Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (1963)

This is an end-of-the-world apocalypse novel, made all the bleaker by the warm chatty style of everything which precedes the final doom.

The plot – Ice-nine

For 150 or so pages the narrator (named John, but on the first page he suggests we call him Jonah, in line with the usage indicating someone who brings bad luck) pursues an elaborate and good-humoured picaresque as he tracks down the grown-up children of the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker.

The narrator is planning to write a book about what people were doing on the day the atom bomb was dropped, although he never really gets much further than talking to the members of Hoenikker’s family and his boss and co-workers.

John corresponds with Newton Hoenikker, and his sister, Angela Hoenikker Conners, then travels to the town of Ilium to meet them, and also Hoenniker’s former employer, Dr. Asa Breed, head of the General Forge and Foundry Company where the late Felix worked.

He explains that the company is really a top secret government agency. Breed explains that Hoenniker was like a child who just liked solving whatever problem was put in front of him. The agency had a request from the U.S. Marines who (in Vonnegut’s cheerfully childish way) are described as being fed up of crawling through mud. Can’t the scientists do anything to clear up all this mud?

And so we are told that Hoenniker came up with the notion that ice may potentially be formed in different ways from usual. He starts by considering that ice is just a solid way for molecules of H2O to exist. It consists of a latticework of molecules in a steady state. But plenty of other chemical substances, ones we think of as crystalline, in fact form crystals in a variety of ways. They are all crystals but she shape of the latticework which makes them solid can be altered in the laboratory by ‘seeding’ the chemical solution, as it approaches solidifying point, with the desired pattern. Then all the other molecules in the chemical crystalise in that pattern.

To cut a long story short, John discovers that Dr Hoenikker had discovered a new way of making water solidify at a higher than usual temperature, roughly room temperature. After experimenting with seven other versions he has called this ice-nine. If crystals of ice-nine touch any other form of water, it will all immediately solidify according to the ice-nine crystal or lattice structure.

Now all this was done to help out the U.S. Marines who were fed up of getting dirty and muddy while they went about their work. (See the absurdity on which all Vonnegut’s stories are based?) But of course, you and I – having read hundreds of end-of-the-world books and watched hundreds of end-of-the-world movies – instantly spot the risk involved. Potentially one little sliver of ice-nine could end the world by converting all the water – all the seas and oceans and rivers and lakes and streams and all the rain and, yes, all human beings (who are, after all, mostly made of water) into solid blocks if ice-nine.

And that, after another 100 pages of very entertaining travelogue, is exactly what happens.

The book is extremely readable (I couldn’t put it down, I read it in one four-hour sitting) because:

  1. it is broken up into dinky little two-page chapters, so it feels like it moves very fast
  2. in almost each chapter we are introduced to new and strikingly drawn characters, often very secondary – like the secretary at the General Forge and Foundry Company, the old black lift boy, Lynton Enders Knowles, a taxi driver, a bartender, a headstone salesman – but all of whom have zippy cameos
  3. it is often very funny – it is certainly much more upbeat than The Sirens of Titan which I found unpleasantly nihilistic – with light humorous touches all over the place

When John stops by at Ilium’s gravestone dealership he discovers the owner is the brother of Ava Breed, head of the General Forge and Foundry Company.

‘It’s a small world,’ I observed.
‘When you put it in a cemetery, it is.’ Marvin breed was a sleek and vulgar, a smart and sentimental man. (p.44)

When he stops off at Jack’s Hobby Shop the page or two describing the shop and its owner and all its hundreds of miniature trains and dioramas is sweet. For a two-page chapter we learn that during his trip to Ilium John lent out his room to a New York poet, Sherman Krebbs, who proceeded to have wild parties and trash it. Someone had written in lipstick over his bed, ‘No, no, no, said Chicken-licken’ (p.53).

Apparently Vonnegut himself claimed that his books ‘are essentially mosaics made up of a whole bunch of tiny little chips…and each chip is a joke.’ That is eminently true of Cat’s Cradle.

The whimsy in Sirens felt utterly contrived. Here it is genuinely charming and helps you whizz through the story. Part two of it is set on the dirt poor Caribbean island of San Lorenzo. This is because both Newton and Angela Hoenikker thought their older brother, Franklin, was dead. (On Hiroshima Day Newton had told John he remembers discovering Franklin under a bush trying to persuade some red ants he’d captured and put in a jam jar to fight some red ants.)

Newton (nickname ‘Newt’ and a midget) and Angela thought Franklin was dead because he got caught up in some car-smuggling racket in Florida and disappeared, assumed wasted by the Mob. But suddenly he turns up as the right-hand man of San Lorenzo’s dictator, ‘Papa’ Monzano.

The second and longest part of the story is set on the island, although it takes a few pages to get there as Vonnegut enjoys describing the wacky characters who share the small charter plane there with John – a hustling bustling businessman, H. Lowe Crosby, who wants to set up a bicycle factory on the island (and his wife Hazel), and the new U.S. ambassador, Horlick Minton, a picture of haughty aloofness (and his wife Claire).

There’s also the figure of Julian Castle, once the multi-millionaire ex-owner of Castle Sugar Cooperation, who gave up business in order to set up a charity in the jungle, the whom John travels to San Lorenzo to interview. He abandoned his business ventures to set up and operate a humanitarian hospital, the House of Hope and Charity, in the jungle. And he has a son, Philip, who has a wonderful dry wit: there are several really funny dialogues between him and the narrator.

To cut a long story short, the dictator ‘Papa’ Monzano is really ill with excruciatingly terminal cancer, and so he hands over power to his military adviser, Franklin Hoenikker. But Franklin doesn’t want the job and hands it over to the narrator. A big fireworks display and flyover by the San Lorenzo air force is planned for inauguration day. Just hours before it, the narrator discovers that Papa has committed suicide (to escape the unbearable pain of his terminal illness) by touching a fragment of ice-nine to his lips. One of the bloody Hoenikker kids must have given him some.

So John and Newt very very carefully use a blow torch to raise the temperature of the ice-nine and scoop up every sliver into a bucket of hot water and generally quarantine it. But all this comes to nothing when one of the six jets flying overhead crashes into the big castle on a cliff where John, Frank, Newt, Angela, the ambassador and Crosby are standing. The particular tower they’re on cracks and crumbles, half of it toppling into the sea.

And then, with all the horror of full knowledge of what is coming, John is forced to watch the bed on which the ice-nined body of Papa Monzano was lying, slowly slide across the slanting floor and into the ocean.

In a flash the entire ocean is solidified, every river, lake and sea in the world is solidified, all rain turns to hail, and almost everyone in the world who is touching the contaminated water dies. The sky immediately turns into a hell of thousands of tornadoes, like an endless sack full of grey wriggling worms.

John and Papa’s beautiful adopted daughter, Mona, who he has lusted after throughout the novel, escape down to a bunker where there is food and safe drink for three or four days. When they go back above ground, nothing has changed. The world has come to an end.

Exploring the island and looking for survivors, they discover a mass grave where all the surviving San Lorenzans had killed themselves with ice-nine, on the facetious advice of Bokonon. Displaying a mix of grief and resigned amusement, Mona kills herself as well.

John later discovers Newt and Franklin survived, as did H. Lowe Crosby and his wife. They eke out a living not touching any of the ice and heating all water before they drink it. It is in the months since the apocalypse that John has written this account, the book we hold in our hands.

The religion – Bokononism

But this summary has so far completely ignored what is arguably the more important aspect of the book which is that John, right at the end of the story, had become a convert to a new religion known as Bokonism, with the result that the book is packed, from start to finish, with explanations of key Bokononist terms and ideas, as well as quotes from the calypso songs in which Bokonon expressed himself collected in the so-called Books of Bokonon.

In essence, Bokononism teaches that life is empty and meaningless and therefore we must comfort ourselves with useless lies.

There’s a lot of fol-de-rol surrounding the religion but the basic idea is that it was dreamed up by two castaways on the island (a merchant seaman from Tobago, Lionel Boyd Johnson, and a deserting U.S. marine, Corporal Earl McCabe) who set out to create a utopian religion from scratch.

They initially ruled San Lorenzo (giving it, in a typical piece of sardonic Vonnegut humour, a national anthem based on the tune ‘Home, Home on the Range’) but quickly realised that a religion needs the ‘glamour’ of being struggled and suffered for. And so they banned their own religion, and Bokonon himself (in fact his name was Johnson but the islanders couldn’t pronounce it) went into hiding. Any followers were liable to be hung up on a giant meathook which was set up in the centre of the capital city.

After which Bokononism really took off. (You see Vonnegut’s sardonic humour / understanding of human nature?)

Throughout the book the author takes particular incidents and demonstrates how they are good examples of Bokononism’s main concepts. Some twenty of these are demonstrated and explained in the text, but about three are important because they will recur in Vonnegut’s later works.

karass – a group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, even when superficial linkages are not evident.

granfalloon – a false karass i.e. a group of people who imagine they have a connection that does not really exist, for example ‘Hoosiers’ are people from Indiana, and Hoosiers have no true spiritual destiny in common, so really share little more than a name. Another example Vonnegut gives is Americans.

wampeter – the central theme or purpose of a karass. Each karass has two wampeters at any given time, one waxing and one waning

foma – harmless untruths

There’s much more, and the weaving of Bokononism into the plot is very cleverly done (well, ‘clever’ in the sense that it is obvious nonsense invented to demonstrate the power of obvious nonsense over the stupid human mind).

More to the point, it is funny, often very funny – and the combination of the a) fairly normal social comedy of fat bicycle manufacturer, waspish hotel owners and so on with b) the very thoroughly worked-out integration of this imaginary religion into all aspects of the plot all leading up to a c) all-too-believable sci-fi apocalypse make this a compelling and disorientating read.

Anti-war

Here, as in all his books, Vonnegut makes his anti-war sentiments crystal clear. He has the U.S. ambassador, at a commemoration service for San Lorenzans who died in the Second World War, remark:

‘And I propose to you that if we are to pay our sincere respects to the hundred lost children of San Lorenzo, that we might best spend the day despising what killed them; which is to say, the stupidity and viciousness of all mankind.

‘Perhaps, when we remember wars, we should take off our clothes and paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs. That would surely be more appropriate than noble oratory and shows of flags and well-oiled guns.’

Right on, man.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

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