Cat’s Cradle (1953) – Kurt Vonnegut


Four stars

Read Nov 24 2014 – Dec 15 2014

Told with deadpan humour & bitter irony, Kurt Vonnegut’s cult tale of global destruction preys on our deepest fears of witnessing Armageddon &, worse still, surviving it …

Dr Felix Hoenikker, one of the founding ‘fathers’ of the atomic bomb, has left a deadly legacy to the world. For he’s the inventor of ‘ice-nine’, a lethal chemical capable of freezing the entire planet. The search for its whereabouts leads to Hoenikker’s three ecentric children, to a crazed dictator in the Caribbean, to madness. Felix Hoenikker’s Death Wish comes true when his last, fatal gift to humankind brings about the end, that for all of us, is nigh…

So I’ve been putting off writing this for about a week and a half. I always approach these with a bit of reluctance, because sometimes it’s just so hard to express exactly how you feel about a book through words. Each book affects me in such different ways but there’s only so many ways of expressing that you can “love” a book or find it “really good”. Even more so with Cat’s Cradle, or any great literature, as it leaves me feeling a little… lost. I know i’m meant to be enlightened in some way, but I feel like most of it has just gone over my head. Having said that, here is my somewhat scattered interpretation of Cat’s Cradle. There’s so much in this book, and I’m by no means a literature student, so I don’t want to toss around terms like “anti-war” and what not, so this won’t be a super clean essay.

So first up is the writing style. Short, snappy pictures. Little fragments of the entire story, not a storyline of events per se but images, feelings. I had a skim through the book and saw all these little passages that had just slipped out of my mind, such as the chapter about Sherman Krebbs staying at the protagonist’s apartment and the subsequent carnage.

And going from first up to lastly, aside from Bokononism (expanded on below) the idea that really resonated with me was how the destruction of the world was just an unfortunate, careless mistake – almost like the fortunate, lucky fact that we are alive.

Bokononism, the religion practiced on the island of San Lorenzo in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, is invented by Bokonon and Edward McCabe. After their failed attempts to turn the island into an utopia, they invented Bokononism as a way to bring comfort to the poor inhabitants and  to distract them from their daily lives. The basis of Bokononism is foma, or “harmless untruths”.

Bokonon asks McCabe to outlaw his religion as a ploy to make it more meaningful, with Bokonon “hiding” in the jungle and McCabe acting as a dictator. However, having to play these roles took their toll, slowly driving them insane.

‘The truth was that life was as short and brutish and mean as ever.

‘But people didn’t have to pay as much attention to the awful truth. As the living legend of the cruel tyrant in the city and the gentle holy man in the jungle grew, so, too, did the happiness of the people grow. They were all employed full time as actors in a play they understood, that any human being anywhere could understand and applaud.’

‘So life became a work of art,’ I marvelled.

The Books of Bokonon are written by Bokonon in no particular order, just a thought stream of his views on the various aspects of life. A verse opens Cat’s Cradle:

Nothing in this book is true.

‘Live by the foma* that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.’

The Books of Bokonon. I : 5

*harmless untruths

Other phrases coined by Bokonon, with definitions taken from Cat’s Cradle are:

  • karass – teams that humanity is organized into, teams that do God’s will without ever discovering what they are doing
  • kan-kan – the instrument that brings people into their particular karass
  • sinookas – the tendrils of one’s life
  • wampeter– the pivot of a karass; at any given time a karass actually has two wampeters  – one in waxing in importance, one waning
  • vin-dit a sudden, very personal shove in the direction of Bokononism
  • wrang-wrang– a person who steers people away from a line of speculation by reducing that line to an absurdity
  • duprass– a karass composed of only two persons
  • granfalloon– a false karass; a seeming team that was meaningless in terms of the ways God gets things done
  • boku-maru – the mingling of awareness [through] pressing the soles of two feet together
  • zah-mah-ki-bo– fate – inevitable destiny
  • duffle– the destiny of thousands upon thousands of persons when placed in the hands of a stuppa
  • stuppa – a fogbound child
  • saroon – to acquiesce to the seeming demands of vin-dit
  • sin-wat – a man who wants all of somebody’s love
  • pool-pah– shit storm; wrath of God

All in all, I love the idea of religion, and life, being a play in which everyone is just playing their part. I’m sure there’s a lot more to Bokononism, but this is the point that resounds with me.

“Well, maybe you can find some neat way to die, too,” said Newt.
It was a Bokononist thing to say.


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