Recently I read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and I have to say that I am surprised that this is my first time reading it. I should have discovered Vonnegut ages ago. I should have read his whole body of work by now. In short, I love it and I’m glad to be reading it.
The religion discussed in the book, Bokononism, involves new terminology that Vonnegut sprinkles throughout without feeling too much like infodump. Here is a list of words and phrases:
-karass — original “team” of people set up by God to do his works (p. 14)
-sinookas — “tendrils of my life” (p. 16)
-“as it is supposed to happen” (p. 76)
-duprass — “a karass composed of only two persons. ‘A true duprass,’ Bokonon tells us, ‘can’t be invaded, not even by children born of such a union.'” (p. 78)
-granfalloon — a false karass; “Other examples of granfalloons are the Communist party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the General Electric Company…” (p. 82)
-and so on and so forth…
As you can see, these words are laughably weird, and I think that’s the point. As I was reading, I kept comparing Bokononism to Scientology, for the sole reason that both were created by people in the recent past (one in a fictional world and one in the real world). However, upon talking with my friend Alex about both this book and The Man in the High Castle, he and I realized that the Books of Bokonon and The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the book from High Castle, are similar in that they are written by men and that they affect everyone around them.
Something irked me about these two books, however. Cat’s Cradle is regarded as literary fiction, whereas The Man in the High Castle is “science fiction.” Why? What’s the difference? Both are about alternate-universe USA, both include absurd texts written by questionable characters, and both turn a critical eye on society. What is the actual difference? My theory is marketing; because this was not Vonnegut’s first book, they had to market it to similar audiences as his first works. The dichotomy between “genre” and “literary” is such a hot-button subject nowadays. I touched on it in an earlier post, but I know there are some parts I haven’t thought all the way through. What I do know is that it’s frustrating that two books with similar scopes aren’t given the same consideration.
Anyway. I enjoyed Cat’s Cradle. Tell me what you think about it in the comments!
One thought on “Reading List # 7 — Cat’s Cradle”
This was my first Vonnegut book too. Still very beautiful, and I would suggest Slaughterhouse-Five, Slapstick, and Timequake after it. I think they’re my favorites.
As for why it’s literary and Dick is sci-fi, well, I’d maybe blame the store you got it at? At the bookstore I help run, both are in literary fiction. I think that most serious critics don’t draw any genre lines these days. Barnes & Noble might still separate these books out, slapping 1984 and Clockwork Orange in Literature, but I think “genre” is mostly used as shorthand for “reliance on tropes and cliches.”
Vonnegut’s previous two books, Player Piano and Sirens of Titan, were both VERY much more sci-fi than his later work. The sci-fi conceits play smaller and smaller parts as his work goes on, I think.
Another aspect might be that Dick never got much of a chance to speak for himself. When he died, he was very much a cult author. He wrote VALIS two years before he died, and I think it’s one of the best American novels, but he wasn’t a publishing darling at the time, whereas Vonnegut was often featured in interviews and “literary” reviews.
Then there’s the stigma. Vonnegut was a veteran looking at the unkindness of the upper class. Dick was a drug-user, visionary (in the very literal sense of someone having visions), and possibly suffered from mental illness, so he gets left in the piles with Richard Sharpe Shaver. Vonnegut’s a rebel, but he’s a calm, educated, fought-in-a-war rebel.
Sorry if this all sounds like arguing. Just rambling. I love both authors, and I hope you read more from both of them.