Lost Lit: Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five

“So it goes.”
“No cat, no cradle.”

Vonnegut’s leitmotif is man, unmoored from the universe: not coming unmoored, or suddenly losing his way, but unstuck, untied. Lost. His books describe a state of being and the process of becoming aware of that state of being: ontology and epistemology, if you’re feeling fancy. The modern condition, if you’re feeling reductive.

Because Vonnegut’s books are about the gradual coming-into-consciousness of heroes who are constantly primed to become mini-Vonneguts, they’re pretty much impossible to review. Vonnegut’s books are impressionistic, fractured, piecemeal. This means they’re full of infinite interpretive possibilities and, I suspect, very little in the way of actual meaning. Also, their plots aren’t really that plotty, and, as Vonnegut himself says of Slaughterhouse-Five, most don’t even have characters. Slaughterhouse-Five is more or less about one man’s symbolic odyssey once he comes unstuck in time, with the firebombing of Dresden as the centerpiece. Cat’s Cradle is, I think, about one man unstuck in space. But I’ll get to that later.

You either like Vonnegut’s style, or you don’t. It’s a pleasant mix of deadpan and winkingly ironic: the reader feels like they’re in on the joke, which may be why his books are such a hit with young men transitioning into adulthood. His characters aren’t characters, they’re empty shells moved by whatever those forces are that move the world. They’re always a bit confused, a bit unwitting, and incapable of acknowledging any emotion deeper than annoyance or general gloominess. When I read them, I feel clued in to the universe. Once I’m done, I feel cheated.

Slaughterhouse-Five

In Slaughterhouse-Five, the unfortunately named William Pilgrim (no wonder he wants people to call him Billy) comes unstuck in time while behind enemy lines in World War II:

Billy Pilgrim had stopped in the forest. He was leaning against a tree with his eyes closed. His head was tilted back and his nostrils were flaring…This was when Billy first came unstuck in time. His attention began to swing grandly through the full arc of his life, passing into death, which was violet light. There wasn’t anybody else there, or any thing. There was just violet light—and a hum.

Either Billy is actually time-travelling, or his sensation of being unstuck in time (and, at some point, abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfmadorian and kept like a happy zoo animal) represents a psychic break, the snapping of the human soul under the existential weight of absurdity, futility, despair, and physical discomfort.

Either way, the possibilities are neat. The idea that trauma can result in a re-ordering of narrative events (a sort of mental reshuffling) isn’t too original—Virginia Woolf comes to mind, as do most other High Modernists. But the process of attempting to codify and understand that reshuffling by means of developing a complex explanation for it (being unstuck in time), instead of just being confused, points to the interconnectedness of structure and story. Think of the different ways that Daniel and Desmond were afflicted with time-travel related problems: Daniel is unable to understand what’s happening to him, unable to see the sense behind the fractured and occasionally missing narrative of his life after the lab disaster. But Desmond is able to experience the confusion of being lost in time and to make a story about being lost in time out of it. The structure of his plot, and the story that it’s telling, intertwine. The same is true for many of the Losties in Season Five, as narrative flashbacks and flashforwards became characters flashing back and forth.

Billy’s unstuck in time, which represents and intertwines with our modern inability to make sense out of our lives and the horror that they can contain. “So it goes,” the mantra of Slaughterhouse-Five, indicates the necessary ironic distance to forebear: Life is (to paraphrase the Tralfmadorians). It happens. The end (to quote Desmond).

Cat’s Cradle

Cat’s Cradle hasn’t been mentioned on Lost. But I think that, in terms of larger themes to consider, it’s actually more important than Slaughterhouse-Five. Like that book, Cat’s Cradle is a funny book about despair. The narrator, and the hero, is a writer just starting out on a book about what people were doing on the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. His research leads him to one Dr. Felix Hoenikker, now deceased, who helped invent the bomb—more importantly, the narrator’s research into Dr. H leads him to the Hoenikker family, then to the beautiful, barren, impoverished, and impossible island of San Lorenzo, in the Caribbean.

San Lorenzo has no arable soil; its numerous residents have no means of survival. It is nominally a Christian island, but everyone on it is a secret member of the Bokononist religion, even President “Papa” Monzano. It exists thanks to the aid of the American government, which has set it up as an anti-Communist banana republic. Without, y’know, the bananas.

Bokononism is a religion founded on puns and absurdity. The first sentence in the Book of Bokonon is “All of the true things I am going to tell you are shameless lies.” The narrator adds to this that “Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either.” Bokononism’s central tenet is a paradox: “the heartbreaking necessity of lying about reality, and the heartbreaking impossibility of lying about it.”

Dr. H’s three children have in their possession shards of ice-nine, a radically restructured version of water that turns all other regular waters into ice. Their ownership of this object—the most powerful weapon on earth—gets them love affairs, beautiful husbands, and prestigious San Lorenzo government posts. But when “Papa” Monzano commits by stealing a bit of the ice-nine, and is sent into the sunset in true Anglo-Saxon glory, the ice-nine spreads from the lukewarm Caribbean to the rest of the world. Almost everyone dies. Those who live no longer want to have sex, as the idea of bringing children into a dead world is quite the turn-off. They—the narrator, his beloved and beautiful wife, the Hoenikker family, and a few Hoosiers—begin to find life so unattractive that it is not worth it to reproduce.

They’re on an island, and they’re islanded in a cold, impersonal world, unable to even form a connection with the place they inhabit (you could compare this with the “Honey, I’m home” familiarity with Ohio that permeates many of Vonnegut’s other books). In Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy is unstuck in time. In Cat’s Cradle, our heroes are stuck in a space but unattached to the space they inhabit—which amounts to much the same thing, symbolically speaking.

Cat’s Cradle is traditionally read as statement about the death of hope in the dredges of the 20th century—the mechanization of death, the futility of hope in the face of that banal mortality, the unbearable nature of life in modernity. How can the world make sense (the traditional readers ask) if the answer to all the questions is a great big death rattle? The traditional reading makes sense in many ways: the book, first published in 1963, grapples with the aftermath of nationalism and patriotism in the wake of World War II and the McCarthy era, as well as with the ethical problems associated with American dominance, particularly in Latin America. In this reading, the impersonal murder of millions by science is the true terror.

I think that something different, something bigger, is going on. Sure, Vonnegut plays up the modern relevance, and he doesn’t skimp on the awareness of the brutality of murder at a distance—a theme in many of his books, Slaughterhouse Five among them. But Vonnegut also highlights the personal nature of some murders, particularly by emphasizing the odd method of execution on San Lorenzo: the hook. (Basically, you’re caught like a fish.)

The theme of distant murder—and the agony it can cause for the murderer—is prominent in Deadeye Dick, published almost 20 years after Cat’s Cradle. In that novel, the narrator, as a child, shoots a rifle into the air and kills a pregnant woman. His public humiliation, his uncaring and self-centered parents, his inability to feel deeply enough to connect with others, makes him feel like a leper in the Dark Ages (as he says early in the novel). His inability to forgive himself, which would require also admitting fault, however unwitting he may have been, also means that he cannot atone. The narrator’s final cry is an assertion of both the universality of that social leprosy and the futility of thinking that scientific progress means anything: “You want to know something? We are still in the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages—they haven’t ended yet.”

That might as well be a clarion call for all of Vonnegut’s novels. His beef isn’t with the perils of scientific progress (whatever that means), but with the belief that it can come to good. His novels ask us to realize that man is always inhuman to others, but wrapped up completely in himself and painfully aware of his own humanity: things like the atom bomb and ice-nine just make that inhumanity easier, and the pain of being human more obvious. Because how can we live life if the only truth is death? By lying, and by refusing to realize that lying is the means to truth. That fiction is the means to reality.

Time, Space, Narrative

In Slaughterhouse-Five, the Tralfmadorians tell Billy Pilgrim about their novels: “[E]ach clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message—describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfmadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”

As mere humans, we see just bits and pieces and are forced to glue them together—forced to make meaning out of the synecdoche of our perception. Most of us, I’ll wager, tend towards the linear and teleological (moving in a straight line towards an endpoint) mode of understanding the world. But shows like Lost, and books like Slaughterhouse-Five, shuffle the pieces and create new connections between causes and effects, which alter our perceptions of both the causes and the effects. Different truths emerge when situations are presented in a different frame.

Narrative play gives us a new perspective on epistemology. So does naming. The title of Cat’s Cradle refers to the structure you can make out of strings. Newt Hoenikker, son of Dr. H, points out the absurdity of this construction: you show it to a child, and say “Look! A cat in a cradle!” But what the child sees is a mess of strings: “No cat, no cradle.” Just string. What the child sees is disorder, while the adult attempts to find a design in the madness, to claim some agency over what appears to be random. But “no cat, no cradle” then becomes a truth of its own, a truth about the lies we tell to give meaning and shape to our universe.

Cat’s Cradle isn’t just a stringy pastime, though. It’s also the novel we’re discussing. This is how it starts:

Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John.
Jonah—John—if I had been a Sam, I would have been a Jonah still—not because I have been unlucky for others, but because somebody or something has compelled me to be certain places at certain times, without fail.

Jonah was a biblical prophet who really didn’t want to be a prophet. God kept saying: “Be a prophet!” And Jonah kept running away, until he finally realized he would have to accept his fate and deal with it. That’s Allusion One.

Allusion Two is to the narrator’s real name, John. Of the four gospel writers, John is considered the most esoteric. His is the gospel that starts off with “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God.” A subset of Allusion Two is the possible reference to John the Baptist, who prefigured Christ.

Allusion Three is to Melville’s Moby Dick. There’s a full review of Moby Dick somewhere in my future, but to sum up quickly: it starts off with the line “Call me Ishmael” (a biblical allusion itself). Ishmael is witness to Captain Ahab’s monomania, and nearly loses his life to another man’s obsession. But he also gains an appreciation for his own life by witnessing the destruction of another man’s.

As a prophet, Jonah must speak the truth. Gospel-writer John muddies the connection between language and truth by hinting that they’re the same thing, but in the most confusing way possible. He also makes language the creator of truth, by making language God. Ishmael relies on his own storytelling abilities to make sense of the world, much as our narrator Jonah does. But because our Jonah has so much language (because what is allusion if not the language of literature) built into his name, we get a series of languages we have to master before we can get to the truth. The same way that ice has multiform potential, so does language. And Vonnegut’s playing with it all, creating a web of allusion that hides the truth of his book (which is that truth and lies are the same thing).

The cat’s cradle stands for precisely this process of obfuscation. But, as John says, this obfuscation is how you get at truth, because it is the truth. The cat’s cradle is both the symbol of truth and the truth itself, because it is just a symbol. The universe does have a design, because we create it in thinking it has one.

The island appears to one character, lost at sea, as “a glorious mountain peak above the clouds.” He wonders: “Was this Fata Morgana—the cruel deception of a mirage?” As the narrator proceeds to tell us, Fata Morgana is a mirage phenomenon named after Morgan le Fay, who was rumored to have lived at the bottom of a lake. The phenomenon causes distant objects to appear even further away, and elongated—sometimes even elevated above the horizon.

This is a neat trick: notice how a fictional character (Morgan le Fay) is used to describe and understand a natural phenomenon? Language/allusion gets you to truth. But language also points out the unreliability of sensory perception. The natural world is actually working against your understanding the natural world. As a sorceress, Morgan is all about the unnatural, or magic. But as “Papa” says, “Magic is science that works.” The natural and the unnatural, the scientific, the rational, and the unreliable, all start to tangle up into a cat’s cradle of perception—we can’t understand anything except the incomprehensibility of the universe.

The Universe

In the Bokonon faith, one is a member of a karass: “We the Bokonists believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass.” Some object is the wampeter: “A wampeter is the pivot of a karass. No karass is without a wampeter…just as no wheel is without a hub.”

Opposed to this message of incomprehensibility is the religion/philosophy of Bokononism as outlined in Cat’s Cradle. Bokonon contradicts himself, and gets to the truth through lies. But many of those lies are ones that wind up being believed by the narrator Jonah (who is, after all, something of a prophet for us). Key among them the concepts of the karass and the wampeter. The karass is the group of people that you wind up with—your non-kin family, your destined group. You are committed to them without realizing it at the time; only in retrospect do you see how you are all united. Sound familiar? Like our Losties?

What unites you is the wampeter: it the hub, and you and other members of your karass are scattered along the rim of the metaphor-wheel. The object, though, pales in comparison to the wheel that binds you. We’ll see this image again, in slightly different form, in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, where the karass is called a ka-tet, and the wampeter is the Dark Tower itself, holding the universe in place. On Lost, it’s the island.

Final Thoughts

Well, some of that I want to leave up to your imagination—hopefully at some of my analysis of these books has made you go “Oh! Like on Lost!” without me spelling it out (or maybe I’ve failed. Always an option). And some of it I want to return to in later reviews. But some obvious highlights include:

Cat’s Cradle is about an island, dude. Where people are fated to go.

• Jonah/John/Jack. I’ll let you play with that.

• The term ‘string theory’ wasn’t coined until 1970, seven years after Cat’s Cradle was published. But it’s interesting to consider string theory’s attempt at finding the TOE (Theory Of Everything) in light of the futility of the cat’s cradle to express any essential truth other than the truth that all is lies. Because physics are important for our island.

Cat’s Cradle is all about futility, lies, impossibility, and the sad fatelessness of the average human. But the Bokonon philosophy that the narrator espouses resists such a facile explanation. In other words, this is a book about fate vs. free will, or fate vs. no-design-at-all.

• In Moby Dick, as in Cat’s Cradle, the way that a story is told (plot) affects the way that we understand the story itself (which we’ll just call a story). Lost has played with plot/story differences in all of the five seasons so far. Lately, as Doc Jensen recently pointed out, the scenes that we see from multiple perspectives (like the Long Beach Marina scene) have had small differences, depending on whose eyes we’re seeing through. So can it really all be about perception? And if so, who’s right, the Bokononists or the rest of us?

• Big shout-out to reader Chris for convincing me to review Slaughterhouse-Five instead of just Cat’s Cradle. Thanks, Chris!

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

4 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Slaughterhouse Five has always been one of my favorite books, so I'm glad Chris convinced you to include it. Desmond's situation in "Flashes Before your Eyes" felt very Billy Pilgrim to me. I haven't read Cat's Cradle in forever, though, and you gave me a lot of food for thought. Marvelous review, Josie.

mutantsanachroniques said...

Hello there. Interesting review. A question for you from France... Does anyone remember this episode of "Buffy" where the slayer and her mum spend like a weekend in the country, and find a copy of "Cat's Craddle" left there by former lodgers of the house?
This episode does exist but we can't remember the season or anything, so as you guys seem to be quite aware of TV-culture maybe you'll know.
Cheers!

Josie Kafka said...

Hi mutantsanachroniques,

That's not Buffy. Although it does sound vaguely familiar...someone must know what it is.

Paul Kelly said...

A copy of "Cat's Cradle" turned up on Dead Like Me, once. George's Mother found it on holiday and read it.