A few weeks ago, I posted on Blueprints of the Afterlife, not once, but twice. In the second of the two posts, I suggested Cat’s Cradle as the best book of this type I’d read. It was a book I dearly loved, but then, I was in love with anything Kurt Vonnegut did. I thought he might be the reincarnation of Mark Twain, whom I also was in love with.
I have now reread Cat’s Cradle. Oh my goodness, my reaction to it now is so different than it was several decades ago. I find I can’t take it anymore.
I did not get, in my early twenties, how truly angry the book was. That Vonnegut does not appear to be joking. That the characters are despicable or stupid. That all the “harmless lies” of Bokononism amount to an odorous pile of foul cynicism. That the flat tone of the affectless narrator would someday sound in my mind’s ear like fingernails on a blackboard. I thought it was all just brash and funny, that Vonnegut was only being smart and subversive.
I don’t mind the dark, but I can’t take the hopelessness, cluelessness, and uselessness of the characters, Bokonon included. We are, in this book, frogmarched to our collective doom.
What makes the book effective is that the stupid, shortsighted, bigoted, willfully ignorant characters do have real-life counterparts. (Perhaps I shouldn’t have begun rereading this in an election season. Yes, that’s you I’m looking at, Donald Trump.) What drew me in, what made me fall in love, was Bokononism. It is a made-up religion, established for political reasons. The principals involved began by pretending to be enemies, but went on to become enmeshed in their adversarial roles.
The outlawed religion of Bokononism is false and made-up. Nonetheless, everyone believes in it. So what is not true has become, from the characters’ perspectives, true. Bokononism won’t save anyone though, and it’s all a lie anyway.
But I loved that stuff when I was twenty-something, partially by denying what the book was saying, and thinking yes, yes, but Bokononism really is true!
And here’s the thing: it is. We all know a dupress or two. We all can identify members of our karass. None of us have the least bit of trouble identifying a granfalloon. Every bit of that is true. So how can’t all of it be true? We’re better and smarter than the Hoenikkers and the other characters, so surely we can avoid killing ourselves with ice-nine, can’t we?
Not in the universe of Cat’s Cradle. We aren’t good enough, or smart enough, to pull that off. Frank Hoenikker, too willfully stupid to realize he is destroying the world, unleashes ice-nine into dying “Papa’s” body, from whence it will go and infect the entire world. But had Frank not done this, his brother, or sister, or the U.S. government, or the Soviets would most certainly have done so.
In other words, we’re doomed.
The book is brilliant. It is a masterpiece. I’m afraid don’t like it anymore.
I can’t take the futility.
Oddly, the fictional work I found myself flashing upon while rereading Cat’s Cradle was the musical, The Book of Mormon, another work that speaks of the importance of belief. The big difference is that the beliefs of our equally clueless and naive Mormon missionaries in the play allow them to win over evil–regardless of the truth or untruth of their theology–and to actually do some good, to save a few people.
I have come to a time in life when I prefer the somewhat twisted hope of The Book of Mormon musical to the cool, black despair of Cat’s Cradle.
And I’ll claim that as my spiritual journey.