Reviewed by Ted Gioia

In the early 1930s, H.G. Wells visited General
Electric's research laboratories in Schenectady, a
facility dubbed the
House of Magic by GE’s public
relations department.  
Here the famous author
was hosted by Nobel
Prize-winning chemist
Irving Langmuir, who
suggested an idea for a
story to Wells.

Langmuir described an
alternative form of water
that remained frozen at
ordinary room temper-
ature.  Wells apparently
took little interest in the
concept, which must
have seemed blasé in
comparison to his dramatic plots about alien
invasion and time travel, but in 1947 another science
fiction writer would arrive at the GE facility and
take notice.  The young Kurt Vonnegut, who had
been hired to write press releases and promote the
company's research triumphs to the media, heard
the story about Langmuir and his pseudo-water—
and both would eventually find their way into his
1963 novel
Cat's Cradle.  

"I thought to myself: 'Finders, keepers,'" Vonnegut
later recalled—"'the idea is mine.'"

Cat's Cradle captures a madcap, improvisatory
sensibility that seems at odds with the manuscript's
troubled history.  A decade or more in the making,
Cat's Cradle had been optioned by Scribner's as a
follow-up to Vonnegut's debut novel
Player Piano,
published in 1952.  Vonnegut delivered six chapters
of the book to his editor, but months and then years
elapsed without any further discernible progress.  
When Scribner eventually lost patience, Vonnegut
turned his attention to another sci-fi project,
The
Sirens of Titan, and for a while it seemed as if Cat's
Cradle
was a victim of permanent writer’s block.   

A major component of the book dates back to a
short story entitled "Ice-9" that had been rejected
by
Collier's at an early stage in the author's career.  
Ice-9 was Vonnegut's  version of Langmuir’s
alternative water.   Vonnegut could well have
entitled his story
Fahrenheit 114—which was the
melting point of Ice-9.  This might seem a harmless
novelty, except that Ice-9 has the unfortunate side
effect of spreading its unusual structure and
properties to any other water in which it is mixed
—thus a tiny chip of Ice-9 could freeze all the
oceans and lead to massive death and destruction.  
Vonnegut's novel was published around the same
time that Stanley Kubrick was working on his film
Dr. Strangelove, and like the doomsday device in
movie, Ice-9 serves both as a key driver for a Cold
War-inspired plot and a commentary on the arms
race of the era.  

The narrator Jonah is writing an account of the day
the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and
his research leads him to interview the children of
the late Dr. Felix Hoenikker—based on Lagmuir—
who is presented here as the "father of the bomb."  
Jonah hears about Ice-9 from one of the late
scientist's colleagues, and soon discovers that each
of the surviving Hoenikker children possesses a chip
of the dangerous substance.   

The rambling plot, present over the course of 127
chapters—most of them only a few paragraphs in
duration—follows Jonah through a series of
extravagant, loosely-connected incidents, which
eventually turn him from a amiable author into the
hard-line President of a fiercely pro-US island
republic.  There he finds adventure, romance,
intrigue, even religion…as well the Hoenikker
children with their deadly chips of Ice-9.

As in
The Sirens of Titan, Vonnegut invents a new
creed and scripture as part of the story.  
Bokononism plays only a modest role in the main
plot, but is responsible for much of the humor and
caustic social commentary of
Cat's Cradle.  The faith
can is summed up in a short quote from the
Books
of Bokonon
that also serves as the opening epigraph
to Vonnegut's novel:  "Nothing in this book is true.  
Live by the
foma that make you brave and kind and
healthy and happy."  A footnote explains that
foma
are "harmless untruths."  

Boknonism is the dominant belief system on the
island of San Lorenzo, but the religion is banned
and adherents are threatened with the death
penalty—even Bokonon himself, who lives an
undercover existence somewhere in the island’s
interior, and makes only the briefest cameo
appearance during the course of the novel.  But his
songs and pithy quotes appear constantly, and are
for me (and I'm sure many other readers) the best
part of Vonnegut's book.

Long before Bobby McFerrin hit the charts with
"Don’t Worry, Be Happy," Bokonon was sharing a
similar sentiment in his calypso songs.  Here, for
example, he sings about the origins of his religion:


I wanted all things
To seem to make some sense,
So we all could be happy, yes,
Instead of tense.
And I made up lies
So that they all fit nice,
And I made this sad world
A par-a-dise.

Vonnegut adorns his island faith with a colorful
lexicon—
karass, vin-dit, wampeter, granfalloon,
zah-ma-ki-bo and other invented terms add to the
playful quality of
Cat's Cradle—a lighthearted tone
that somehow coexists with a plot that revolves
around weapons, the collapse of civilization and
ecological disaster.  

This may be Vonnegut's most salient virtue: his
ability to take the darkest aspects of modern
society—atrocities, hypocrisies, blind ideologies,
technology run rampant—and drag them into the
light.  There they can disarmed, or at least seen more
clearly, their false fronts pushed aside, their
inconsistencies available for scrutiny and rebuttal.  
And laughter…which is Vonnegut's most
characteristic response to the dark side.    

I suspect that this aspect of
Cat's Cradle may have
been responsible for an unexpected response to the
novel.  Shortly before he took the job at General
Electric, where he got the initial idea for Ice-9,
Vonnegut had been forced to leave the University of
Chicago without receiving his degree—although he
lied about the credential in order to secure the GE
position.  "Twenty years later, I got a letter from a
new dean at Chicago, who had been looking
through my dossier," Vonnegut explained to
The
Paris Review
.  "Under the rules of the university, he
said, a published work of high quality could be
substituted for a dissertation, so I was entitled to an
M.A. He had shown
Cat's Cradle to the anthropology
department, and they had said it was halfway decent
anthropology, so they were mailing me my degree.
I'm class of 1972 or so."



Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture.  His
next book, a history of love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford
University Press.


Publication Date: April 5, 2012.  All rights reserved.
Cat's Cradle

by Kurt Vonnegut
conceptual fiction
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