Well, that was great fun.
I first read Cat's Cradle as a 16 year old in 1973. I loved it as much as anything I had read up to that point. I re-read it very recently and tried as hard as I could to avoid the rosy glow of nostalgia colouring my impressions.
I hope I succeeded; in any case I found myself shaking my head every few seconds in wonder at the humour, the ideas and the sheer intelligence on display. I think I probably got more out of the book almost 40 years on than I did at the age of 16, but the fact that a novel, essentially of ideas rather than storyline, left such an indelible impression on my adolescent mind is pretty remarkable. I think Vonnegut is held in even greater esteem today than during his lifetime and the predictions of him going the way of Mark Twain in terms of reputation don't seem too fanciful.
So, it was a great re-connection for me and a re-discovery of something dear; then the real fun began when I read the reviews here on Amazon.
Fighting the temptation to slip into `defensive fanboy' mode I still find the content of the negative reviews published here fascinating and provocative. There seem to be a few consistent criticisms;
* The novel and it's themes are `dated' and no longer relevant
* The characters are unbelievable or `unappealing'
* The plot is weak
* There is no central point to the novel
So, is the novel `dated'? Well, it was published in 1973, so by some standards it's bound to be dated - it is nearly 50 years old and our world today is different technologically, politically and environmentally. Given all of that I'm personally astonished at how well it has aged. Yes, we are no longer preoccupied by the Cold War, but with events in Iran how safe do we really feel from the threat of nuclear war? With the rise of militant fundamentalism how less relevant are issues of religion, lies and morality? With global warming how less relevant are the themes of man-made environmental catastrophe and the impact of technology for good and evil? It seems to me that Mr Vonnegut's themes are astonishingly universal and prescient.
The characters in Cat's Cradle are certainly a grotesque and flawed bunch. They don't set out to remind you of your friends and acquaintances or evoke sympathy or empathy. I would challenge anyone, however, not to warm to the character of that old scoundrel Lionel Boyd Johnson (unless his religion offends thee, in which case it's just possible you may have missed the point). Being stupid, careless and thoughtless, of course, doesn't make a character unappealing, merely human.
The plot certainly doesn't attempt to rival Harold Robbins or even Stephen King. No surprise, though, that Mr. K is a big fan of Mr. V. It's actually, I think, a tight little plot which is more than just a series of hooks for the snowstorm of ideas and invention, but if your taste runs to pot-boilers you will have to look elsewhere.
There's no central point to the novel, that's true - but largely because there are more central points as a proportion of words written than in any other novel this side of James Joyce. Personally I find the cat's cradle of ideas about science, religion, family, nationalism and crass but very human stupidity way more exciting than a single central point.
So, am I a misty-eyed fanboy or a detached critic? Bit of both perhaps. Is Cat's Cradle a great American Novel or a dated piece of barely-structured, artsy, baby-boomer sci-fi? I'm going to have to go with the former. Will it still provoke debate and divide opinion in another 50 years' time? I can only hope so. Will the world finally see sense and abandon all religions in favour of Bokononism? What a wonderful world that would be.
Busy, busy, busy.