far beyond what he ever could have imagined.  In journeying to San Lorenzo, he becomes involve with Bokonon and Bokononism.  Bokononism isn’t situated that far from Zen Buddhism, as can be seen from some of the early statements: “We Bokononists believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God’s will without ever discovering what they are doing.” and “If you find your life tangled up with somebody else’s life for no very logical reasons that person may be a member of your karass.”  It all serves to remind me of the Zen driving method in the Dirk Gently books by Douglas Adams; you follow someone who looks like they know where they’re going — you don’t always end up where you intended, but you often find yourself where you needed to be.  Throughout Cat’s Cradle, Jonah, while ostensibly searching for information on one of the (fictional) developers of the atomic bomb, finds himself uncovering family history that links him with the other people on his travels and ends up falling in love, only to lose that love and end up nearly alone in a dying world.  Written in the heart of the Cold War, with the danger of the atomic bomb hanging over everyone’s head, it was remarkably perceptive.  What other writer could give us a scene like this: ” ‘Everything must have a purpose?’ asked God.  ‘Certainly,’ said man.  ‘Then I leave it to you to think of one for all of this,’ said God.  And He went away.”  Perhaps that says more about organized religion than any preacher could ever express.

And there is one of Bokonon’s great sayings, hidden in the middle of a paragraph in the middle of a chapter in the middle of the book.  But is says everything about Bokonon, everything that needs to be said about the strange way the world moves sometimes and even with no personal sense of God, I can feel the meaning of this sentence and smile every time I think of it: “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.”