My time travel back to the early 1960s, has led me to The Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s quite a trip. As the book opens, we are introduced to the narrator –
Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John.
Immediately, Vonnegut establishes an uncertainty principle concerning truth. The narrator invites us to call him Jonah, one who is reluctantly on a mission from God to preach repentance. Yet that is not really his given name. His parents called him John, a harbinger of the Truth to come. The narrator, though on a mission from God, also distances himself from any Judeo-Christian certainty of the nature of God. He calls himself a “Bokonist” and throughout the narrative, gives us glimpses of the Bokonist view of truth.
All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies. My Bokonist warning is this: “Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either.”
From this prologue, “Jonah” goes on to tell us the story of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the “so-called” Fathers of the atomic bomb, first through a letter from Dr. Hoenikker’s son Newton. He has written to Newt to ask for his memory of the day the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Newt was only 6 at the time, but he describes the day in vivid detail. His father stayed home that day, in his pajamas, playing with a string. Newt writes –
Father took the string from around the manuscript of a novel that a man in prison sent him. The novel was about the end of the world in the year 2000, and the name of the book was 2000 A.D.. It old about how mad scientists made a terrific bomb that wiped out the whole world.
Newt goes on to share how his Father constructed a “Cat’s Cradle” with the string and describes what happens next –
He all of a sudden came out of his study and did something he’d never done before. He tried to play with me. Not only had he never played with me before: he had hardly ever even spoken to me. But he went down on his knees on the carpet next to me, and he showed me his teeth, and he waved that tangle of string in my face, “See? See? See?” he asked, “Cat’s cradle. See the cat’s cradle? See where the nice pussycat sleeps? Meow. Meow.”…
The six-year-old Newt bursts into tears and runs from the house, retreating to a spiraea bush where he finds his 12-year-old brother Frank is playing with a tablespoon and a Mason jar, collecting bugs to make them fight. The fighting distracts him from his tears. Soon, however, his 22-year-old sister Angela finds him –
When Angela got me out from under the bush, she asked me what had happened between Father and me. I just kept saying over an over again how ugly he was, how much I hated him. So she slapped me. “How dare you say that about your father!” she said, “He’s one of the greatest men who ever lived! He won the war today! Do you realize that? He won the war!” She slapped me again.
The story of Cat’s Cradle then follows some unique twists and turns – through the General Forge and Foundry Company in Illium, New York to the Republic of San Lorenzo (the “unchallenged barracuda capital of the world”) and to parts yet unknown to me. I don’t know how this will lead me back to “Life” in 1963 Bloomington, Indiana, but I seem determined to make the journey, guided by Vonnegut’s words –
As Bokonon says: “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.”