Friday, February 16, 2018

Cat's Cradle - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1963)

The second entry in The Vonnegut Project (following Slaughterhouse-Five) is Cat's Cradle. It is being presented in its relatively unedited format (though I have agonized over the e's from judgements/judgemental), including our nominations for the third entry, which will be Breakfast of Champions.

EMILY: Reading CC was certainly different than reading SF. CC was published six years before SF, and, while there are certain similarities between the two texts (primarily in terms of how the protagonist witnesses catastrophic events without being particularly moved or changed by them), CC feels like an earlier work, without Vonnegut’s essential focus on humanism and humor. I remember loving CC when I read it nearly twenty years ago, but this time it felt difficult, unsettling. The rampant sexism and moderate racism felt more pronounced during our current moment of awareness, and although I appreciate the way Vonnegut consistently dealt with larger questions -- the firebombing of Dresden; the global danger posed by particularly destructive weapons -- after rereading SF, CC feels like a less mature work. I wonder if it would have been published today. I don’t mean to come down so hard on CC. There are moments that I love. Bokonon is, of course, fantastic. And there’s that certain moodiness Vonnegut always has, the ability to pass broad judgements on humanity’s absurdity that made me feel good when I was 15 and still make me feel good today. I don’t think we spend enough time discussing how foolish and judgemental and awful people (especially people from the United States) often are, and when Vonnegut writes sweeping statements like, “The highest possible form of treason is to say that Americans aren’t loved wherever they go, whatever they do,” and, “Americans are forever searching for love in forms it never takes, in places it can never be. It must have something to do with the vanished frontier,” it still paints me with a smug, knowing smile (Chapters 45 and 44, respectively).

But some of his other statements, particularly about women or individuals who aren’t white or who are physically different, are problematic, to use the current term. All the “girls” who work for Dr. Asa Breed, vice president in charge of the research laboratory of the General Forge and Foundry Company, are painted horribly (“I’m dumber than an eight-year-old,” mourned Miss Pefko, a secretary, when she doesn’t understand a concept, and Dr. Breed patronizingly declares that the girls in the typing pool “serve science… even though they may not understand a word of it. God bless them, every one!” chapters 15 and 17). There’s also descriptions of “a small and ancient Negro” (chapter 28) and “beautiful Mona,” a blonde “Negress,” and, of course, poor Newton Hoenikker, a midget who has to constantly be reminded of his small stature.

Overall, this book is a warning against the dangerous power of ice-nine, which turns any liquid instantaneously into ice that won’t melt until temperatures reach 140-some degrees. Immediately deadly and vastly destructive, CC’s unnamed protagonist witnesses the end of the world when a small sliver of ice-nine contacts water (via the corpse of someone it already killed) off the small island (essentially a banana republic, though with neither the resources nor the political capital to make it worth controlling) where he’s recently taken control (the commentary on thinly-veiled Caribbean island life warrants addressing at another time). Ice-nine is a clear stand-in for nuclear weapons, and CC is clearly an anti-nuclear book. It’s useful to note that the Cuban missile crisis happened in October 1962, roughly a year before CC was published, and KV seems to use CC to respond to these ongoing global threats. Ice-nine is destructive, awful, and created by the father of the atom bomb, but its threat is surprisingly less than nuclear energy, since the protagonist and a few select others somehow survive the freezing of the earth’s waters -- though, perhaps, the effects will last longer. (Maybe global warming finally has an upside?) It’s also a book clearly written by a scientist, in which Vonnegut draws upon his years of study to influence the construction of his narrative. (The description of how water molecules stack upon each other like cannonballs in front of a courthouse is particularly charming, in my opinion.)

Despite this valiant purpose, however, CC still seems to fall flat. Vonnegut’s protagonists rarely grow as people; they are acted upon, but rarely act in turn. They’re witnesses, vehicles through which Vonnegut can express his feelings about nuclear war, or World War II, or human stupidity in general. But they’re rarely fully-fledged novelistic characters, in the sense that we witness them grow and change and evolve. They simply witness, Vonnegut inserts his trademark witty commentary, and that’s that. While that’s not a terrible model for a book (let’s face it, I ate this shit up when I was a teen), it doesn’t work as well for me anymore. It was enough for me then because I felt like I needed to hear that wry commentary about people being dumb and Americans being crazy. But now that I’m navigating my thirties, I want to see the interior of people too, rather than just comments from an observant outsider.

Overall, I was less impressed with CC on the second reading, unlike SF which rose in my esteem. But one of the best parts of Vonnegut’s work is that the reading is quick, especially for a book like CC which is written in micro-chapters. So I look forward to our next assignment, and seeing where the third book in our project stands.

JACK: There have not been many times that I have had occasion to say this, but at this juncture I must respond to Emily that I respectfully disagree.

Cat's Cradle, for me, for whatever reason, was my favorite Vonnegut novel, and likely still is. It is better than S-F. Unlike S-F, there is actually a plot. Also unlike S-F, the book is comprised of micro-chapters, which makes it easy to recall when and where major plot points occur.

Maybe Emily's criticism is that this book is all plot and no character, but it seems like she's really harping on the supposed racism and misogyny unwittingly conveyed. While I agree some moments are "problematic," I don't believe that Vonnegut intended to lazily expose his own prejudices (I am reminded of another dear friend who queried whether Nabokov was a "sick man" because he wrote Lolita). Like Breakfast of Champions, the stray comments on race (or, here, on female submissiveness/scientific ineptitude) may be shockingly raw, but they reflect the era. I mean fuck Emily, didn't society really only get taken to task for being shitty towards women in late 2017, a year after our collective misogyny put a megalomaniac (among many other appellations) in our highest position of power? Criticizing Vonnegut's portrayal of the female employees of the foundry company is like criticizing Mad Men because all the secretaries (minus major characters Peggy/Joan/Megan) can only type or connect phone calls. We all wish Vonnegut was a progressive saint but this is not meant to be a socially responsible novel. I would add that later on, Vonnegut's work did seem to take on an implicit air of social responsibility, but Cat's Cradle is more comedic science fiction than pointed political satire.

Apart from what I feel is a nitpicky criticism, I can't argue with how the book made Emily feel. I do want to argue that the micro-chapters MAKE the book. There are about 130 itemized chapters, each with a brief title. Sometimes, these are just pure, classic Vonnegut.

I would argue that the book has an incredibly strong first half, and that the second half sort of collapses under its own weight and conceit. Even so, this is a great book!

"Call me Jonah.  My parents did, or nearly did.  They called me John." 

So it begins.  It's a call back to Moby Dick (which I haven't read and probably should one day). Then, we never hear the name again. What does the narrator actually do? Is he a reporter? In a way, this framing mechanism is at the heart of why I believe this is such a successful novel, and why Citizen Kane is such a successful film. That is, the investigation: what is rosebud? What is ice-nine?

Emily brilliantly observes that this is likely an allegory for nuclear weapons and the Cuban missile crisis. But is San Lorenzo a stand-in for Cuba? I don't think so, though there is definitely talk about its communist bent (and the defiantly anti-communist spirit of the American people circa height of cold war).

I do want to ask, regarding the lack of character development: what Vonnegut novel truly does have fully-fledged characters that change and grow?

I wasn't alive and neither was Emily (though she is better equipped to draw such conclusions as an historian) and while I appreciate the interpretation, looking at the book this way sort of ruins it for me. I mean, I know it's a simple story and there's not much there that doesn't feel like anything more than thinly-veiled satire, but it's a story about the apocalypse or the end of the world or the fate of humanity as a whole and it feels Profound in the childish sort of way that Vonnegut sometimes projects perfectly. No, the book isn't as perfect as I remember it being, but it does have an ending to rival S-F. And while it may have come 6 years before (making Vonnegut about 40 at the time of writing?), S-F only feels like a more "mature" work because the characters are not all caricatures (to put it simply). Even with its flaws, I still love this book and think it should be read by everyone.

Nominations for next book:
-Mother Night
-Sirens of Titan
-Hocus Pocus
-Deadeye Dick
-Jailbird or Player Piano worth reading? (2 I haven’t read)

EMILY: I think Jack makes a ton of really excellent points and I also think it’s really fun when we disagree. This project is so great! My vote for the next book is Bluebeard, Timequake, or Breakfast of Champions, even though I think that was once nominated and then we took it off the table. I want to put it back on! Put it back on the table like the breakfast of champions it is!

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