Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut is a member of a class of novels which could arguably not have surfaced without the Cold War as their context. It is brimming with paranoia, and it manages to frame the greatest of tragedies as the subtlest and most inevitable of truths. I’m not entirely sure what to call work like this: perhaps something like ‘bureaucratic sci-fi.’ But whatever you call it, what it provides is a stinging criticism of a society that knowingly teeters on the brink of destruction, and which does so with a smile. Where there is something to smile about, reasons Vonnegut, there is something to laugh about. Cat’s Cradle, despite having one of the bleakest and most nihilistic plots of any of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, manages to be one of his most hopeful, charming, and humorous works.
Cat’s Cradle holds nothing sacred, and—like much of Vonnegut’s work—its message may be summed up succinctly by a sigh that comes through a grin. It takes to task humans that are indifferent to human suffering; technological advancements that are made without humanistic aims; and spiritual as well as governmental institutions which fail to provide happiness to their participants. It is pithy, clever, and confusing, and it just might be my favorite Kurt Vonnegut novel.
In mid-November, your Tuesday Tome article centered on a literary figure who I see Vonnegut resembling in both style and physical appearance: Mark Twain. Just as Twain tells stories with a satirical bent about exaggerated American characters getting themselves into progressively worse situations, so Kurt Vonnegut does the same. Vonnegut’s biggest departure from the style of Twain is in Vonnegut’s much looser stylistic tether to realism. Vonnegut’s interest in technology as a dangerous and ill-understood pursuit of humankind moves elements of many of his books, such as the four-dimensional aliens in Slaughterhouse-Five and the ice-nine crystals in Cat’s Cradle, squarely into the realm of science fiction.
Cat’s Cradle tells the tale of a man who sets out to document the biographical details of a deceased (fictional) mastermind behind the development of nuclear weapons, but who instead uncovers a bizarre Caribbean political situation and a new tool at least as dangerous as the atomic bomb. Along the way, the protagonist becomes acquainted with adherents, detractors, and even progenitors of a religion called ‘Bokononism,’ a pragmatic belief system which stresses that its followers ought to believe anything that makes them better and happier people, including obvious lies.
Many of the tenets of Bokononism express the religion’s pride in acknowledging that its doctrine is comprised of falsehoods. Bokononism’s arcane terminology (e.g. karass, wampeter, boko-maru, duprass, granfalloon, etc.) mostly revolves around encouraging people to find authentic, deep connections with each other, while its deity is one whose indifference to the pain and suffering of the earth’s inhabitants makes it proper to ridicule and laugh at it. The book’s tacit approval of Bokononism—indeed, one of its doctrinal calypsos serves as the book’s epigraph—makes it clear that Vonnegut feels people will always be deluding themselves, but may presently be deluding themselves for the wrong reasons.
I have previously written in this series, on the subject of Catch-22, in defense of books that make serious statements through comedy. I have also written about the disarming of the reader and instilling of empathy accomplished through self-deprecation in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In general, I think that comedy is immensely underrated as a literary means of communicating with a reader; it is no coincidence, I feel, that some of the most highly acclaimed authors of the 20th century, from James Joyce to Samuel Beckett to Franz Kafka, have as their most notable pieces of art works that inspire frequent laughter for attentive readers.
There is a time for seriousness, and there is a time to laugh in the face of seriousness. In my opinion, a great artist must be capable of recognizing and taking full advantage of both. George Orwell makes a not dissimilar case when he writes about how Leo Tolstoy’s evaluation of Shakespeare reflects much more on the psychology of Tolstoy than on the caliber of Shakespeare’s verse. Vonnegut may be weaker than some such masters when it comes time for seriousness, but there are few satirists who match him when it is time to laugh in the face of seriousness.
Unlike Catch-22, Cat’s Cradle never stops telling jokes to let you mourn its tragedies; instead it makes you laugh straight through to the end, despite every tragedy along the way. And, while I might personally prefer the rhythm of Catch-22 for this reason, I find both styles meritorious. In general, the merit of Vonnegut’s approach is that it underscores Cat’s Cradle‘s unwavering insistence that the perspective that is most beneficial to an authentic and empathetic person is the best perspective. In particular, this makes for a sharp criticism of any clinical ends-over-means arms race or research-based military industry that emphasizes scientific progress while ignoring the hellish suffering that very progress is intended to create. And a book that makes its case by placing such a high premium on joy and mutual understanding is hard to disagree with, even when—perhaps especially when—it is the reader and the reader’s society that are so often the butt of the joke.
Laughing at the Worst: