Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Review: Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

A pack of foma (lies)! Bokonon would say about this book, and he'd be right, as he usually is. But, as he himself tells us, that is not such a bad thing. What a wise man.

Cat's Cradle (1963) is a book about a guy, John, who wrote a book, the one he narrates, but begins by trying to write another book, The Day the World Ended, about the day the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and what famous people were doing on the day. The research for the book drives the protagonist to search out the offspring of one Felix Hoenikker, co-inventor of the bomb, a child-like, emotionless genius. In the process, he finds himself on the island nation of San Lorenzo with Newt, Angela, and Frank Hoenikker. It's a peculiar place where one man, "Papa" Monzano, rules as dictator over a technologically barren land. The only thing that keeps the natives going is Bokononism, a religion outlawed on the island, punishable by death (via the dreadful hook) that celebrates lies and above all man. The founder, Bokonon, is a fugitive, which seems to be good for everyone, including Bokonon.

I chose to read the novel because I'm a Vonnegut fan and because when grading his own books against himself in Palm Sunday, Vonnegut gave Cat's Cradle an A+ (as well as Slaughterhouse Five). So I figured, this was the one to read. While I evidently don't think this is a great book, I do think it's good.

The book is, if I may say so, a kind of atheist manifesto. Bokononism is used by Vonnegut as a means to satirize religion.  Bokononism is based on lies, which Bokonon figures people would enjoy more than the harsh reality of life on San Lorenzo. This is just another way of saying that religion is BS and people like it because it paints life romantically. (We get it Vonnegut: you're an atheist!) In other words, the Bible is the Delacroix of life. Atheism is more like a Hopper. Sure you probably like Delacroix better (who doesn't?), but perhaps Hopper is more relevant. (Not my words, Vonnegut's!)

I enjoyed the the satirical depiction of religion. For example, in the explicitly fictional creation story of Bokononism, life is nothing more than mud that got to sit up and say, "Nice going, God!" and "I feel very unimportant compared to You." The concise Calypsos (poems) of Bokonon sprinkled throughout are, also, a good touch and some of them are quite insightful. I like this one:

Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, "Why, why, why?"
Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.

There are some substantial boring bits in the book. They're located toward the middle. I got a hundred or so pages in and then considered whether I should continue reading or not. I hate that. Whenever that happens, I have two real choices: stop or read faster. I read faster. The last time I had this dilemma it was with Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which I didn't review because I hated. I chose to keep reading but not fast enough. It was a waste of time and I'm mad at Heinlein now and refuse to read him anymore - I don't care how smart the guy was. I hear Stranger in a Strange Land is good, but I really don't know. I really don't know. I really don't fucking know.

Where Cat's Cradle starts to pick up, really pick up, is toward the end of the book. This is probably intentional and not a coincidence. The way it picks up toward the end reminds me of Moby Dick, which saves most of the action for the very end. Vonnegut begins Cat's Cradle with, "Call me Jonah," echoing the first line of Moby Dick while also highlighting an important figure in the book. Cat's Cradle is no Moby Dick, but it's classic, witty, surreal Vonnegut.

I enjoyed the book and think other Vonnegut fans will, too. I've already read the free Kindle sample for Mother Night and think I'll read that, as well, though I have quite a few other books I want to read before then. (Have any recommendations - science fiction or literary?)

That's my review. No spoilers. How about that?

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