Wednesday, May 17, 2017

the last book I read

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut.

Our narrator, who may or may not be called John (he suggests, half-jokingly, that we call him "Jonah"), is an author researching a book about what some of the key players in the development of the nuclear bomb were doing on the day the first one was used in anger, at Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945.

John's first person of interest is Felix Hoenikker, one of the principal developers of the technology that powered the atomic bomb. Hoenikker is dead, but his three children Franklin, Newton and Angela are still alive, though scattered across the globe. John corresponds with Newton Hoenikker and visits Felix Hoenikker's former hometown of Ilium, New York, but his research only really gets going when he gets sent on an unrelated reporting assignment to the small Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, where it just happens that Franklin Hoenikker has been appointed successor-in-waiting to the island's dictator "Papa" Monzano, a delightful character given to keeping the population in line by occasionally impaling people on giant metal hooks.

These occasional impalements are usually for practising the island's de facto official religion, Bokononism, which despite being practised almost universally is officially banned by the government. Based on the writings of its founder, an Englishman called Lionel Boyd Johnson who found himself shipwrecked on the island, it's a typically Vonnegutesque mish-mash of cynical, fatalistic and occasionally baffling aphorisms, with Johnson aka Bokonon clearly intended to mirror cargo cult figures like John Frum.

It soon becomes clear that in addition to the atomic bomb, Felix Hoenikker also invented another potentially world-threatening device: ice-nine. This is a new form of water, solid at and well above room temperature, and indeed most temperatures found on Earth. A single seed crystal can solidify an unlimited amount of water if it comes into contact with it. It further becomes clear that the Hoenikker children have ice-nine crystals in their possession, and that Franklin has used his to parlay his way into the top job in "Papa" Monzano's government.

The shit really hits the fan when Papa decides that his terminal cancer has become too painful for him to endure, and checks out in spectacular fashion by swallowing an ice-nine crystal and being instantly solidified. There then follows a frantic attempt to dispose of the body (and that of Papa's doctor who accidentally freezes himself) and ensure that no ice-nine fragments escape.

Franklin decides that he doesn't fancy taking over as dictator and offers the job to John instead. John reluctantly accepts, but his first act as ruler - overseeing an air display by San Lorenzo's ramshackle air force - ends in disaster when one of the planes crashes into the sea-facing wall of the presidential palace and causes the ruined palace to disgorge its contents down a cliff into the sea. This includes Papa's body, and its contact with the sea causes the sea, as well as all rivers, streams and groundwater on the planet, to solidify into ice-nine, instantly ending almost all life.

A few stragglers on San Lorenzo survive and huddle together to eke out their remaining supplies of food and water. John writes a memoir - well, you've got to keep busy - which it transpires is the book we've just read. At the end his wanderings around the ravaged remains of San Lorenzo bring him face-to-face with Bokonon himself, and they contemplate the end of the world together.

This is the second Vonnegut on this list, after The Sirens Of Titan, and it's interesting to note that that earlier book also featured a post-modern, possibly even post-religion religion ("Church Of God The Utterly Indifferent") presumably intended to make various satirical points about more formally organised religions, and why not.

Both this and The Sirens of Titan are from the early part of Vonnegut's writing career (Cat's Cradle was his fourth novel, published in 1963), which I suppose really means stuff published before Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969, the book that made him a major literary figure. As such it's a bit more linear than Slaughterhouse-Five or some of the later books. I don't have a problem with non-linearity per se but I do think this is better than the more self-referential later books like, say, Breakfast Of Champions, and indeed is probably the best Vonnegut I've read apart from Slaughterhouse-Five, which is fairly obviously The One if one is all you want.

I note that the plot device of having the entire population of Earth killed off apart from a band of ill-equipped random people on a tropical island was one he re-used for his 1985 novel Gal├ípagos, although The Event there happened near the beginning of the novel rather than near the end. The device of having it be revealed at the end of the book that the book the main character has been writing, or struggling to write, is this book right here, the one you've just been reading, is one that's cropped up in a few other places on this list, notably The Medusa Frequency and Sweet Tooth plus quite possibly one or two others.

My mid-1970s Penguin paperback edition (see above) has an arresting image of an atomic bomb on the cover with what's presumably meant to be a crystal of ice-nine in the centre. Note that while the book the narrator is writing is concerned with the day of the Hiroshima bombing, the weapon depicted here is clearly based on the implosion-type device used in the bombing of Nagasaki three days later - the Hiroshima device was of a different design.

Here's a long rambling interview with Vonnegut in the Paris Review - note that I've also (belatedly) attached a similar link to the end of the Bridge Of San Luis Rey post.

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