The reputation of Cat’s Cradle among the literary cognoscenti is summed up succinctly in Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s obituary in the New York Times: “Though it initially sold only about 500 copies, it is widely read today in high school English classes.” This was also my perception of the novel — something I had moved on from the same way I progressed beyond acne. Kurt Vonnegut, I thought, is serious fiction for people who do not take fiction seriously. A recent volume published by the Library of America, Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963-1973, would seem to confirm his rightful status alongside other inductees into the Library of America’s unofficial canon: Henry James, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth. So why the bias?
My older sister introduced me to Vonnegut when I was 14 and had no interest in books. She gave me a copy of Cat’s Cradle, which I read in more or less one sitting, setting it down, reluctantly, only for bathroom breaks and a longer, more unfortunate respite, Thanksgiving dinner at my aunt’s house. From there, Vonnegut became the first author whose work I desired to read in full. Despite some of the turgid later works—Hocus Pocus and Deadeye Dick, in particular—I succeeded. At the end of this binge, an interesting thing happened: The impulse was purged. I never read a page of Vonnegut again.
Because of the novel’s reputation as, essentially, gateway literature, I assumed I had progressed beyond his writing in favor of Delillo, Pynchon, even the likeminded Philip K. Dick, who has had the benefit of always existing on the fringe of popular taste, always in need of a great defender. (Surely, the argument for Do Androids Dream of Sleep? as the Greatest Novel Ever is rarer than similar claims about Slaughterhouse Five.) Putting aside those assumptions, I decided, for the first time since I was 14, to revisit the author that got me reading in the first place.
I immediately saw a book filled with subtle meaning that had escaped me before, even in that blunt opening line, “Call me Jonah.” If Melville’s Ishmael (probably the most famous character in literature to use the imperative as a way of introducing himself), like the Ishmael of Genesis, was saved from drowning, Vonnegut’s narrator is telling us he is quite doomed from the outset: The Book of Jonah, of course, takes place inside the belly of a whale. The narrator’s real name is not Jonah (it’s John), but from the first sentence Vonnegut has us thinking about water. He repeats the image throughout the novel so that by the time of the arrival of ice-nine, the real villain of the book, a substance that freezes any liquid at room temperature, we’ve been anticipating its appearance and expecting the worst.
How the book covers so much ground in so little time is a testament to Vonnegut’s singular style, as icy as his novel’s inanimate antagonist. Jonah starts out wanting to write a book on the late Felix Hoennikker, the father of the atomic bomb, and goes to a dreary town in New York State to interview his former co-workers. He returns to New York City to find his subletter has destroyed his apartment, prompting him to take a magazine assignment about the island of San Lorenzo. On the plane, he happens to meet Hoennikker’s children. Now on a secluded tropical island, the novel shifts tone to become sunny and bright, only for the island to become ground zero for the end of the world and the setting shift once more to a landscape that is altogether different from everything prior. This progression is steady and believable in the author’s hands.
I remember, the first time out, being impressed at Vonnegut’s invention of the cynical religion of Bokononism, which urges its followers, “Don’t be a fool! Close this book at once! It is nothing but [lies]!” That charming pessimism aside, Bokononism today reads more like the central tenants of Bhagavad-Gita brandished with funny names: a karass is a kind of samsara, a granfalloon is the antithesis of sanskaras and boko-maru is meditation for foot fetishists. (Bokononism’s cynicism, too, feels less original than I once thought. I think of the Buddhist story of a student telling his meditation teacher that he feels horrible, to which the teacher responds, “It will pass.” The next week the student returns and proclaims his satisfaction. “It will pass,” the teacher responds.) At 14, Bokononism seemed dense and multi-layered; it gave the novel a cerebral feel that now falls just short of vaguely imaginative.
What works is Vonnegut’s directness, which is why he is able to appeal to 14-year-olds in a way that, say, Henry James cannot. His sentences are lean and muscular, packed with the weight of the ominous ending awaiting readers, the one we expect from the outset. These sentences can pack a lifetime’s worth of exposition within a few words — “he designed the hospital, married a native woman named Celia, fathered a perfect daughter, and died” — or cast a shadow over what would otherwise be a throwaway, humorous scene. Take the charming exchange of Jonah and the Mintons, an inseparable married couple, flying to San Lorenzo (the husband is the American ambassador). After Mr. Minton cheerfully tells Jonah people are “about the same, wherever you go,” Vonnegut, as if reminding his readers the novel will end in tragedy, writes, “When it came time for the Mintons to die, they did it within the same second.”
James Wood, writing in the New Republic, once called Vonnegut “unclassifiable” in the same breath that he grouped him alongside fellow “avant-gardists” turned “mainstreamists”: Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, and William Gass. He has a point. Cat’s Cradle is at once science fiction and realist first-person narrative, political thriller and cranky litany against consumer culture, most of all a scathing comedy that is sadder than most Greek tragedies. In those contradictions lie its strength and the reason why, perhaps, the only canon it has been included in is 10th grade English class. Cat’s Cradle is out of place in postmodernism because, rather than just suggesting the end of the world — take the beautiful dance around the issue that Don Delillo performed in White Noise — Vonnegut makes the apocalypse tangible. It does not quite fit in the typical American literature since WWII survey — in which Bellow and Roth’s first-person novels of decline and impotence are the dominant literary forms — in part, because of its campy humor (the frozen dead dog, the fact that the closest the novel comes to approaching sex is the rubbing together of bare feet). Cat’s Cradle holds up not just as the book that makes people start reading, but also as serious fiction. It may continue to languish in high school hell, if only for the difficulty of placing it.