Cat's cradle

Kurt Vonnegut

Book - 2006

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New York : Dial Press 2006, c1963.
Main Author
Kurt Vonnegut (-)
Item Description
Originally published: 1963.
Physical Description
233 p.
  • 1. The Day the World Ended
  • 2. Nice, Nice, Very Nice
  • 3. Folly
  • 4. A Tentative Tangling of Tendrils
  • 5. Letter from a Pre-Med
  • 6. Bug Fights
  • 7. The Illustrious Hoenikkers
  • 8. Newt's Thing with Zinka
  • 9. Vice-President in Charge of Volcanoes
  • 10. Secret Agent X-9
  • 11. Protein
  • 12. End of the World Delight
  • 13. The Jumping-Off Place
  • 14. When Automobiles Had Cut-Glass Vases
  • 15. Merry Christmas
  • 16. Back to Kindergarten
  • 17. The Girl Pool
  • 18. The Most Valuable Commodity on Earth
  • 19. No More Mud
  • 20. Ice-Nine
  • 21. The Marines March on
  • 22. Member of the Yellow Press
  • 23. The Last Batch of Brownies
  • 24. What a Wampeter is
  • 25. The Main Thing About Dr. Hoenikker
  • 26. What God is
  • 27. Men from Mars
  • 28. Mayonnaise
  • 29. Gone, But Not Forgotten
  • 30. Only Sleeping
  • 31. Another Breed
  • 32. Dynamite Money
  • 33. An Ungrateful Man
  • 34. Vin-Dit
  • 35. Hobby Shop
  • 36. Meow
  • 37. A Modern Major General
  • 38. Barracuda Capital of the World
  • 39. Fata Morgana
  • 40. House of Hope and Mercy
  • 41. A Karass Built for Two
  • 42. Bicycles for Afghanistan
  • 43. The Demonstrator
  • 44. Communist Sympathizers
  • 45. Why Americans are Hated
  • 46. The Bokononist Method for Handling Caesar
  • 47. Dynamic Tension
  • 48. Just Like Saint Augustine
  • 49. A Fish Pitched Up by an Angry Sea
  • 50. A Nice Midget
  • 51. O.K., Mom
  • 52. No Pain
  • 53. The President of Fabri-Tek
  • 54. Communists, Nazis, Royalists, Parachutists, and Draft Dodgers
  • 55. Never Index Your Own Book
  • 56.. A Self-Supporting Squirrel Cage
  • 57.. The Queasy Dream
  • 58.. Tyranny With A Difference
  • 59.. Fasten Your Seat Belts
  • 60.. An Underprivileged Nation
  • 61.. What A Corporal Was Worth
  • 62.. Why Hazel Wasn't Scared
  • 63.. Reverent And Free
  • 64.. Peace And Plenty
  • 65.. A Good Time To Come To San Lorenzo
  • 66.. The Strongest Thing There Is
  • 67.. Hy-U-O-Ook-Kuh!
  • 68.. Hoon-Yera Mora-Toorz
  • 69.. A Big Mosaic
  • 70.. Tutored By Bokonon
  • 71.. The Happiness Of Being An American
  • 72.. The Pissant Hilton
  • 73.. Black Death
  • 74.. Cat's Cradle
  • 75.. Give My Regards To Albert Scweitzer
  • 76.. Julian Castle Agrees With Newt That Everything Is Meaningless
  • 77.. Aspirin And Boko-Maru
  • 78.. Ring Of Steel
  • 79.. Why McCabe's Soul Grew Coarse
  • 80.. The Waterfall Strainers
  • 81.. A White Bride For The Son Of A Pullman Porter
  • 82.. Zah-Mah-Ki-Bo
  • 83.. Dr. Schlichter Von Koenigswald Approaches The Break-Even Point
  • 84.. Blackout
  • 85.. A Pack Of Foma
  • 86.. Two Little Jugs
  • 87.. The Cut Of My Jib
  • 88.. Why Frank Couldn't Be President
  • 89.. Duffle
  • 90.. Only One Catch
  • 91.. Mona
  • 92.. On The Poet's Celebration Of His First Boko-Maru
  • 93.. How I Almost Lost My Mona
  • 94.. The Highest Mountain
  • 95.. I See The Hook
  • 96.. Bell, Book, And Chicken In A Hatbox
  • 97.. The Stinking Christian
  • 98.. Last Rites
  • 99.. Dyot Meet Mat
  • 100.. Down The Oubliette Goes Frank
  • 101.. Like My Predecessors, I Outlaw Bokonon
  • 102.. Enemies Of Freedom
  • 103.. A Medical Opinion On The Effects Of A Writers' Strike
  • 104.. Sulfathiazole
  • 105.. Pain-Killer
  • 106.. What Bokononists Say When They Commit Suicide
  • 107.. Feast Your Eyes!
  • 108.. Frank Tells Us What To Do
  • 109.. Frank Defends Himself
  • 110.. The Fourteenth Book
  • 111.. Time Out
  • 112.. Newt's Mother's Reticule
  • 113.. History
  • 114.. When I Felt The Bullet Enter My Heart
  • 115.. As It Happened
  • 116.. The Grand Ah-Whoom
  • 117.. Sanctuary
  • 118.. The Iron Maiden And The Oubliette
  • 119.. Mona Thanks Me
  • 120.. To Whom It May Concern
  • 121.. I Am Slow To Answer
  • 122.. The Swiss Family Robinson
  • 123.. Of Mice And Men
  • 124.. Frank's Ant Farm
  • 125.. The Tasmanians
  • 126.. Soft Pipes, Play On
  • 127.. The End
Review by New York Times Review

ANNA KAVAN'S "ICE" is a book like the moon is the moon. There's only one. It's cold and white, and it stares back, both defiant and impassive, static and frantically on the move, marked by phases, out of reach. It may even seem to be following you. It is a book that hides, and glints, like "the girl" who is at the center of its stark, fable-like tableau of catastrophe, pursuit and repetition-compulsion. The tale might seem simple: a desperate love triangle played out in a world jarred into ecocatastrophe by political and scientific crimes. The narrator, whose resolute search for the girl might appear at first benign or even heroic, nonetheless slowly converges with the personality and motives of the sadistic, controlling "warden," who is the book's antagonist and the narrator's double. Though "Ice" is always lucid and direct, nothing in it is simple, and it gathers to itself the properties of both a labyrinth and a mirror. I first located "Ice" in a usedbook store, in its first American edition, published by Doubleday in 1970 after Kavan's death, and introduced by Brian Aldiss, who called it science fiction. This was during the time in my reading life when I was trying so hard to find something more like Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard. But "Ice" wasn't more of anything. I doubt it helps for it to be categorized as science fiction, or to be categorized at all. Even given Anna Kavan's remarkable life story, and amid her shelf of coolly anguished fiction, "Ice" stands alone. Kavan wasn't her real name - or perhaps I should say it wasn't her first name. Born Helen Woods to an upper-class British family, then twice miserably married to older alcoholics, she published several novels under her firstmarried name, Helen Lerguson. Erom these books, which were precise and despairing, if conventional by the standard of her later writing, she seized for her selfinvention the name of her own autobiographical character: Anna Kavan. The details of her long traipse through wartime exile, multiple suicide attempts, psychiatric incarcerations and decades of heroin addiction could fill books; Kavan filled 16 novels with them, though her preference was to sublimate autobiography into pensive, dislocated and somewhat numbed tableaus. The frozen disaster overtaking the planet in "Ice" evokes that Cold-War, bomb-dreading, postwar 20th century we still, in many ways, live inside; it echoes images as popular as episodes of Rod Serling's "The Twilight Zone" or Kurt Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle." The presentation is scattered with scenes of war, civil unrest and collective societal dysfunction, both vivid and persuasive. During World War II Kavan journeyed by steamer slowly to New Zealand and various ports, including New York, and at last returned to England. A realistic novelist might have made some epic like Olivia Manning's Balkan and Levant trilogies from this, but Kavan wasn't a maker of epics, and was accompanied not by a colorful husband but by her own violent solitude. A crushed-down and imagistic epic of flight may lurk in the interstices of "Ice," in fact. Yet as in Kafka, Poe and Ishiguro's "The Unconsoled," the essential disturbance resides in an inextricable interplay between inner and outer worlds. Kavan's commitment to subjectivity was absolute, but in this, her greatest novel, she manages it by disassociation. If "the girl" is in some way a figure of Kavan's own vulnerability, she's also a cipher, barely glimpsed, and as exasperating as she is pitiable. It's been suggested that the "ice" in "Ice" translates to a junkie's relationship to her drug, yet the book is hardly reducible to this or any other form of allegory. Heroin may be integral to the book, hiding everywhere in plain sight and yet somehow also beside the point. The drama of damage and endurance in "Ice" plays out in an arena of dire necessity and, somehow simultaneously, anomic, dispassionate curiosity. What makes this not only possible, but also riveting and unforgettable, is Kavan's meticulous, compacted style. The book has the velocity of a thriller yet the causal slippages associated with high modernist writing like Beckett's or Kafka's. The whole presentation is dreamlike, yet even that surface is riven by dream sequences, and by anomalous ruptures in point-of-view and narrative momentum. At times this gives the reader the sensation that "Ice" works like a collage or mash-up; perhaps William Burroughs has been given a go at it with his scissors and paste pot. By the end, however, one feels at the mercy of an absolutely precise and merciless prose machine, one simply uninterested in producing the illusion of cause and effect. In the place of what's called "plot," Kavan offers up a recursive system, an index of reaction points as unsettling and neatly tailored as a sheaf of Rorschach blots. The book's nearest cousins, it seems to me, are "Crash," Ballard's most narratively discontinuous and imagistic book, or cinematic contemporaries like Alain Resnais's "Last Year at Marienbad." It'll stick around, as those have, and it may even cut deeper. Like the moon, but with sharp edges. Even given Anna Kavans remarkable life story, 'Ice' stands alone. JONATHAN LETHEM is the author of 10 novels, including "A Gambler's Anatomy." This Critic's Take is adapted from his introduction to the Penguin Classics 50th Anniversary reissue of "Ice," by Anna Kavan, which will be published in November.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [October 29, 2017]

Chapter One The Day the World Ended 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 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. Conveyances and motives, both conventional and bizarre, have been provided. And, according to plan, at each appointed second, at each appointed place this Jonah was there. Listen: When I was a younger man--two wives ago, 250,000 cigarettes ago, 3,000 quarts of booze ago . . . When I was a much younger man, I began to collect material for a book to be called The Day the World Ended. The book was to be factual. The book was to be an account of what important Americans had done on the day when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. It was to be a Christian book. I was a Christian then. I am a Bokononist now. I would have been a Bokononist then, if there had been anyone to teach me the bittersweet lies of Bokonon. But Bokononism was unknown beyond the gravel beaches and coral knives that ring this little island in the Caribbean Sea, the Republic of San Lorenzo. We Bokononists 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 by Bokonon, and the instrument, the kan-kan, that bought me into my own particular karass was the book I never finished, the book to be called The Day the World Ended. Chapter Two Nice, Nice, Very Nice "If you find your life tangled up with somebody else's life for no very logical reasons," writes Bokonon, "that person may be a member of your karass." At another point in The Books of Bokonon he tells us, "Man created the checkerboard; God created the karass." By that he means that a karass ignores national, institutional, occupational, familial, and class boundaries. It is as free-form as an amoeba. In his "Fifty-third Calypso," Bokonon invites us to sing along with him: Oh, a sleeping drunkard Up in Central Park, And a lion-hunter In the jungle dark, And a Chinese dentist, And a British queen-- All fit together In the same machine. Nice, nice, very nice; Nice, nice, very nice; Nice, nice very nice-- So many different people In the same device. Chapter Three Folly Nowhere does Bokonon warn against a person's trying to discover the limits of his karass and the nature of the work God Almighty has had it do. Bokonon simply observes that such investigations are bound to be incomplete. In the autobiographical section of The Books of Bokonon he writes a parable on the folly of pretending to discover, to understand: I once knew an Episcopalian lady in Newport, Rhode Island, who asked me to design and build a doghouse for her Great Dane. The lady claimed to understand God and His Ways of Working perfectly. She could not understand why anyone should be puzzled about what had been or about what was going to be. And yet, when I showed her a blueprint of the doghouse I proposed to build, she said to me, "I'm sorry, but I never could read one of those things." "Give it to your husband or your ministers to pass on to God," I said, "and, when God finds a minute, I'm sure he'll explain this doghouse of mine in a way that even you can understand." She fired me. I shall never forget her. She believed that God liked people in sailboats much better than He liked people in motorboats. She could not bear to look at a worm. When she saw a worm, she screamed. She was a fool, and so am I, and so is anyone who thinks he sees what God is Doing, [writes Bokonon]. Chapter Four A Tentative Tangling Of Tendrils Be that as it may, I intend in this book to include as many members of my karass as possible, and I mean to examine all strong hints as to what on Earth we, collectively, have been up to. I do not intend that this book be a tract on behalf of Bokononism. I should like to offer a Bokononist warning about it, however. The first sentence in The Books of Bokonon is this: "All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies." My Bokononist warning in this: Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either. So be it. . . . About my karass, then. It surely includes the three children of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the so-called "Fathers" of the first atomic bomb. Dr. Hoenikker himself was no doubt a member of my karass, though he was dead before my sinookas, the tendrils of my life, began to tangle with those of his children. The first of his heirs to be touched by my sinookas was Newton Hoenikker, the youngest of his three children, the younger of his two sons. I learned from the publication of my fraternity, The Delta Upsilon Quarterly, that Newton Hoenikker, son of the Noel Prize physicist, Felix Hoenikker, had been pledged by my chapter, the Cornell Chapter. So I wrote this letter to Newt: "Dear Mr. Hoenikker: "Or should I say, Dear Brother Hoenikker? "I am a Cornell DU now making my living as a free-lance writer. I am gathering material for a book relating to the first atomic bomb. Its contents will be limited to events that took place on August 6, 1945, the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. "Since your late father is generally recognized as having been one of the chief creators of the bomb, I would very much appreciate any anecdotes you might care to give me of life in your father's house on the day the bomb was dropped. "I am sorry to say that I don't know as much about your illustrious family as I should, and so don't know whether you have brothers and sisters. If you do have brothers and sisters, I should like very much to have their addresses so that I can send similar requests to them. "I realize that you were very young when the bomb was dropped, which is all to the good, My book is going to emphasize the human rather than the technical side of the bomb, so recollections of the day through the eyes of a 'baby, if you'll pardon the expression, would fit in perfectly. "You don't have to worry about style and form. Leave all that to me. Just give me the bare bones of your story. "I will, of course, submit the final version to you for your approval prior to publication. "Fraternally yours--" Chapter Five Letter from a pre med To which Newt replied: "I am sorry to be so long about answering your letter. That sounds like a very interesting book you are doing. I was so young when the bomb was dropped that I don't think I'm going to be much help. You should really ask my brother and sister, who are both older than I am. My sister is Mrs. Harrison C. Conners, 4918 North Meridian Street, Indianapolis, Indiana. That is my home address, too, now. I think she will be glad to help you. Nobody knows where my brother Frank is. He disappeared right after Father's funeral two years ago, and nobody has heard from him since. For all we know, he may be dead now. "I was only six years old when they dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, so anything I remember about that day other people have helped me to remember. "I remember I was playing on the living-room carpet outside my father's study door in Ilium, New York. The door was open, and I could see my father. He was wearing pajamas and a bathrobe. He was smoking a cigar. He was playing with a loop of string. Father was staying home from the laboratory in his pajamas all day that day. He stayed home whenever he wanted to. "Father, as you probably know, spent practically his whole professional life working for the Research Laboratory of the General Forge and Foundry Company in Ilium. When the Manhattan Project came along, the bomb project, Father wouldn't leave Ilium to work on it. He said he wouldn't work on it at all unless they let him work where he wanted to work. A lot of the time that meant at home. The only place he liked to go, outside of Ilium, was our cottage on Cape Cod. Cape Cod was where he died. He died on a Christmas Eve. You probably know that, too. "Anyway, I was playing on the carpet outside his study on the day of the bomb. My sister Angela tells me I used to play with little toy trucks for hours, making motor sounds, going 'burton, burton, burton' all the time. So I guess I was going 'burton, burton, burton' on the day of the bomb; and Father was in his study, playing with a loop of string. "It so happens I know where the string he was playing with came from. Maybe you can use it somewhere in your book. Father took the string from around the manuscript of a novel that a man in prison had 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 told about how mad scientists made a terrific bomb that wiped out the whole world. There was a big sex orgy when everybody knew that the world was going to end, and then Jesus Christ Himself appeared ten seconds before the bomb went off. The name of the author was Marvin Sharpe Holderness, and he told Father in a covering letter the he was in prison for killing his own brother. He sent the manuscript to Father because he couldn't figure out what kind of explosives to put in the bomb. He thought maybe Father could make suggestions. "I don't mean to tell you I read the book when I was six. We had it around the house for years. My brother Frank made it his personal property, on account of the dirty parts. Frank kept it hidden in what he called his 'wall safe' in his bedroom. Actually, it wasn't a safe but just an old stove flue with a tin lid. Frank and I must have read the orgy part a thousand times when we were kids. We had it for years, and then my sister Angela found it. She read it and said it was nothing but a piece of dirty rotten filth. She burned it up, and the string with it. She was a mother to Frank and me, because our real mother died when I was born. "My father never read the book, I'm pretty sure. I don't think he ever read a novel or even a short story in his whole life, or at least not since he was a little boy. He didn't read his mail or magazines or newspapers, either. I suppose he read a lot of technical journals, but to tell you the truth, I can't remember my father reading anything. "As I say, all he wanted from that manuscript was the string. That was the way he was. Nobody could predict what he was going to be interested in next. On the day of the bomb it was string. "Have you ever read the speech he made when he accepted the Nobel Prize? This is the whole speech: 'Ladies and Gentlemen. I stand before you now because I never stopped dawdling like an eight-year-old on a spring morning on his way to school. Anything can make me stop and look and wonder, and sometimes learn. I am a very happy man. Thank you.' "Anyway, Father looked at that loop of string for a while, and then his fingers started playing with it. His fingers made the string figure called a 'cat's cradle.' I don't know where Father learned how to do that. From his father, maybe. His father was a tailor, you know, so there must have been thread and string around all the time when Father was a boy. "Making that cat's cradle was the closest I ever saw my father come to playing what anybody else would call a game. He had no use at all for tricks and games and rules that other people made up. In a scrapbook my sister Angela used to keep up, there was a clipping from Time magazine where somebody asked Father what games he played for relaxation, and he said, 'Why should I bother with made-up games when there are so many real ones going on?' "He must have surprised himself when he made a cat's cradle out of the string, and maybe it reminded him of his own childhood. 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.' "His pores looked as big as craters on the moon. His ears and nostrils were stuffed with hair. Cigar smoke made him smell like the mouth of Hell. So close up, my father was the ugliest thing I had ever seen. I dream about it all the time. "And then he sang. 'Rockabye catsy, in the tree top'; he sang, 'when the wind blows, the cray-dull will rock. If the bough breaks, the cray-dull will fall. Down will come cray-dull, catsy and all.' "I burst into tears. I jumped up and I ran out of the house as fast as I could go. "I have to sign off here. It's after two in the morning. My roommate just woke up and complained about the noise from the typewriter." Excerpted from Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.