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It means that Bokononism is part of Vonnegut’s deep, mocking pessimism ¬– but simultaneously contains a sliver of hope and redemption.
Bokonon himself (in my eyes, a cartoonish take on Ghandi) is spectacularly evasive – he’s not been seen for years. The fourteenth book of Bokonon asks: What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years? ‘Nothing.’ If anything should signal the end of illusion and the beginning of existential despair, it’s a religion that relentlessly reveals itself to be a joke.
The weird thing, though, is the characters of Cat’s Cradle still draw strength from it. They know they’re fools to believe it, yet they still do.
And yet when it comes to ice-nine, ‘there was no talk of morals.’ Is this Vonnegut suggesting that Newt has inherited flickers of his father’s cold amorality?
Or maybe it’s the fact that we can’t get science and morality to square up.
Lots of Vonnegut’s aphorisms are well known, but one with an especially strong resonance is: ‘I tell you, we are here on earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you any different.’ Cat’s Cradle takes up this proposition: its asks us “what is there to live for?
’ As for an answer, it’s brimming with pessimism – but is this the whole story? ) and a savagely exploitative history of sugar cultivation (several candidates here).’ It’s a ludicrous place, where reality is fashioned entirely to suit the contours of Vonnegut’s imagination.Fifty years after its initial publication Eli Lee examines the themes - among them religion, violence and morality - that categorise Vonnegut's fourth novel and continue to frame our contemporary discourse When he taught fiction writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the ‘60s, Kurt Vonnegut would remind his students they were in the entertainment business.Writing might be a merciless process, sure, but what comes out the other end has to be fun.Science, on the other hand, is as flesh-and-blood real as you can get – yet what do we do with it? (Bear in mind the 1963 context – the world had just narrowly avoided nuclear disaster.) In Cat’s Cradle, the atomic bomb has a mutant twin: ice-nine, a substance that can freeze all life on earth.Hoenikker invents it while working on the bomb, and it’s clear that he develops them both for a sole purpose – the pursuit of knowledge.In his essay collection Fates Worse Than Death, he explains why he does so, aligning himself with the great Donald Barthelme as an ‘aggressively unconventional storyteller’ who tries to build ‘dwellings such as no-one has ever seen before, but which prove to be eminently inhabitable.’ This boldness might make his work reductive in some sense; but it doesn’t matter, because it’s also the reason for its brilliance.Cat’s Cradle’s dissolute narrator, John, sets out to write a history of the day the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and becomes embroiled in the life of Felix Hoenikker, the fictional father of the bomb, and his three children.Maybe it’s this – the fun factor – that’s meant his own work has sometimes been considered not as literary or highbrow as that of his contemporaries.Not for him the endless wordplay of Pynchon, the deadpan psychological excavations of De Lillo or the absurdities of Heller.And why would Vonnegut explore this question in a setting that’s little other than a hallucinatory apocalypse? San Lorenzo is a mishmash of crude clichés if ever there were one – Benjamin Kunkel shows how in his brilliant introduction to the 2008 edition: ‘it boasts a dictator called ‘Papa’ (shades of Haiti’s ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier? It’s this that allows it to be the perfect stage for a showdown between two “ultimate sources of meaning” – two ways to keep pessimism at bay – religion and science.The religion of Bokononism rules San Lorenzo, but covertly – no one claims outright to be a Bokononist; it’d get you get hung on the Game of Thrones-like ‘hook’ if you did. It offers wisdom and meaning, but undercuts this by reminding you that this succour is utter bollocks.