I've just finished reading a book by Kurt Vonnegut. I 'd read Slaughterhouse 5 a while ago and enjoyed it a lot, so when I heard Cat's Cradle discussed on the radio recently, it spurred me on to read it. It's a book that resonated strongly with its readers when it was written, during the Cold War. It enjoyed quite a vogue then, but rereading it now you discover that it's still a story that leaves the reader with a lot to think about.
Felix Hoenikker, an American nuclear scientist who had played a major role in the development of the atom bomb has died. At the time of his death he was working on a particularly nasty substance for the US military. It began with a seemingly innocuous request: could he develop something which would prevent military vehicles from getting bogged down in mud? With his usual disregard for the existence of life on earth, Hoenikker comes up with ice-nine: a form of water in which molecules are so designed as to freeze at a high -rather than a low- temperature. Anything it touches that contains water is immediately frozen solid. After his death, his three eccentric children find themselves in possession of his entire stock of ice-nine and divide it between themselves...
“Call me Jonah,” begins the narrator, in a deliberate echo of Moby Dick (“Call me Ishmael”). This is clearly going to be a story about people getting swallowed up by events beyond their control. But that's the way life is, as any Bokononist worth his salt would say. The main part of the story takes place on the fictional Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, home of the prophet Bokonon and the religion he (well, Vonnegut, for the purposes of the book) invented, Bokononism.
How can one describe Bokononism? A quote from the Books of Bokonon is printed on the flyleaf. (Foma, by the way, is a Bokononist term for harmless untruths):
Nothing in this book is true.
Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.
The Books of Bokonon I:5
Many people have had great fun picking sayings and scriptures of Bokononism from the book, so I won't indulge myself here. For anyone who is interested, there is a lot of stuff about it on the internet. Here, I'll confine myself to singling out the religious practice of boku-maru: two consenting adults sit barefoot, face-to-face, and each presses the bare soles of his or her feet against the other's. Apparently, it is impossible not to love someone with whom you have performed this ritual.
It is often said that Cat's Cradle is a second rate novel. It moves too quickly to dwell on details and its characters are two-dimensional. If it were a novel, the judgement might be a fair one. However, even on superficial acquaintance, it's obvious that the book is not a bad novel, but a really quite good conte:
A philosophical conte, by definition, is a tale or story that attacks serious subjects under a masking tone of levity with often unreal generality of background, universality of type-characters, and no personal sympathy for the protagonists. (McGhee).
The master of the form was Voltaire, and as I read Cat's Cradle I couldn't help but be reminded of Voltaire's Candide, another story in which a man captivated by a beautiful woman is led by a dubious philosopher.
Finally, I must admit to having tried boku-maru for myself. I have to say it's uncannily pleasant. Why not have a go (if you can persuade someone else to participate, that is)?