Facebook
Skip to main content
PBS logo
 
 
Want fewer ads?

Book Review of Cat's Cradle

Cat's Cradle
terez93 avatar reviewed on + 170 more book reviews


An apocalyptic yarn featuring some of the most profound one-liners that have ever been composed. Plenty more to say about this one, but I gotta make a quick library run before they close... back in a bit.

UPDATE: As much as I love me a good Kurt Vonnegut novel, this wasn't my favorite, although it is for many other reviewers. A novel of unrequited genius, it's still one of his more odd works, and that's really saying something. The message is likewise profound, more than in many of his other works, but it's a bit difficult to dig out, what with the text peppered with odd neologisms attributed to an obscure religion the main protagonist converts to after the end of the world.

The premise is the story of a writer who is researching the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and thus writes to Newt Hoenikker, the son of a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and father of the atomic bomb, to get his input on what his father was like and what he remembered on the day the bomb fell and the world changed forever. It's clear that father Felix never really cared for people. The writer travels to Ilium, the town where Felix lived, to tour his lab. It's there he learned of the existence of Ice-9: talk about anthropogenic climate change! This super substance was created to solve the problem of mud on the battlefield; a single drop would solidify the mud (that is, the water), but since such a small amount of it was needed, the writer soon realizes that enough of the mysterious substance existed to freeze all the water on earth. Although its existence is uncertain, Felix divided his supply among his three children shortly before his death. The three ne'er-do-wells dispatched it forthwith, for their own gratification: one son sold it to procure a generalship for himself on the island of San Lorenzo. The daughter traded her supply to secure a marriage to a scientist employed in weapons research, and the third share was stolen from the last son by a spy for the Soviet government.

Hilarity ensues.

Here's where it gets weird. All of San Lorenzo's inhabitants are apparently neophyte adherents of a bizarre new religion, Bokononism, which is essentially the religion of apathy: initially intended to turn it into a utopia, the island and its inhabitants have become so fatalistic that everything ceases to matter at all. It's clear that no amount of economic reform could induce the residents to take up anything; the religion was subsequently outlawed, and its practice was punishable by death, but this, ironically, provided the only real meaning to the lives of the miserable citizens. I won't go through the plot play-by-play, but, in the end, an accident involving a landslide releases the ice-9 into the sea, freezing all the world's water in seconds, a much worse catastrophe that that which befell Hiroshima. Death not by fire, but by ice. Turnabout is fair play, it seems. But, perhaps all is not lost: the ants who learned to thaw water suggest that it's a reversible Armageddon.

This was certainly one of KV's most creative novels, where he seemingly toyed with the idea of the apocalypse, in true Vonnegut fashion, as the inhabitants of San Lorenzo, in a rather haphazard and apathetic manner, which is perhaps the only way to write a book about the end of existence. Notwithstanding the absurdity, to the point of genius, I just couldn't get into the characters of this novel nearly as much as in the others. Notwithstanding, it's full of great one-liners and the cynical farce we've all come to know and love, so it's more than worth the effort spent reading it. My favorite: "I could carve a better man out of a banana!"
----------NOTABLE PASSAGES-------------

Do you know the story about Father on the day they first tested a bomb out at Alamogordo? After the thing went off, after it was a sure thing that America could wipe out a city with just one bomb, a scientist turned to Father and said, "Science has now known sin." And do you know what Father said? He said, "What is sin?"

There is love in this world enough for everybody, if people will just look.

If I actually supervised Felix... then I'm ready now to take charge of volcanoes, the tides, and the migrations of birds and lemmings. The man was a force of nature no moral could possibly control.

Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.

The people down there are poor enough and scared enough and ignorant enough to have some common sense.

Those words leapt from the page into my mind, and they were welcome there.

How about miracle drugs? Father enjoys pulling of a miracle now and then.
I'm not a drug salesman. I'm a writer.
What makes you think a writer isn't a drug salesman?
I'll accept that. Guilty as charged.

How does he know what's important? I could carve a better man out of a banana.

People have to talk about something just to keep their voice boxes in working order, so they'll have good voice boxes in case there's ever anything really meaningful to say.

You want to respond?
I'm not that close to death just now, if you don't mind.

When it became evident that no governmental or economic reform was going to make the people much less miserable, the religion became the one real instrument of hope. Truth was the enemy of the people, because the truth was so terrible, so B. made it his business to provide the people with better and better lies.

So I said my goodbye to government.
And I gave my reason:
That a really good religion
Is a form of treason.

My God-life! Who can understand even one little minute of it?
Don't try... just pretend you understand.

Unrelieved villainy just wore him out...

Pay no attention when I laugh... I'm a notorious pervert in that respect.

It posed the question posed by all such stone piles: how had puny men moved stones so big? And, like all such stone piles, it answered the question itself. Dumb terror had moved those stones so big.

When a man becomes a writer, I think he takes on a sacred obligation to produce beauty and enlightenment and comfort at top speed.

and... finally:
"No damn cat, and no damn cradle."


Want fewer ads?