Book Review: Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut. His name can prompt thoughts of wild science fiction, his trademark dark satirical humor, or maybe even that catchy song by the Born Ruffians with the same name.

Whatever it is you associate with Vonnegut, sit yourself down and read one of his works at some point in your life. You'll be confused, then intrigued, and at last inexplicably reverent of the thoughts he managed to sneak into your brain while you thought you were reading plain, old fiction.

Cat's Cradle

Published in 1963, the novel centers around the narrator, John, who is trying to write a book on what various Americans did on the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. This prompts him to write to the children of the late Dr. Felix Hoenikker, the father of the atomic bomb, for more information on the mysterious man behind this revolutionary weapon.

John, who calls himself Jonah, writes to the youngest of the Hoenikker children, Newt, when he finds that they are both Cornell alumni (although Newt dropped out) and Delta Upsilon fraternity brothers. He asks him to recall what he was doing on the day the bomb dropped, although Newt was only a baby at the time. Newt responds with a surprising recollection: Dr. Hoenikker had been playing with a piece of string, making a shape called the "cat's cradle", which dumbfounds and upsets little Newt, who sees neither a cat nor a cradle in the x's and loops that the string makes.

From interviews with the rest of the Hoenikker children, Angela and Frank, and the doctor's supervisor at his laboratory, John learns of a terrifying substance Hoenikker created called ice-nine. An alternative structure of water solid at room temperature, a single crystal of ice-nine has the ability to turn liquid water, and all water it is in contact with, into more ice-nine, freezing it instantly. The remnants of this powerful substance is secretly in possession of his three children, who took possession of it after the doctor's strange death. His children discovered the body.

John and the Hoenikkers find themselves on a plane to the fictional island of San Lorenzo, a desperately poor country under the rule of dictator "Papa" Monzano. It is on the plane that John learns about Bokononism, a religion practiced by all San Lorenzians, including the dictator, despite its ban under threat of death. He later discovers that one of the founders of San Lorenzo was in fact Bokonon, the creator of Bokononism, and that he suggested the institution of the ban himself. He has since disappeared into the jungle and continues to write the contradictory Books of Bokonon from there, the first of which begins with a warning to close the book at once, followed by Verse 1 which leads as follows: "All of the true things that I am about to tell you are shameless lies"(5).

Cat's Cradle is a critique of mankind and the lies that we build our lives upon, particularly those told by politics, religion, science, and even those we tell ourselves. Vonnegut's dark humor leaves us with the feeling that sometimes all you can do is laugh at what a messed up species we are.

When later reflecting with John on his last childhood memory of his father, Newt proclaims:

"No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat's cradle is nothing but a bunch of X's between somebody's hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X's  ... No damn cat, no damn cradle" - Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle