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Art and Culture

Likely Stories: Cat's Cradle

Jim McKeown
Cat's Crable by Kurt Vonnegut

Sixties icon Kurt Vonnegut's novel of dark humor with interesting takes on government, religion and politics.

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Back in the tumultuous 60s, I tried Kurt Vonnegut, because everyone had one or another of his books at the ready for spare moments of reading.  But I didn’t care for him at all.  About this time, I began to develop my love for the works of John Updike, so Vonnegut faded from my reading radar.  Recently, a friend suggested Cat’s Cradle, and I owe her hearty thanks.

Kurt Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis in 1922.  He passed away in 2007.  He is known for his dark humor and imagination.  Graham Greene declared, Vonnegut “was one of the best living American Writers.” 

Cat’s Cradle is a peculiar book in style, structure, and story-line.  About 125 chapters make up the story, and most are only a page or two.  This fragmented reading can cause some confusion, but large chunks of the book can be digested in each sitting.  The narrator, Jonah, wants to write a biography of a scientist, Dr. Felix Hoenikker, who has peculiar habits at best.  Hoenikker wanted to stay working at a small foundry, where his numerous patents were shamefully exploited by his employers.  When he died, his children scattered, and the narrator must track one of them to a near mythical island in the Caribbean, San Lorenzo.  The islanders all adhere to a mysterious, Zen-like religion, Bokononism, which the dictator has outlawed.  The islanders all follow this religion in secret, because the punishment for practicing it is a slow and painful death on “the hook.”  As the tyrant “Papa” Monzano, nears death, the heir apparent is Frank Hoenikker, son of the scientist.  Jonah becomes entangled in the politics and religion of the island.

Vonnegut was, to say the least, as peculiar as some of his novels.  Sampling his style here might leave my listeners as bewildered as I was while immersed in the story.  Vonnegut’s moments of humor are as dark as a reader might expect, and those are to be savored.  Here is a small sample, so good luck.  As “Papa” lies dying, he asks for the last rites from his physician, a shadowy former SS doctor.  Vonnegut writes, “‘I am a very bad scientist.  I will do anything to make a human being feel better, even if it’s unscientific.  No scientist worthy of the name could say such a thing.’  /  And he climbed into the golden boat with ‘Papa.’  He sat in the stern.  Cramped quarters obliged him to have the golden tiller under one arm.  /  He wore sandals without socks and he took these off.  And then he rolled back the covers at the foot of the bed, exposing ‘Papa’s” bare feet.  He put the soles of his feet against ‘Papa’s” feet, assuming the classical position for boko-maru” (219-220).

Cat’s Cradle becomes another novel I have added to the list of works which need to be experienced, rather than merely read.  Readers tend to two extreme views of Vonnegut: either, “I read all his books when I was in college; I love him,” or “Too weird for me!”  I now place myself in the middle of these two extremes.  If you read Vonnegut in the heady days of the 60s – or if you didn’t – he is certainly worth a visit.  5 stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and HAPPY READING!