Hiroshima and Madness in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle”

  • I was not a science fiction geek in the late 1960s.  None of us long-haired wire-rim-bespectacled compulsive readers were. Then a friend’s older brother introduced us not only to Procul Harum but to Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.  After a recent rereading of Cat’s Cradle, I had to wonder: is it science fiction at all? And was this friend’s brother, whom I barely remember, a member of our karass?   But you only know what a karass is if you’ve read Cat’s Cradle.

In Vonnegut’s comical post-modern novel,  the narrator, John, aka Jonah, is worried, with good reason, about the end of the world. He is comforted by the (fictitious) religion of  Bokanism, which teaches that human beings are divided into teams (the karass) to do God’s will. 

“If you find your life tangled up with somebody else’s life for no very logical reason,” writes Bokonon, “that person may be a member of your karass.”

The karass is a mysterious force.  When John was a younger man–“two wives ago, 250,000 cigarettes ago, 3,000 quarts of booze ago”–he planned to write a book called The End of the World.   He wanted to know what prominent Americans were doing on the day the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The three adult children of the late Nobel Prize-winning Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the inventors of the atom bomb, remember little about that day but paint a frightening portrait of their father as a scientific sociopath.  Hoenikker had no conscience nor concern about how science was used:  the day he died he created another lethal substance called Ice-nine (which killed him).  It freezes liquids and everyone who touches it.  Bizarrely, his children divided the chips of Ice-nine in mason jars and thermoses after they found him frozen dead in his wicker chair.  

Vonnegut effortlessly manipulates the many threads (or should I say strings?)  of this philosophical dystopian comedy. The chapters are short, the writing witty, the sentences have a snappy rhythm, and the narrative is broken up with letters, poems, and Bokononist quotes.   On the first page, John says he has converted to Bokanism but is resigned to not knowing all the members of his karass.

Be that as it may, I intend in this book to include as many members of my karass as possible, and I mean to examine all strong hints as to what on Earth we, collectively, have been up to….

About my karass, then.

It surely includes the three children of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the so-called “Fathers” of the first atom bomb.  Dr. Hoenikker himself was no doubt a member of my karass, though he was dead before my sinookas, the tendrils of my life, began to tangle with those of his children.

The End of the World turns into a different book after a magazine editor sends John to  a little-known island in the Caribbean, St. Fernando, where Bokanism is practiced.  And, coincidentally, all three of the Hoenikker children are there: Frank, a hobby shop employee on the run from the mob, is now a general and the future president of St. Fernando; Newt, a midget who dropped out of Cornell to have an affair with a Russian spy midget, paints very dark paintings; and Cordelia, an exceptionally tall women who married  a former colleague of her father’s, is thrilled to get out of Indiana.  Unfortunately, they have  ice-9 with them.  

If you wonder if human beings are stupid enough to end the world with atom bombs or other lethal substances, you might as well stop worrying and start living.   Vonnegut believes they will.  

But, fortunately, he has a wry sense of humor.  The survivors, including John, are all Hoosiers (natives of Indiana, as was Vonnegut).    

4 thoughts on “Hiroshima and Madness in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle”

  1. I read all the major Vonneguts in the early 70s when I was in high school and remember them fondly. My husband and I still think of the many far-flung members of our karass and wonder how they are doing, meanwhile knowing that one day we will hear from them, as they are all still karass members. I drifted away from Vonnegut after Breakfast of Champions, when I went to college and discovered many other writers to obsess on. Still I think I want to go back to him, to Player Piano which I remember was at the time lesser than the later ones, now maybe not so much, and Mother Night and… no wait, might be time to just get the Library of America anthologies and get it over with! I loved Procol Harum too, especially “Grand Hotel”. So many good bands then it seems…

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    1. There was a long gap in my Vonnegut reading, too. Like Ray Bradbury’s books, I thought I’d outgrown them, until I read Timequake. (I have also reread Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles: it’s so good!) So it’s nice to rediscover Vonnegut. Cat’s Cradle is brilliant!

      On Tue, Aug 20, 2019 at 7:39 AM Thornfield Hall: A Book Blog wrote:

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