I loved Slaughterhouse Five when I read it in high school, but I had a few friends become completely obsessed with Vonnegut. They loved to share the racier passages from Breakfast of Champions in the back of the classroom, all the silly doodles in other works. I developed a mental block in my head that Vonnegut is gimmicky and self-indulgent, despite having read S-5 and knowing that's untrue, that in fact he is one of the most humorously inventive writers of the past century.
Cat's Cradle came up during Amazon's Sunshine sale, and I thought 99c was as good a reason as any to jump back into Vonnegut. Best 99c I've ever spent.
The book tells the story of Jonah, who sets out to write a biography of a fictional creator of the atom bomb, one Dr. Felix Hoenekker, but gets drawn into a most peculiar political drama on the fictional Caribbean Island of San Lorenzo. Jonah learns that Hoenikker had invented a substance called Ice-9, an apocalyptic weapon of the most humorous kind. Jonah's quest for information on this largely unknowable man leads him on a series of bizarre encounters with midgets, prostitutes, enlightened despots, and Hoosiers.
Vonnegut mines the ridiculousness in every situation, but don't let that trick you into thinking the book is slight. He manages the difficult task of simultaneously skewering religion and science. At the same time, he recognizes the very human need for both, and when apocalypse comes, they're the cause and the redemption.
Vonnegut's renowned for not being religious, but unlike today's loudmouth skeptics, he's not anti-religious either. His respect for the role and power of religion shows in his invention of Bokononism, which could so easily descend into pure parody, but doesn't. His religion does find a way to convey inexpressible truths, even though the foundation and maintenance of the religion occurs on the most cynical terms.
There are inventions in Bokononism that seem continually valid. Vonnegut understands the role that language plays in shaping a people's reality, and employs that understanding to the fullest. He introduces each term to forward the plot, but if nothing else from the novel survives the test of time, one would hope that these three words enter the lexicon:
Karass: a group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner. This group can be thought of as the fingers that support/manipulate the cat's cradle of your own life. These are the people and connections that actually affect your lives through action or through inaction. In other words, twitter.
Duprass - a karass that consists of only two people, who usually end up married. The two always die within a week of each other. My great grandparents died within minutes of each other. I never got to meet them, but I've seen tons of photos with them, hobnobbing with actors, politicians and celebrities, always having a fantastic time. You never get anything but the idea that these are two satellites in perfect orbit with each other. If one goes off course, the other does two. If ever duprass was real, it's them.
Granfalloon - this is my favorite one, as it's a tide that I've been fighting for my entire life. It's a false karass, a group of people who imagine they have a connection, but don't actually. The examples given in the novel are Hoosiers, ie people of Indiana, and Cornellians, graduates of Cornell University. These are classifications that pretend to more importance than is actually valid. I am a Texan, I am a Longhorn, but fundamentally these are meaningless terms that don't say anything about who I am and provide no reason why I should get along with other Texans/Longhorns. Basically, the word granfalloon excites my general hatred of that diaphanous concept, "school pride." See also: facebook.
Finally, speaking of granfalloons and school pride, I was pretty unreasonably excited that Bokonon attended the London School of Economics. I like to think that Vonnegut would enjoy the meta-joke of my false connection with one of his own fictional characters...
I'll close with a passage of Vonnegut being clever and prescient, as he so often is. Just think in your head about Cheney's words on Iraqis, that they'd be waiting for us with food and flower garlands, not hand grenades and IEDs...
Clare Minton's letter to the Times was published during the worst era of Senator McCarthy, and her husband was fired twelve hours after the letter was printed.
"What was so awful about the letter?" I asked.
"The highest possible form of treason," said Minton, "is to say that Americans aren't loved wherever they go, whatever they do. Claire tried to make the point that American foreign policy should recognize hate rather than imagine love."
"I guess Americans are hated a lot of places."
"People are hated a lot of places. Claire pointed out in her letter that Americans, in being hated, were simply paying the normal penalty for being people, and that they were foolish to think they should somehow be exempted from that penalty. But the loyalty board didn't pay any attention to that. All they knew was that Claire and I both felt that Americans were unloved."
What's your favorite Vonnegut? What's your favorite Bokononism? Weigh in in the comments.