Revisiting Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle

vonnegut.jpgOf all Vonnegut’s work, Cat’s Cradle is the one that means the most to me. This is partially due to when I read it: in university, exploring new ideas, dissatisfied with the old. And too, this work is before Vonnegut began appending the despairing refrain of “So it goes” to most everything he wrote. I came to find that a tiresome deterrent to reading his later work.

Originally published in 1963, I didn’t encounter Cat’s Cradle until the end of that decade. What sticks in my mind over thirty-five years after I first read it is how Vonnegut gives us in his satirical way amusing made-up names for ideas that I recognized when he described them, but had never heard anyone mention before.

In brief, the narrator begins the story wanting to write about the day Hiroshima was bombed. It develops into the narrator’s encounters with the departed fictional inventor of the atom bomb, Felix Hoenikker, a remote genius, and with his three children.

It turns out that in an idle moment, with nothing else ultimately destructive to do, Dr. Hoenikker toys with the structure of water and develops ice-nine, which has a higher melting point of 114 degrees and the ability to crystallize all other water it touches into its own form. When he dies, the good doctor’s chip of this substance is divided by the three children among themselves. The children include a midget, his Amazon sized sister and their older brother Frank who ultimately uses his piece of ice-nine to bribe the dictator of a small island republic into giving him a good job.

cat1.jpgWhen they were young children, Dr. Hoenikker also used to fool around with string and one day he frightened his son, Newt, the midget, by trying to play with him by using the string to form a cat’s cradle. This was also the day Hiroshima was bombed.

Still bothered by this lone demonstration of interest in him by his father, late in the book Newt says, “No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X’s…”


“No damn cat, and no damn cradle.”

The book is still damn funny to read, and it mercilessly spoofs the human tendencies towards war, conflict, cruelty, and stupidity and their supporting structures of rationalization such as religion and science.

Vonnegut’s experience as a POW who survived the horrific firebombing of Dresden by the Allies during WWII informs this book and of course Slaughterhouse Five, his novel published in 1969. This was the worst single event massacre of innocents of all time, greater even than the deaths of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, and it was a case of intentional terrorism. The city’s minimal military assets were not the object of the bombing. This act placed human affairs in a strong light for Vonnegut.

To further illustrate and examine the meaning of human society, Vonnegut gives us Bokononism, a deliberate creation by one of his characters.

The foundation of Bokononism is that religion is formed entirely of lies. However, if you believe and adhere to these lies, you will live a happy life. In fact, Vonnegut prefaces the entire book with the following: “Nothing in this book is true. ‘Live by the foma (harmless untruths) that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.’ — The Books of Bokonon. I: 5

But it is some of the other terminology of Bokononism, that religion of lies, that delight me with their mythic truth. Here’s a partial listing:

karass: Humanity is organized into teams to do God’s will without ever discovering what they are doing. If you find your life tangled up with somebody else’s life for no logical reason, then that person may be part of your karass.

kan-kan: Any object or idea that brings you into contact with others of your karass.

sinookas: Tendrils of action or consequence that entangle you with members of your karass.

busy, busy, busy: In English this time, this is what Bokononists say when they find how complicated and unpredictable life really is, when there’s a lot of mysterious things going on.

vin-dit: A sudden, very personal shove in the direction of Bokononism.

wrang-wrang: A person who is able to reduce a line of reasoning to absurdity.

granfalloon: This is my favorite and tickles me with its astuteness — a false karass, all those ultimately meaningless groupings that people are so fond of, like the Communist Party, the Lion’s Club, the International Order of Odd Fellows, and as Vonnegut says, any nation, anytime, anywhere.

boku-maru: the Bokonon ritual of awareness, symbolized by two people putting the bare soles of their feet together.

duffle: The destiny of thousands upon thousands of people placed in the hands of a stuppa.

stuppa: Fogbound child.

I’m sad to say that in Cat’s Cradle the world comes to a sort of end when ice-nine accidentally falls into the ocean due to the irresponsibility of its caretakers and freezes everything. Vonnegut had a point to make…

An observation about Vonnegut’s writing style: Short declarative sentences, one after another, reminiscent of Hemingway’s ways with occasional bursts of more complicated structure.

At one point, writing elsewhere, Vonnegut outlined his eight rules for writing fiction. Here’s a couple:

“1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted. …

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. ”

You can read the rest of the rules here.


Explore posts in the same categories: Book Review, Culture, Heroes, Science, Science Fiction, Writing

5 Comments on “Revisiting Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle”

  1. sputnki Says:

    How can you argue with that 7th rule! I remember reading Vonnegut and always having a strong feeling of schizophrenia, like the humorous and horrific were combined but very separate.

    Great post Fencer, keep ’em coming!


  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Doug,

    Thanks for dropping by! I realized writing this how much I admired Vonnegut, for his off-the-wall creative surges of writing, for what he was trying to say about the emperor’s new clothes in all their guises: always new, always false. An honest voice.

    Hey, when are you going to update your blog ‘Wide Awake’? Have you given up on it (I hope not). I need to check out your other blog(s); I think you have a dedicated photography blog, right?


  3. sputnki Says:

    Hi Fencer,

    Ya, unfortunately “Blind Eye Turned”, my photo blog, gets even less attention. My epz website is the most updated ( but even that’s been getting shorted lately.

    I keep having ideas for posts, but seem to lack the time to do it! However the desire to bend the public ear grows, I’m sure something will come springing forth from my forehead soon (Aphrodite if I’m lucky, but I’m not picky!).


  4. sputnki Says:

    Heh, just realised I got my myth’s wrong. Must be a Fruedian slip wishing for Aphrodite, even tho it’s Athena you get… ;-) See my past post on Plagiarism and why I’m not worried about it….


  5. fencer Says:

    Hi Doug,

    My classical mythological bells did not ring at all about your faux pas… I kind of like the Aphrodite version.


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