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A novel of depth and humour
on 19 July 2014
I think that this novel appears fragmented because there are a lot of different characters who when interviewed help to form a picture of the scientist Felix Hoenikker. In relation to the Bokonon religion and all the quotes and poems, it's almost like nonsense poetry, making little sense in places. In this sense it is very Modernist, to see the truth within the chaos.
It is an interesting start to the book where the narrator asks us to call him Jonah. Jonah was told by God to go to Nineveh, to warn the people of the impending doom. As a prophet he had a certain authority and responsibility, but he was wilful and disobedient and went in the opposite direction. Is the narrator here to point out our own destructive tendencies and that if we don't reform, it will lead to our own destruction, certainly his book, The End of the World would suggest this. However the book makes it point with a large degree of humour. "When I was a younger man - two wives ago, 250,000 cigarettes ago, 3,000 quartz of booze ago .." The modern vices, common to all humanity, who make mistakes. He talks about humanity being divided into teams, a karas, who do God's will without ever knowing what they are doing. So much for the illusion of free will. "If you find your life tangled up with someone else's life for no very logical reason, that person may be a member of your karas." The most farcical example of this is Mrs Crosby, formerly Hoosier. She proceeds to tell the narrator that Hoosiers are in charge of everything, as if it is a prestigious name, akin to Kennedy or Rockefeller.
The narrators search is for Felix Hoenikker and all of the people he meets along the way tell him something about the man and his creation, Ice-9. Starting with his children who appear to have been secondary to his work and after his death seek to exploit his creation for their own gain. I do find the issue of Newt and Zinka's height a little disturbing. In today's PC world the 'm' word wouldn't be used as it's grossly offensive. Why the author chooses to use it is a bit of a mystery. Mrs Crosby will later introduce the narrator to Newt and Angela as fellow Hoosiers. "Angela persisted in treating Newt like an infant - and he forgave her for it with amiable grace I would have thought impossible for one so small." He also describes her as, "a God-awfully insensitive woman, with no feeling for what smallness meant to Newt." I don't think the writer/narrator does either and that's the funny part, as he thinks his attitude is better.
It is Newt who gives an insight into the title - Cat's Cradle, being a child's game. His father had no time for games, or his children it seems, but the string of a cat's cradle obviously reminded him of something in his childhood. The idea of the small cradle holding a cat is absurd and relies heavily on the imagination. Equally the nursery rhyme and physical description of his father makes the whole incident macabre.
It's interesting that the place where Dr Breed works is called Ilium his secretary is Miss Faust. We learn that Dr Breed sees the place as a wholesome family town, yet the narrator has been discussing Hoenikker and getting drunk with an old classmate, who was a prostitute, the night before. This makes one wonder what other secrets there are, beneath the topless towers of Ilium, as Marlow would say. For Dr Breed, "New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have .. the richer we become." For Bolononists this is funny, presumably because truth is illusory.
"Ice-nine was the last gift Felix Hoenikker created for mankind before going to his just reward." This is a little tongue in cheek as he has created something which could destroy the earth. Something to stop marines sinking into the mud, will now kill mankind. Idea of just reward could mean praise or punishment depending on your viewpoint.
Marvin Breed is Dr Breeds brother and runs the funeral parlour. It is through this interview that we learn that Hoenikker never put a headstone on his wife's grave. It is the children who use his Nobel Prize money to buy the large headstone and decorate it with their words. The narrator comments on the fact that it is a small word and Marvin replies, "When you put it in a cemetery it is."
"San Lorenzo .. A healthy, happy, progressive, freedom loving, beautiful nation makes itself extremely attractive to American investors and tourists alike." This is the mantra of the island, prosperity and investment. The idea that they will say anything, to gain the investment needed to move forward within a capitalist system. It's a universal truth that's never spoken and to see it in writing makes it funny.
Crosby is an entrepreneur making bicycles, but complains that they have to spend time trying to make everyone happy, no one can be fired, and if they make anything the government accuses them of inhumane practices. He says of San Lorenzo, "The people down there are poor enough ans scared enough and ignorant enough to have some common sense!" In other words they can be exploited, this is the tragedy. He goes on to explain later in the novel, "A pissant is somebody who thinks he's so damn smart, he never can keep his mouth shut." This just about sums up the speaker. The way he criticises and complains about Philip Castle, who shows him no deference, is also a satirical portrait of the way Americans behave abroad.
When they get to San Lorenzo we find the National Anthem is sung to the tune of Home on the Range, a place where the living is grand. Julian Castle, founder of the medical centre, the House of Hope and Mercy and father of Philip, explains that Bokonon created a religion after the priests had been expelled. "Truth was the enemy of the people, because the truth was so terrible, so Bokonon made it his business to provide the people with better and better lies." There is the idea that the religious practice of the joining of feet brings an intimacy and closeness between individuals. When the narrator is invited to be the next President of San Lorenzo and marry Mona she invites him to take off his shoes and he is nervous. As he takes off his shoes and socks the laces knot, he rips his thumb nail and finally drags the shoe off without undoing the laces. After he tells her that she can not perform this act with anyone else this distresses her, as she feels love should be shared with everyone. Yet when they finally make love, she is repulsed by the act and says it would be sad to bring a baby into the world at that time.
'Papa' who is terminally ill takes the ice-9 in a suicide attempt and dies. They then have the problem of disposing of the evidence and the body. In the ceremony to celebrate the 100 Martyrs, a plane crashes into the foundations of the castle and the structure breaks up and falls into the sea. As the castle disintegrates the bed with papa's body falls into the sea and it is frozen solid. The ensuing crisis kills most of the people and the narrator and Mona emerge from their safe haven, the world is a dangerous place where death is not far away. The last words are given to Bokonon, who says if he had a choice, his final act would be to climb mount McCabe, lie down and take the ice-9, whilst thumbing his nose disrespectfully at God.