By the Book: Vonnegut’s ‘Cat’s Cradle’ Turns 50

Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut, photo by Erik Wenzel

It’s eye opening to re-read an American classic, especially a novel that has become, as they say, iconic—defining a noteworthy period in cultural history.

Recognizing a novel’s power to move and instruct once upon a time, not to mention to stay on the best-seller list and generate reprints, we wonder how it will hold up decades later. Will it pack the same kind of innovative wallop we thought it did originally? Do the intervening years date it? Have our own life-changing experiences in an ever-growing cynical and information-laden world dulled the earlier magic? Will we still see it as carrying an abiding, universal significance over and above its historical context? Such considerations become especially important when the novel in question falls into the category of comedy, satire to be exact, because nothing fails so readily as a literary cosmic joke frozen in time. But, as Kurt Vonnegut, who lived for years in Wainscott, would say, “And so it goes.”

And so Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, this year entering its golden anniversary, invites review. His fourth novel, a dark, comic anti-war tale, it quickly became a craze, especially among the college crowd in the ’60s and ’70s. A bible of sorts for the counterculture set, it expressed with deadpan humor, sardonic eccentricity and loony irreverence the growing disillusion and restlessness of a generation that would one year later also embrace Dr. Strangelove; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. (The ending of the military draft was still 10 years away.) Satire was the mode of the age, whereby an urgent moral vision could be inferred from fiction that mocked Armageddon politics and the science and technology that seemed to aid and abet such politics or be indifferent to how discoveries were used to advance world domination and war. Zany fantasy or the presentation of reality in extremis allowed artists to express anger in an entertaining way, thereby avoiding both didacticism and prosecution. Cat’s Cradle resonated big time, spawning theatrical adaptations, audio versions, a calypso musical (the story is set on the fictional Caribbean island of San Lorenzo), celebratory outpourings in the literary and popular media and fame for Vonnegut (d. 2007), though Slaughterhouse Five (1969) would prove to be the better book.

The title refers to the string game Vonnegut’s protagonist John discovers was engaging Dr. Felix Hoenikker (a fictional co-inventor of the atomic bomb), a Nobel physicist, who was playing Cat’s Cradle at the moment the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. John, who is working on a book called The Day the World Ended, has traveled to Ilium, NY, to find out more about Hoenikker who, at the urging of the Marine Corps, worried about their men getting stuck in mud, invented something called Ice-9, a solid crystal which could freeze water at room temperature, and which is now in the possession of the deceased Hoenikker’s three strange children, a gawky woman, a midget and a technological genius (actually, everyone in any Vonnegut story is strange in some way).

To attempt a simple plot summary beyond the opening line, with its nod to Melville (“Call Me Jonah”), would be daunting (Vonnegut also likes the phrase “soft pipes”—see Keats). The narrative proceeds as a series of 127 short chapters, and new characters keep popping up all the time, with the requisite absurd names and physical attributes), all of them introducing their own stories. Factor in, as the Apocalypse nears, terms about the imaginative, politically manipulative cult, Bokonism, a bizarre, sham religion, started by two con artists (one, a deserter from the Marines), that took hold on the impoverished Caribbean island and that now controls the totalitarian society under Papa Manzano.

In retrospect, the conception and execution of Cat’s Cradle seem, respectively, obvious and a bit much, with some online sites providing a glossary of Bokonist terms (karass, granfalloon, kan-kan, sinookas, sin-wat, etc.), though even then, it’s not clear how the words support the satirical theme. The ’60s, particularly when they became the ’70s, continue to fascinate, now even more so, 50 years after the assassination of JFK. Kurt Vonnegut was an admired member of the literary and East End community. If his fiction does not stand the test of time, his passion does. His was a critically consistent and humane voice against man’s inhumanity to man.

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