The first Kurt Vonnegut novel I read was Slaughterhouse Five. What I remember most about Billy Pilgrim’s strange journey was how reminiscent the novel was of a seemingly straight-laced science fiction story. Though at its core it’s an anti-war novel, which places the bombing of Dresden at the center. The rest, through thinly veiled metaphors, covers Billy Pilgrim’s disorientation after his time in the military, replete with questions on humanity, religion, and war.
Unsurprisingly, Cat’s Cradle covers many of the same topics. What is most impressive with Vonnegut’s work is the balance between his playful, bitingly caustic voice and the severity of what is covered. This is done with the help of ludicrous metaphors and symbols that poke fun at what is supposed to be enshrouded. A glaring example can be found in the title.
Cat’s cradle is a game played with string, so what space could it occupy in a book that begins with the narrator’s religious rejuvenation and his initial inquiries with the creator of the atomic bomb? We first come across the cat’s cradle when the narrator receives a letter from Newt Hoenikker. In the novel, his father, Felix Hoenikker, invented the atom bomb. Newt tells the narrator that on the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, he was only six years old. He doesn’t remember much about that day or time, but he curiously remembers his father showing him a cat’s cradle.
When Felix shows Newt the cat’s cradle, Newt cries and runs away, wounding him as Newt puts it in his letter. There is a lot to be said about the juxtaposition of this scene with the simultaneous bombing of Hiroshima. What does the child symbolize and what does his outburst point towards? Felix is hurt by the rebuff of his son, while another one of his creations obliterates the lives of hundred of thousands of people. Without funneling too deeply into my reading, the scene naturally characterizes a rejection. This can be a rejection of Felix as a character, the atom bomb, or both. But it’s striking nonetheless, whatever you make of it.
Later in the novel, the cat’s cradle makes another appearance. Newt paints a picture of the cat’s cradle and shows some of the characters. One character supposes the interpretation relies on the viewer, a possible jab at the pretensions of art, but Newt tells him it’s just a cat’s cradle.
“For maybe a hundred thousand years or more, grownups have been waving tangles of string in their children’s faces. No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X’s…[And] No damn cat, and no damn cradle.”
It’s hard to create something that is meaningless abound with so much meaning. Here we have on display Vonnegut’s humor, even amongst a scene laden with existential doubt and pessimism. The cradle symbolizes Newt’s own failures, his own apprehensions, and yet any reader can use it as a catalyst to look inward. I read a passage like this and laugh. But it also forces me to look at how when I was a child I interpreted realities—how I figured the world. But Vonnegut doesn’t stop here. In the novel we learn about a fictional religion called Bokononism and another life altering substance created by Felix Hoenikker, ice-nine. Bokononism, within the novel, stands parallel with Christianity; ice-nine with the atom bomb. Vonnegut succeeds at subversion. For Vonnegut, the only way we can truly approach some of the most harrowing subjects is through a lens of absurdity. All we can really do is shrug our shoulders and laugh.