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A Series of Accidents #4: Cat’s Cradle

A Series of Accidents is an ongoing project about the books of Kurt Vonnegut.


Cat’s Cradle was the first Kurt Vonnegut book I read. I encountered it in a university class about apocalyptic science fiction, taught by a wiry Jewish man during a bleak Toronto winter. At the time, I was still a little agnostic about the whole concept of literature – I was in the process of switching over to an English major, but planned to fulfill the degree requirements with as many genre- and pop-culture-based courses as I could.

The sylabus included texts like “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, and the Don McKeller film Last Night, all of which I still hold varying degrees of fondness for. But Cat’s Cradle was what really stuck with me. It was like no other book I had read before. The 127 chapters were blink-and-you’ll-miss-them short, the prose casual despite the dire subject matter. The plot sounded like one of the science-fiction stories I liked, but somehow the book struck me as something entirely different. I knew, immediately, that I wanted to read more like it.

The novel is steeped in the Cold War and its threat of looming apocalypse. The narrator, an author who tells us to call him Jonah, sets out to write a book about the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. (Here again we see the theme of the inhuman measures the Allies resorted to in World War II.) the course of his investigation sets him on the trail of Felix Hoenikker, one of the scientists who worked on the bomb, and his three children.

Jonah learns that Hoenikker, not content with the atom bomb as a legacy, has also developed a weapon called ice-9, an unstable molecule that freezes any liquid it comes into contact with. Hoenikker is aware that, if released into the ecosystem, ice-9 will cause the whole planet to freeze over in quick order – but he creates it anyways, out of no motivation other than dry intellectual curiosity. Vonnegut is clearly satirizing the attitudes of nuclear scientists like Robert Oppenheimer, but also the kind of technocratic megalomania he saw during his time at General Electric. There’s a reference to Ilium, New York, the fictitious setting of Player Piano, and a suggestion that scientists discovered the meaning of the universe but no one could quite remember it.

Hoenikker entrusts his children with the secret of ice-9. But of course, they are flawed individuals entrusted with the fate of the species. They each sell the formula to global powers: for sex, for money, for influence. And, in the end, a series of accidents sends the doomsday device into the ocean, leading to the fairly swift end of all life on the planet. (In writing about a tortured family with a distant genius for a father, Vonnegut was perhaps writing about his own – although whether he saw himself in the role of father or child is anyone’s guess.)

As metaphor, Cat’s Cradle is not subtle or difficult. Ice-9 is the atomic bomb, the apocalyptic device disastrously entrusted to humans with their own petty prejudices and desires. Vonnegut was writing around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the idea that a hot-headed leader could destroy the species with a press of the button was a frequent anxiety. But Cat’s Cradle is more than just a parable about the danger of nukes, which were literally a dime a dozen in the 1960s. Rather, it delves deeper into the psychology which lead mankind to create such weapons – and the only sane way for the rest of us to respond to them.

I was also a rather fervent atheist at the time, and would have fit all the stereotypical qualities of the obnoxious New Atheist if I hadn’t been quite so shy. As such, Cat’s Cradle’s loopy satire of religion appealed to me. Intertwined with the deadly farce of ice-9 is Vonnegut’s account of Bokononism, a fictitious religion founded by a calypso singer. Bokononism is a religion which mocks its own claims to truth: its epigraph, like that of Cat’s Cradle itself, is “Nothing in this book is true.”

Bokonon, the religion’s prophet, establishes the idea of foma, or comforting lies. The idea of foma is as much a defense of religion as an atheist can make – that, while the whole thing may be a pack of lies, they are lies that make people happier and bring them together. If the connections created by Bokononism, like the idea of the karass (a fated group of people destined to create a task together), are ultimately fake, then Vonnegut suggests that at least they are more benign than existing fake social groups like nations, races, and other religions, which in the language of Bokononism are referred to as granfaloons.

To believe in foma is essentially the question of carrying on life under postmodernism. We must believe in something we know to be a fiction, and most importantly we must constantly keep both our belief and its falseness in our mind together. Orwell saw this kind of process purely negatively, as the double-think that accommodated totalitarian regimes, but Vonnegut suggests that a certain amount of double-think is necessary to persist in the world. I have to wake up every morning, get work done, take a shower, go to the grocery store, despite the fact that I know we are heading towards the apocalypse – of climate change, if not the nuclear weapons which Vonnegut was elliptically writing about. I am compelled to talk about politics and campaign for a better world, while simultaneously knowing that such struggles will likely come to nothing, and in any case my morality rests on an arbitrary set of received ideas and cultural presumptions.

I don’t think Bokononism is Vonnegut’s true idea about the world. This is not a stealth religious text. It’s more of a thought experiment, as to how a religion could exist that foregrounds postmodern groundlessness instead of pushing it away. The result is a ridiculous faith, full of silly calypso songs and self-contradiction and gross rituals. But perhaps, Vonnegut suggests, all faiths are ridiculous – and Bokononism’s virtue is that it doesn’t pretend to be anything else.

The plot of Cat’s Cradle mostly takes place in the fictitious Caribbean nation of San Lorenzo. The country is headed up by a tinpot dictator who bans all practice of Bokononism under penalty of death – an oppression which, in a very Vonnegutian twist, we later learn Bokonon invited onto himself to add spice to the faith. The nation is a parody of the kind of banana republics that dotted Latin America during the Cold Wars, whose brutal leaders were supported by the US to keep communism at bay. (Fortunately, none of that goes on now. Just ask Honduras or Bolivia.)

Vonnegut wrote Cat’s Cradle in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, at a time when it appeared the actions of tinpot dictators in the Caribbean could lead to a nuclear war and the end of all life on earth. There’s more than a bit of resonance in the novel’s plot, where the paranoia of “Papa” leads him to bring the apocalyptic weapon of ice-9 onto his island, and his death leads to its dispersal and the end of the world.

This political struggle caused many Americans to look upon Latin America with a mixture of desire and fear. This is embodied in the text by the ungovernable land of San Lorenzo, but perhaps most of all by the character of Mona, the dictator’s daughter. The narrative deals at length with Mona’s exotic beauty, and it’s never quite clear whether the fetishization is Jonah’s or Vonnegut’s.

Jonah stumbles into marrying Mona as part of a political deal which also sets him up to be San Lorenzo’s next president. His (wet) dreams come true, but are later disrupted when he sees Mona engaging in the Bokononist ritual of foot-touching with another man. He briefly becomes a raging, possessive husband, while she is unable to understand his attempts to possess her body. This confrontation with the symbolic promiscuity of Bokononism prefigures the rise of free love later in the decade and its clashes with possessive masculinity. Vonnegut himself had an utterly conventional marriage, but his protagonist Jonah ultimately accepts his wife’s nature.

In Mother Night, Howard W. Campbell writes an elaborate erotic text while the violence of Nazism rages around him. Cat’s Cradle also deals with the complicity of war crimes, with a Nazi doctor named von Koenigswald working in San Lorenzo in a desperate attempt to make up for the lives he took during the war. Jonah takes Campbell’s path here, becoming overtaken by erotic desires amidst a potential apocalypse.

For Vonnegut, these peccadilloes reflect not just the short-sightedness of man but also the ways in which violence and beauty are perpetually intertwined. The apocalypse he’s concerned with is not just the nuclear holocaust, but rather the broader insanity of war, which had escalated to total social control and destruction during the two World Wars. When it’s mentioned that Hoenikker won the Nobel Prize, Vonnegut is sure to have a character interject with a reminder that the prize – the world’s most prestigious for literature as well as science – was founded with dynamite money. Beauty and destruction are always, inescapably, tied together.

Cat’s Cradle is one of Vonnegut’s best-known works, and perhaps the most filmable, but it’s never been translated to screen except as a few scenes. Leonardo DiCaprio, Dan Harmon and Noah Hawley have all been linked to film or television adaptations that never quite materialized. There have been adaptations for the stage, as well as a concept album by composer-cum-neuroscientist Dave Soldier which involved some collaboration with Vonnegut. A modern adaptation would have to deal, in one way or another, with how much the story is rooted in the fears of the 1960s Cold War – although it is also a kind of climate change story.

The book itself, however, is ripe with references to other texts, portraying itself as an adaptation of cultural myths and paranoias. In the post-apocalyptic section of the text, where Jonah ekes out an existence alongside a handful of other survivors, there are references to The Swiss Family Robinson, and through it that originary English novel, Robinson Crusoe. Here, however, there’s no heroism in survival, no desperate struggle to restore the human race, just a dismal running-down of the clock.

Felix Hoenikker dies of albatross poisoning, a moment that is juxtaposed with the image of Papa wearing ice-9 around his neck – a fairly blunt allusion to Coleridge’s famous symbol of doom. Like Sirens of Titan, Cat’s Cradle runs on the concept of fate: everything that happens in the book is pre-ordained from the start, and the characters are but pawns on the winds of fate. This is the underlying belief of Bokonism, with all its karasses and wampeters. The world is like the titular creation of string and fingers – manmade, perhaps, but too complex and tangled for man to ever find its way out of.

In the face of this predestination, Bokonon – and perhaps Vonnegut – urges a retreat to absurdity. Only by accepting the fundamentally arbitrary nature of life can we begin to enjoy it. There’s an almost Buddhist quality here, a release of earthly concerns in favour of contemplation. At the same time, as Todd F. Davis writes, Vonnegut is not a nihilist but a moralist. He’s genuinely interested in discovering a moral way to live amidst absurd, apocalyptic times. Bokononism is, he would undoubtedly admit, a flawed answer to the problem, but perhaps a beautiful one.

The Cold War is long over now, as much as some hawks would like to pretend otherwise. Yet we still live with an apocalyptic sword of Damocles hovering over our neck – perhaps several swords. I don’t know if Cat’s Cradle provides a ready solution to our perilous state of existence, but it at least brought me some comfort and joy.

Join me next month (or so), when I’ll be discussing God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Feel free to discuss your own impressions of Cat’s Cradle, or any island cults you’ve joined lately, in the comments section — I’ve really enjoyed seeing the discussions on the previous posts.