Sunday, 2 November 2014

Cat's Cradle

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Cat's Cradle (1963)
I have no idea why, but much as I loved the absolute shit out of Slaughterhouse Five without a morsel of reservation, for all its credentials as one of the finest novels ever written, it failed to inspire me with a desire to hunt down further works by its author. I have no idea why this should be, and it almost certainly says more about me than it does about Vonnegut's writing; although I suppose I may have harboured some subconscious fear of Slaughterhouse Five being the anomalous peach of a career otherwise reading like the Planet Sapphica novels of J. Lee Mace, about which, the less said the better.

So Cat's Cradle pretty much leapt into my hands from the shelf upon which it had been placed in a branch of Half Price Books, and not least because it was this specific title which had been recommended to me by a friend whilst he introduced me to the idea of Kurt Vonnegut having written more than just the one book.

Here we have a writer on the trail of a scientist who may quite easily have provided some percentage of inspiration for Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove of 1964, specifically a trail drawn in the paths taken by those around him. Somehow this brings us to the creation of ice-nine, a substance which could pretty much destroy all life on earth if used carelessly, and also to a bizarre cast of cartoon characters, and to Bokononism, a fully realised religious system seemingly based on wisecracks; and it all happens on a small Caribbean island, a shoddy banana republic serving as metaphor for western society.

Cat's Cradle is clearly a precursor to Slaughterhouse Five in many respects, already focussing on the terrible consequences of industrialised warfare by means of a narrative which leaps back and forth within its own chronology. Here the leaps are made not through time travel but simple interjection and anecdote following authorial digressions around the narrative oxbows of each new character as they arrive; which is why it's called Cat's Cradle, I would guess; because that's how it reads, and so much of its story is hung upon the flimsiest threads of association. Unusually, this isn't anything like so bewildering as one might imagine, possibly thanks to the humour - gently wry rather than belly laughs - which keeps it all rolling along very nicely, yielding a tale which seems closer in tone to Gulliver's Travels than almost anything I've read since Gulliver's Travels - albeit without the misanthropic subtext of the later chapters. This is Swiftian satire in the truest sense, quantified as such not simply because of what it does, but because it does it so well.

It seems the reputation is deserved, so I shall be seeking out further Vonnegut in future.


  1. Vonnegut's one of my favourite authors but Slaughterhouse 5 is - well not exactly overrated since it's the definitive account of the horrific firebombing of Dresden - but it's so disjointed that you can tell he's making it up as he goes along and Cat's Cradle is much better structured. Fun Fact : Matt Groening recommended it's the book he thinks all teenagers should read!
    For your next Vonnegut, I'd recommend The Sirens of Titan if you want something science fictiony; its bleak humour was obviously a huge influence on Douglas Adams,(“it’s a thankless job, telling people it’s a hard, hard Universe they’re in.”) but I think his best novel, (and maybe my very favourite novel) is Mother Night which is barely science fiction but has a lot of food for thought. And if you've got too many other books to read then unusually the film adaptation is as good as the book... His collections of essays are also well worth a read

    1. Recommendations noted, although I think I'm probably just going to pick it up if it has Vonnegut's name on it from now on regardless (I tend to get most of my books from Half Price which is mostly second hand and so there's no real pattern to what turns up). Have you read Player Piano? I recall reading about that one and thinking "that will be the next one I read if I can find it."