“Cat’s Cradle” (Post 1/2)

Cats Cradle 01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 2


 

Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 classic. I read a 1970s Dell edition. I wish I knew who designed the cover. 

4 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

Atomic bomb creator Felix Hoenikker has left his last great invention to his three children: Ice-nine, with the power to destroy all life. His children muck it up, of course.

Cat’s Cradle might be Vonnegut’s most pop-culture-referenced book. I’d heard of ice-nine before I ever read it (not that I had idea idea what it was). Vonnegut’s invented terms for his invented religion have also taken on lives of their own. He establishes this religion, Bokononism, effortlessly (also handling a large cast) in less than two-hundred pages.

There are also 127 “chapters” fit into those pages; more like snapshots and set-ups/punchlines than a traditional narrative.

If you’re looking for plot, motivation and character depth, Cat’s Cradle will fall flat. As a thought- and conversation-starter, it’s wonderful.


 

[1] Reference:

For Kenneth Littauer,

a man of gallantry and taste.

(p.4)

From a 1977 interview with Kurt Vonnegut in The Paris Review:

Knox [Burger] got me a couple of agents who were as shrewd about storytelling as he was – Kenneth Littauer, who had been his predecessor at Collier’s, and Max Wilkinson, who had been a story editor for MGM.

From historyforsale.com:

KENNETH LITTAUER, who died in 1968, was the fiction editor at “Collier’s” and a New York literary agent whose clients included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Kurt Vonnegut and James Salter. Littauer was also one of the early sponsors of the Civil Air Patrol.

According to valor.militarytimes.com, a Kenneth P. Littauer (born in Newark, New Jersey) served in World War I and received awards including the Distinguished Service Cross. I suspect this could be Vonnegut’s Littauer.

[2] The narrator’s name is only used once, in the first lines:

Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John.

(p.11)

No other character calls him John and his last name is never revealed.

[3]

She was a fool, and so am I, and so is anyone who thinks he sees what God is doing, [writes Bokonon].

(p.13)

[4]

My Bokononist warning is this:

Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either.

So be it.

(p.14)

[5] References (I know Hoenikker is Vonnegut’s invention, but the words spoken to him sound historically familiar):

“Do you know the story about Father on the day they first tested a bomb out at Alamogordo? (…) a scientist turned to Father and said, ‘Science has known sin.’ And do you know what Father said? He said, ‘What is sin?’ ”

(p.21)

Alamogordo is the county seat and economic center of Otero County in south-central New Mexico. It is the city nearest to Holloman Air Force Base. Alamogordo is known for its connection with the Trinity test, the first explosion of an atomic bomb, and also for the Atari video game burial of 1983.

The Trinity detonation itself occurred on July 16, 1945 in the Jornado del Muerto desert about 35 miles southeast of Socorro, New Mexico, on what was then the USAF Alamorgordo Bombing and Gunnery Range.

Robert Oppenheimer is the scientist quoted as saying “Science has known sin,” but, according to Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist (March 1966), Oppenheimer said this after the bombing of Hiroshima, not after the first test.

 

[6] Reference:

“The last we heard of my brother Frank, he was wanted by the Florida police, the F.B.I., and the Treasury Department for running stolen cars to Cuba on war-surplus L.S.T.’s

(p.21)

Landing Ship, Tank (LST) or tank landing ship, is the naval designation for vessels created during World War II to support amphibious operations by carrying vehicles, cargo, and landing troops directly onto an unimproved shore.

[7] Reference:

I made an appointment with Mr. Asa Breed.

(p.23)

The name appears in the Old Testament to designate the third King of Judah. In Hebrew it means healer and/or physician.

[8] Reference:

The whore (…) offered me delights unobtainable outside Place Pigalle and Port Said.

(p.24)

Port Said is a city that lies in north Egypt extending about 19 miles along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, north of the Suez Canal, with an approximate population of 600,000. The city was established in 1859 during the building of the Suez Canal. It thrives on being a duty-free port, as well as a tourist resort especially during summer.

[9] Reference:

“We used to call him Secret Agent X-9.”

(p.25)

Secret Agent X-9 was a comic strip started by writer Dashiell Hammett and artist Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon). It ran from January 1934 to February 1996. X-9 was a nameless agent who worked for a nameless agency.

[10] Fact check:

“Real Navajo Indian came in here one day; told me Navajos didn’t live in teepees.”

(p.26)

The traditional Navajo home is a hogan. Male hogans are square or conical with a distinct rectangular entrance, while a female Hogan is an eight-sided house. Both are made of wood and covered in mud, with the door always facing east.

[11] Reference:

“There was one man they hanged here in 1782 who had murdered twenty-six people (…) George Minor Moakely. He sang a song on the scaffold.”

(p.28)

George Minor Moakely is Vonnegut’s invention, though George Minor (1845 – 1904) was an American composer.

[12] Reference:

“It was a Marmon, about the size of a switch engine.”

(p.29)

Marmon Motor Car Company was an American automobile manufacturer founded by Howard Marmon and owned by Nordyke Marmon & Company of Indianapolis, Indiana. It was established in 1902 and merged and renamed in 1933.

[13]

She hated people who thought too much. At that moment, she struck me as an appropriate representative for almost all mankind.

(p.31)

[14] Reference:

He told me about a factory that had been growing big crystals of ethylene diamine tartrate.

(p.38)

The structure, weight and composition of Ethylenediamine Tartrate can be found at PubChem. Crystals can be grown from it, which is discussed in a 1954 paper by Emanuel Klier and Mansour Shaki, but I still don’t understand what it is or what any of its uses are. Other than growing crystals.

[15]

“I don’t think he was knowable. I mean, when most people talk about knowing somebody a lot or a little, they’re talking about secrets they’ve been told or haven’t been told. They’re talking about intimate things, family things, love things.”

(p.43)

[16]

“I just have trouble understanding how truth, all by itself, could be enough for a person.”

(p.44)

I think this is Vonnegut’s ultimate stance; he would rather have a knowingly false religion than stark truth.

This is where we differ. But I have not been trapped in a bunker while a city was firebombed around me, then forced to clean up and incinerate the bodies. Hopefully I’ll never have to know what that would do to me.

[17]

“Did you know the Hoenikker children?” I asked him.

“Babies full of rabies,” he said. “Yes, yes!”

(p.47)

[18]

I wasn’t a Bokononist then, so I agreed with some peevishness. As a Bokononist, of course, I would have agreed to go anywhere anyone suggested. As Bokonon says: “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.”

(p.50)

If I was forced to follow a religion, Bokononism wouldn’t be a bad way to go.

[19]

“It’s a small world,” I observed.

“When you put it in a cemetery, it is.” Marvin Breed was a sleek and vulgar, a smart and sentimental man.

(p.50)

[20] Reference:

“He just heard too much while he was sticking turrets on the battleship Missouri with Duco Cement.”

(p.54)

USS Missouri (“Mighty Mo” or “Big Mo”) is a United States Navy Iowa-class battleship. Missouri was the last battleship commissioned by the United States and was best remembered as the site of the surrender of the Empire of Japan which ended World War II. She also fought in the Korean War and reactivated and modernized in 1984, later to provide support in Desert Storm in 1991.

[21] Vonnegut’s fantastic with character introduction. He gives us exactly what we need for a visual, then moves on. (See also The Sirens of Titan, note [27].)

He was a cadaverous man, a serious man, a dirty man, and he coughed a lot.

(p.56)

[22] Reference:

Frank told of being all along on a nearly swamped sixty-eight-foot Chris-Craft in the Carribean.

(p.62)

Chris-Craft, Inc. is a privately held, Sarasota, Florida-based American manufacturer of recreational powerboats. The original company, Chris-Craft Boats, was founded in the late 19th century by Christopher Columbus Smith and became famous for its mahogany hulled powerboats of the 1920s through the 1950s.

Their current longest model appears to be forty-two feet and the longest past model I can find is sixty feet.

[23] Reference:

Julian Castle (…) had, at the age of forty, followed the example of Dr. Albert Schweitzer by founding a free hospital in a jungle.

(p.63)

Albert Schweitzer (1875 – 1965) was a French-German theologian, organist, philosopher, and physician. He received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize for his philosophy of “Reverence for Life,” expressed in many ways, but most famously in founding and sustaining the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambarene, now in Gabon.

[24] Reference:

In his selfish days he had been as familiar to tabloid readers as Tommy Manville, Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Barbara Hutton.

(p.63)

Tommy Manville (1894 – 1967) was a Manhattan socialite and heir to the Johns-Manville asbestos fortune. He was a celebrity in the mid 20th Century, by virtue of his large financial inheritance, and his 13 marriages to 11 women. This feat won him an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records and made him the subject of much gossip.

Barbara Hutton (1912 – 1979) was an American debutante/socialite, heiress and philanthropist. She was dubbed the “Poor Little Rich Girl”, first when she was given a lavish and expensive debutante ball in 1930, amid the Great Depression, and later due to a notoriously troubled private life. Heiress to the retail tycoon Frank Winfield Woolworth, Hutton was one of the wealthiest women in the world. She was married and divorced to seven men (including Cary Grant).

[25] Reference:

She was from Indiana, too.

“My God,” she said, “are you a Hoosier?”

(p.66)

I’m aware of the film about a basketball team, but where does this term come from? What is a Hoosier?

Hoosier is the official demonym for a resident of Indiana. The origin of the term remains a matter of debate, but “Hoosier” was in general use by the 1840s, having been popularized by Richmond resident John Finkley’s 1833 poem “The Hoosier’s Nest.” Indiana adopted the nickname “The Hoosier State” more than 150 years ago. As there is no accepted embodiment of a Hoosier, the IU schools are represented through their letters and colors alone. On January 12, 2017, the Federal Government officially changed the nickname of people from the state of Indiana from “Indianans” to “Hoosiers”, making Indiana the first state to not have a version of their state name in their nickname.

Kurt Vonnegut, born in Indianapolis, was himself a Hoosier.

[26] References:

“The man who wrote Ben Hur was a Hoosier.”

“And James Whitcomb Riley.”

(p.67)

Lewis “Lew” Wallace (1827 – 1905) was an American lawyer, Union general in the American Civil War, governor of the New Mexico Territory, politician, diplomat, and author from Indiana. His is best known for his historical adventure story, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880).

James Whitcomb Riley (1849 – 1916) was an American writer, poet, and best-selling author. During his lifetime he was known as the “Hoosier Poet” and “Children’s Poet.” His famous works include “Little Orphant Annie” (the inspiration for Little Orphan Annie; apparently “orphant” is another spelling of “orphan”) and “The Raggedy Man” (the inspiration for the Raggedy Ann doll).

[27]

Hazel’s obsession with Hoosiers around the world was a textbook example of a false karass, of a seeming team that was meaningless in terms of the ways God gets things done, a textbook example of what Bokonon calls a granfalloon. Other examples of granfalloons are the Communist party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the General Electric Company, the International Order of Odd Fellows – and any nation, anytime, anywhere.

(p.67)

[28]

“Harry Truman didn’t look anything like Harry Truman,” said Crosby.

“Pardon me?”

“In the waxworks,” said Crosby. “The statue of Truman didn’t really look like him.”

(p.69)

[29]

“I was very upset about how Americans couldn’t imagine what it was like to be something else, to be something else and proud of it.”

(p.71)

[30] Reference:

A British subject on the island of Tobago.

(p.74)

Tobago is an autonomous island within the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. It is located northeast of the mainland of Trinidad and southeast of Grenada.

[31] Vocabulary:

Blackbeard’s treasure was reinvested by Bokonon’s family in asphalt, copra, cacao, livestock, and poultry.

(p.75)

noun – dried coconut kernels, from which oil is obtained.

[32] Reference:

“I drank and chased the girls / Just like young St. Augustine.”

(p.75)

Augustine of Hipp (354 – 430) was an early Christian theologian and philosopher. As a youth Augustine lived a hedonistic lifestyle for a time, associating with young men who boasted of their sexual exploits. The need to gain their acceptance forced inexperienced boys like Augustine to seek or make up stories about sexual experiences. It was during this period that he uttered his famous prayer, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”

[33] References:

He was gassed in the second Battle of Ypres. (…)

When only eighty miles from home, he was stopped and searched by a German submarine, the U-99. (…) While still surfaced, the submarine was surprised and captured by the British destroyer, The Raven. (…)

It came to rest at last in the Cape Verde Islands.

(p.76)

During World War I, the Second Battle of Ypres was fought from April 22 to May 25, 1915 for control of the strategic Flemish town of Ypres in western Belgium after First Battle of Ypres the previous autumn. It was the first mass use by Germany of poison gas on the Western Front.

There were several German submarines with U-99 in their name in World War I, but none match up with the story Vonnegut tells here (SM U-99 was sunk in the Northern North Sea in July 1917; SM UB-99 was surrendered to the French in November 1918).

Fourteen ships and a shore establishment of the Royal Navy have borne the name HMS Raven. HMS Raven II was a seaplane carrier, previously a seized German merchant, in service between 1915 and 1917.

Cape Verde, officially the Republic of Cabo Verde, is an island country spanning an archipelago of 10 volcanic islands in the central Atlantic Ocean. Located 350 miles off the coast of West Africa, the islands cover a combined ares of slightly over 1,500 square miles.

[34] References (and a connection to Sirens of Titan, note [4]):

The vessel was blown ashore at Newport, Rhode Island.

By that time Johnson had developed a conviction that something was trying to get him somewhere for some reason. So he stayed in Newport for a while to see if he had a destiny there. He worked as a gardener and carpenter on the famous Rumfoord Estate.

During that time, he glimpsed many distinguished guests of the Rumfoords, among them J.P. Morgan, General John J. Pershing, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Enrico Caruso, Warren Gamaliel Harding, and Harry Houdini.

(p.76)

Enrico Caruso (1873 – 1921) was an Italian operatic tenor. He performed and toured widely in the United States.

[35] Reference:

His stream yacht, the Scheherazade.

(p.76)

Scheherazade is a character and the storyteller in One Thousand and Ones Nights. She avoids her death at the hands of the king by leaving him in the middle of a story each night. After 1,000 stories (over 1,001 nights), she runs out of stories but by then, the king has fallen in love with her and makes her queen.

[36] Reference:

Others have found [the dialect of San Lorenzo] as incomprehensible as Basque.

(p.78)

Basque is the language spoken by the Basques (native to Spain, France). Linguistically, Basque is unrelated to the other languages of Europe and indeed, as a language isolate, any other known language.


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