Why I didn’t like “Cat’s Cradle”

Some months ago, I mentioned I hadn’t read Cat’s Cradle. Steve, the owner and sole employee at Nighthawk Books, immediately suggested I read it, and some weeks later, he got in a copy of the Penguin edition. When I was reading the opening chapters, a waiter said to me: “That’s an amazing book.”

I’ve been a vocal fan of the work of Kurt Vonnegut since reading the collection Welcome to the Monkey House thirty years ago, in summer camp. At the time, I was working in the theater department, helping to build sets. Soon after, I also read the absorbing and towering novel The Sirens of Titan.It quickly became one of my personal favorites. I’ve read through two copies of Breakfast of Champions, his brilliant, indulgent soap-opera of the author’s recurring characters. His style, along with that of Mark Twain and Isaac Asimov, informs my tastes as a reader and a lyricist—and in my work as an editor.

After re-reading it decades after my first try, Slaughterhouse Five is, I think, one of the most important—and funniest—books ever written.

I approached Cat’s Cradle with high hopes. While parts of the book are brilliant, I don’t think it’s up to the standard raised by his other, more mature works. This was his fourth novel, and it feels like a test of many new, looser narrative techniques.

I very much wanted to love the book, but I just don’t think it held together. Mr. Vonnegut’s almost-hateful characters paired with a charming, non-judgmental style is a little too clever here. The book feels like the equivalent of an overproduced and auto-tuned recording of a master vocalist—the music is beautiful, and the band is trying a little too hard to get it perfect. I’m fairly sure I read it long ago and forgot about the entire book, because much of it seemed familiar to me. Of course, sub-par Kurt Vonnegut is still better than most other books I’ve read.

After thinking about it for a few weeks, I think the biggest failure of the book lies in it’s lead character. His name may or may not be either John or Jonah. He starts off the story as a writer researching a coffee-table book. It’s premise: What were you doing the day the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima?

In Breakfast of Champions, Kilgore Trout went on a haphazard journey to speak at a festival. Billy Pilgrim told us about a random-walk tour throughout his own life in Slaughterhouse Five. Rudy Waltz was a hilariously, tragically accidental murderer in Deadeye Dick, and even his reactive life was a journey of sorts. In this book, Jonah/John is none of these things. The world changes around him as he investigates his story. He stays more or less unaffected, like any Vonnegut protagonist or journalist of old.

The world changes around him, but his failure to change with it comes across as simply uninteresting rather than tragic. Some of the scenery the author constructed for this tale struck me as artificial. Supporting characters are made of painted cardboard, held up by rickety plywood frames. Perhaps they were meant to last for a few weeks, until we close the book and the show is finished.

Breakfast of Champions is filled with the bright primary colors of skin magazines and advertising billboards. The Sirens of Titan is grey and brown, the colors of the soil of Mars; and yellow and blue, as is Saturn seen in the sky of Titan. Even Slaughterhouse Five, filled with the reddish-blacks and whites and dark greys of bloody, dirty snow has one memorable, gaudy scene; it is the color of yellow and orange fire that engulfs a city. The scenery used here somehow ends up inspiring later plays’ set designers to improve their work.

Cat’s Cradle has no such beauty. The only brightly-colored image from the book that stuck with me is that of ice-nine, a substance that freezes any water it touches. I saw it as transparent, with perhaps a hint of a blue-white milky haze. Like ice-nine will freeze any water it touches, this heavy-handed substance somehow turned the story into a depressing sameness.

However:

I thought that Slaughterhouse Five was a depressing morass of a book when I read it decades ago. Perhaps I’ll re-read Cat’s Cradle yet again in twenty years. Maybe there’s some more subtle scenery here, and the actors are more subtle than just being level and steady. I’ll kick myself for not getting all this.

I can only hope.


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3 thoughts on “Why I didn’t like “Cat’s Cradle”

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  1. Cat’s Cradle is my favorite Vonnegut. What did you think of Bokononism, or about the depiction of the people who create the technologies of destruction out of an intellectual drive for achievement without considering the real-world effects? Hmmm….I wonder if I need to read Cat’s Cradle yet again,now in the light of your critique?

  2. I thought Bokonism was all very clever, but it seemed less real than other Vonnegut weirdisms. The lab and office scenes seemed, unfortunately, all too realistic—particularly the lab bits—and were my favorite parts of the book.

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