“Nothing in this book is true.”
Hello! I am a little behind on my posts because I ran away to South America. But as I am now back it is time to pick up where we left off. As I have said in an earlier post it is a little bit of a personal mission of mine to read more Vonnegut, after Slapstick I was filled with doubt. It was an absurd read that left me feeling a little out of step. But despite my best efforts to resist my own curiosity (and the unread paperback sat beside my bed) I read Cat’s Cradle and was quite surprised!
It is a playful, satirical fantasy concerning the shortcomings and irresponsibilities of a fictional atomic scientist. This novel begins with a degenerate writer, John, placing his last bets on writing a book about the bombing of Hiroshima. His research naturally takes him to the preeminent physicist Dr. Felix Hoenikker the co-creator of the atomic bomb and father of three peculiar children.
I admire Vonnegut. I am coming to believe that he is one of those multifaceted writers who possess the tenacity to stare at any topic squarely in the eye, poke fun at it, and then roar with laugher. Written at the time when the world was still unclenching after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Cat’s Cradle has similar ‘end of the world’ fears. But the novel treats these fears as sort of absurdities which may be grasped at and but never fully faced in a way that annihilates all peace of mind.
Vonnegut probably puts it best in his fictitious religion Bokononism, the religion itself is founded on bittersweet lies and encourages its followers to live by ‘harmless untruths’. The philosophy, which I am certain most people unwittingly follow is to ‘live by the harmless untruths that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.’
Although the late Felix Hoenikker cannot give his account of the events leading up to his death, his children can. They tell of a cooly detached man, obsessed with his work and puzzle solving who had little grasp of how to navigate personal relationships. By all accounts Hoenikker is the formidable mind behind the horror of Cat’s Cradle but possess a lack of empathy which renders this calculating scientist into a grotesque two dimensional person. How reliable his children are is up for question but Hoenikker’s last rumoured achievement indicates perhaps their judgement is not far from accurate.
John discovers, rumour of Hoenikker’s ‘Ice-9’. A dangerous substance because of it’s ability to rearrange the molecular structure of water so it becomes solid at room temperature. Ice-9 is Hoenikker’s answer to assisting the military move through muddy terrain, however the short coming of this substance is that it cannot isolate one patch of mud. It turns every drop of liquid it comes into contact with into a solid state. The question of whether it is a finished product is never addressed as to use Ice-9 would have terrible consequences for the world’s water supply.
When Hoenikker dies, Ice-9 is shared by, or debatably stolen by, his three children Frank, Newt and Angela. The short comings of this novel do not simply lie with one character, they divide Ice-9 as a sort of birth right and then proceed to use it for their own gains. Concequently Newt has a run in with a Russian Spy, Angela bags herself a husband, and Frank becomes the right hand man of a dictator.
But it doesn’t end there, John and the Hoenikker children meet again on a small island nation of San Lorenzo. Said dictator, “Papa” Monzano, is quite ill but has thoroughly oppressed his people with the help of Frank, who is due to be married to Monzano’s daughter, Mona. After spending the majority of the novel looking for the mysterious Frank, when John finally meets Frank he looses all interest. Because of course, John falls in love with Mona. Mona is very much the friction at the end of the novel, she appears the promiscuous devout follower of Bokononism and claims her heart is not monogamous when John demands to possess all of her love. (You go girl.)
And then something terrible happens. But that’s the end of the novel so I’m not going to completely… spoil it.
So, my verdict: I really liked it. There was a lot of insight in this novel that I think is very culturally relevant. It was a beautiful comment on weaponry being created to serve a purpose with little thought of the reality of actually using it. The ideas of self sabotage and capitalism are overwhelming. Although Vonnegut’s humour does lighten the mood and encourages you to laugh at the man convinced the people of San Lorenzo want to make bicycles for his company, but this is still a bleak and pessimistic novel at the core.
But I didn’t feel pessimistic reading it, in fact it was engaging and difficult to put down. This is contemporary satire that touches on a number of subjects and successfully doesn’t drown the reader within it’s own agenda. But I do think though this is a novel I will have to revisit because I am certain there is more to be had on a second reading.