I read Slaughterhouse Five last year and loved it. I think Vonnegut’s a genius, and I was super excited about this one. But somehow it never came together for me. Although I feel like I missed a lot, which I’m going to blame squarely on myself rather than the author. I would love to study Vonnegut in a literature class so I feel like I’m getting more out of his books (although I suspect Vonnegut would laugh at me for that).
Here’s the basic plot, as well as I can describe it: narrator John is researching the father of the atomic bomb right after World War II, Felix Hoenikker (who is fictional but based on actual scientists). His fate becomes intertwined with that of Hoenikker’s children, Newton, Frank, and Angela, when he travels to San Lorenzo, a fictional small island in the Caribbean. Frank, who disappeared from home years ago, is now the assistant to the dictator of San Lorenzo, who threatens to impale anyone who misbehaves on a giant hook.
Oh, and one more thing: Dr. Hoenikker’s three children are carrying around their father’s greatest invention, ice-nine, which increases the freezing point of water and could turn the entire planet into ice.
If you’re a Vonnegut fan, the oddness of this story won’t surprise you. You also won’t be surprised that this book is really about the conflicts between science and religion. Dr. Hoenikker lives an unhappy life even though his bomb won the war and made him a hero. His children hate science and what their father represents. The title of the book refers to a Cat’s Cradle that Dr. Hoenikker makes with string for his young son Newton on the day the bomb was dropped. Newton sees his father as scary and spends his life wondering how some criss-crossed string can be described as a cat or a cradle, when clearly it looks like neither.
Here’s how it starts:
When I was a much younger man, I began to collect material for a book to be called The Day the World Ended.
The book was to be factual.
The book was to be an account of what important Americans had done on the day when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.
It was to be a Christian book. I was a Christian then.
I am a Bokononist now.
I would have been a Bokononist then, if there had been anyone to teach me the bittersweet lies of Bokonon.
No one points out the ridiculous quite like Vonnegut. He also makes up (and makes fun of) an entire religion, Bokonon. John finds a book in San Lorenzo that describes Bokononism, which says that everything, including the religion itself, is a lie, we are bound together by fate, and the greatest intimacy is achieved by two people touching the soles of their feet together. John tells us this about a woman who thinks she has God all figured out: “She was a fool, and so am I, and so is anyone who thinks he sees what God is Doing [writes Bokonon].”
The book was nominated for a Hugo Award in 1964, and of course, its ideas about nuclear weapons and biological destruction would have been very relevant at the time. Although as I think about it, those views are just as relevant today.
I have to admire Vonnegut’s amazing creativity and satire, and yet this book wore thin pretty quickly. I can’t really explain why – I know I haven’t been on my best reading game lately. If you’re a Vonnegut fan, what did you think of this one?
This book counts towards my Classics Club and To Be Read Pile Challenges.