Any list of American literary masters would be incomplete without Kurt Vonnegut. Known for prose that was simultaneously absurd and deadly serious, Vonnegut was deeply affected by his experiences as a soldier in World War II. More specifically, he was psychologically scarred by his survival of the bombing of Dresden, one of the most horrific events in a war full of horrific events. He would write about this experience in some of his non-fiction essays and in his seminal work Slaughterhouse-Five. But before Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut truly found his voice in his fourth novel Cat’s Cradle; which is the subject of this edition of On the Shelf.
The novel begins by following a man named John (but who prefers Jonah) who is attempting to write a book about what important Americans were doing the day Hiroshima was bombed. During his research, he becomes entangled with the family of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the (fictional) fathers of the atomic bomb. As the story progresses, two disparate plot elements begin to come together: Ice-nine, a doomsday weapon created by Dr. Hoenikker that turns any water molecule it comes into contact with into ice; and the island nation of San Lorenzo, where the natives are followers of an outlawed religion called Bokononism.
There are a few layers of satire to work through here. The fictional doomsday device ice-nine and the attempts by various individuals and nations to gain access to it is meant as a stand-in for the Cold War arms race while Dr. Hoenikker is a stand-in for the idea of blind scientific research without thought for the consequences of what that research might produce. San Lorenzo represents all those third world countries caught up in conflicts not of their own making and Bokononism is an indictment of any and all forms of religion. Even the name of the book is an ironic one. Cat’s Cradle is a children’s game where you form a few shapes of string with your hands and insist that there are hidden shapes, a cat in a cradle. This is an indictment of how we lie to ourselves and others in an effort to apply meaning to the shapeless chaos of the world.
If all that sounds a bit dense, don’t be concerned Vonnegut gets his point across in such a light, subtle, and humorous way that as you are reading it barely crosses your mind that such complex ideas are in play. You are too busy laughing to notice that Vonnegut is slaying the sacred cows of your subconscious. In fact, not only is this a novel worthy of a place on your bookshelf, it is a novel worthy of multiple readings, as you are sure to discover some new insight or hidden irony with each new undertaking. Personally, I always keep a copy of Cat’s Cradle….. On the Shelf.