Delight at the End of the World, “Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut

Nothing in this book is true.

So starts Cat’s Cradle, a dark yet hilarious novel by Kurt Vonnegut, more relevant than ever, about the end of the world, featuring a religion of harmless lies and a crystal that can freeze the entire planet. 

With COVID-19 reaching more than two million cases and India hitting more than 30,000 confirmed cases, it’s not too difficult to declare this the world’s end. Staying sane is no easy task during lockdown and certainty is far out of reach when you wake up the next day to see tens of thousands of new cases.

Cat’s Cradle – written in the midst of the Cold War fears – tells of a similar end-of-the-world disaster. There exists a lethal chemical called ice-nine that freezes any material it comes into contact with: touching a person frozen by ice-nine immediately freezes you. Ice-nine could freeze all the oceans in the world in a split second and destroy humankind as we know it. 

But none of the characters care.

None of the characters are worried about the end of the world, a world that has no purpose, a world that has no God, a world that was meaningless in the first place. The characters rather take the apocalypse as an opportunity to laugh at life’s absurdities. Felix Hoenikker, the character who is a nobel laureate in physics, father of the atomic bomb, inventor of ice-nine, asks childishly, completely unaware:

What is God? What is love?

When the atom bomb was dropped in Hiroshima, Hoenikker was leisurely playing with strings like a child, creating a cat’s cradle between his fingers. But there is “no damn cat, and no damn cradle”, just strings between somebody’s hands. Similarly, Vonnegut argues, meaning is a lie, and God deserves to be laughed at. What lies at the end of the world in Cat’s Cradle is no intense philosophical rumination. There is no meaning. Nothing. As Newt Hoenikker puts it,

Man makes nothing worth making, knows nothing worth knowing.

Anyone familiar with Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, another great novel, about a WWII veteran who gets abducted by aliens, will not be disappointed with the reappearance of Vonnegut’s unique, obscene sense of humor and snappy prose. The book is a treat to read, never losing its momentum with the average chapter no longer than a page and a half. Vonnegut does not intend to lavish his writing with detailed imagery and flowery descriptions. The end is here, so what?

All the characters practice fervently (to the point of insanity) the fictional religion of Bokononism, a religion that proudly states that it is built on nothing but lies. Yet, Bokononism surprisingly offers much needed sympathy and joy in the chaos of our lives. The religion was founded by a crazy man named Bokonon, who declares proudly,

I made up lies

So that they all fit nice,

And I made this sad world

A par-a-dise.”

Life is hilarious for Vonnegut, and he invites the reader for a wild ride full of quotable moments, to laugh despite horrors, smile when you get robbed, and most importantly, just sit back as the entire world goes out with a bang.

Jinho Yoon is the managing editor of The Woodstocker.

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