Book Report on Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle
(Finished reading it during the holidays. Already posted this as a review on Amazon, but heck, it’s an easy way to keep the blog looking up-to-date.)
Slaughterhouse Five is one of my five favorite books ever. I keep trying to find something else from Vonnegut that exudes the same energy and necessity of that book. Cat’s Cradle didn’t do it for me. At the end of the day, the novel felt naked and didactic, like an excuse to meander around a world-view. It felt self-indulgent to me.
There are a few areas in which a novel can excel in order to spark interest: plot, character, setting, and language/style. The Greatest Novel of All Time probably excels at all of those — but I don’t think that novel’s been written yet. If a writer can nail two or three, it’s probably worth reading. Heck, if you completely kill on one of those four, the novel will probably do well for most readers. For me, Cat’s Cradle doesn’t excel at any of the above.
The plot is thin — and given that it’s intended as comedy, that’s to be expected. Still, there’s no point at which the main character faces a Problem, battles with Complications, and then either succeeds or fails. Instead, the book’s tension is based on withholding a mystery from the reader — what’s the deal with the ice and why does the author keep hinting at how important it is? It’s not a very gripping source of tension and, from the standpoint of plot alone, there’s no reason not to turn to the last ten pages of the book and see how it turns out. I don’t feel like I would’ve missed out on key plot points by doing so.
Characters in this novel are thin and two-dimensional (if that). Again, this is meant to be a comedy, or a parable maybe, so stock characters may be called for. But by not having any actual depth or texture in the characters, character does not provide a reason to care about the novel. The characters come off as so subservient to the Message and are so devoid of reality, that their idiosyncrasies feel arbitrary and manipulative rather than interesting.
I’m guessing Cat’s Cradle defenders would argue this point with me, but I found that the novel’s setting was practically non-existent. At least, I didn’t come away from the book feeling like I Was There. The eventual San Lorenzo is sparsely described and, as with the characters, seems entirely subservient to the Message. I don’t feel like I get the sense of another actual place — it felt like it was all happening on a sound stage. To a certain extent, the same could probably be said for Slaughterhouse Five — except that with Slaughterhouse Five, well, first off there was, in fact, more attention to setting details, but also SH5 builds a landscape out of the minds of its author and protagonist. In Cat’s Cradle, we get so little from the narrator in terms of his way of thinking, this doesn’t happen. Maybe it should have.
Finally the writing and style of the novel — well, it’s the trademark Kurt Vonnegut style, except that he did it better elsewhere. There are no coy self-references like occurred in SH5, no cunning self-deprecation, no fierceness of joy in the absurdity of language and the novel format. It’s just sort of jaunty and tossed-off. Reminded me of something I heard regarding Wes Anderson’s recent movies: merely whimsical, not actually funny. Having read SH5 previously, the writing in Cat’s Cradle felt like an unremarkable shadow of what Vonnegut eventually accomplished.
As a result, I come away from Cat’s Cradle feeling like I’d just read a thinly masked agenda story. And unless you already cling *religiously* (heh) to its message, there’s not much fun to be had. Sort of like a Michael Moore movie. In terms of communicative efficiency, it would’ve been more profound for Vonnegut to have simply written the sentence “People believe in and do stupid things, which is especially problematic when they have access to nuclear arsenals.” I didn’t find anything in the novel that conveyed any other idea of any significance. And frankly, that message itself seems pretty dull in the modern world, especially without a fresher and less foregone lens through which to view and appraise it.
I dunno. Maybe cynicism for its own sake was new and exciting back in 1963.
All that said, while I didn’t enjoy the book overall, I appreciated its brevity (that’s not meant entirely back-handedly — short novels rarely overstay their welcomes). Also, it’s a very easy read, and there’s a lot to be said for a writing style that allows for that. Unfortunately, I didn’t find enough else in this one to make me care.
If I missed something in this book, let me know what it was.