Apocalypse Then | Elmer on Cat’s Cradle

Jonathan Elmer


Although it takes him six novels—until Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)—to directly confront his personal trauma of surviving the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, all of Vonnegut’s early work seems simultaneously to approach, and retreat from, the cataclysm of the Second World War. Maybe “directly” is not the right word, even for the apparently autobiographical Slaughterhouse; but certainly before Slaughterhouse, Vonnegut does nothing directly, but rather circles around the war. He seems to have a hard time bringing it into focus, either temporally or morally. Player Piano (1952) and The Sirens of Titan (1959) play with chronology—the former is set after World War Three, and the latter in a time-warped universe that suggests that human history is always simultaneously pre- and post-apocalyptic. It’s as if Vonnegut can say what he wants to say thematically—that war is hubris and bloodletting, and little else—but only by distancing himself from the idea that his war represented some essential turning point. Mother Night (1961) takes up Nazism and totalitarianism—in both Germany and the United States. The novel is a moral swamp, and no one comes out looking good. Being nearly incinerated by your allies (along with 80,000 others) is bound to make you ask questions about the line separating right and wrong.

Cat’s Cradle (1963) plays another game with the war. John (or Jonah), the minimally named narrator, is writing a book about what happened on the day the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. People gravitate to these punctual turning points: The Day the Earth Stood Still, Apocalypse Now, and so on. If World War Two represented a punctual turning point in human history, surely it is the dropping of The Bomb. Hence John/Jonah’s project: writing about that very day! That event must be historical! But Americans already read such a book: John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946) is as horrifying an account as one could wish. Vonnegut’s narrator, it turns out, is studying “what important Americans had done” (my emphasis) on The Day the World Ended (the title is a giveaway).

The narrator’s research doesn’t turn up much. On August 6, 1945, Felix Hoenikker, the “father of the bomb,” terrified his youngest son in an attempt to play with him. He thrust the incomprehensible tangle of string that makes a cat’s cradle in the toddler’s face.

I’ll leave it to others (Ted?) to untangle the meaning of the cat’s cradle itself, tempting as it is to invoke the Mahabharata and Heraclitus on play, and the evolutionary heritage of homo ludens. I’ll focus instead on apocalypse as an idea in Vonnegut and in Cat’s Cradle. By putting a cat’s cradle—a tangle around a void—in the space reserved for nuclear holocaust, Vonnegut suggests that the historical melodramas about “the day (or the week, or the year) the world changed forever” are bogus. But if you think your quarry is less an event, nuclear or otherwise, than a tangled web in its relation to the void, then perhaps you’re onto something.

There happens to be one Nazi in Cat’s Cradle: “Dr. Koenigswald, the humanitarian with the terrible deficit of Auschwitz in his kindliness account” (237). But the world-ending weapon is not the bomb but the altogether unheard-of “ice-nine,” and the scene of catastrophe is the Caribbean, on the imaginary island of San Lorenzo. Cat’s Cradle reads like a mashup of The Tempest and James Bond: “Secret Agent X-9 . . . offering to make me king . . . in a cave that was curtained by a tropical waterfall” (200). It also features:

  • a crazed dictator: Live and Let Die had Mr. Big, Cat’s Cradle has “Papa” Monzano;
  • a super-weapon;
  • cool architecture: a cantilevered structure reminiscent of the Vandamm crib on Mount Rushmore;
  • a tropical island with exotic religions: for Live and Let Die’s voodoo, substitute Bokononism;
  • a Bond Girl: the weirdly animatronic Mona Aamons Monzano, for whom John—or Jonah—falls, and falls hard;
  • a soundtrack that is more Harry Belafonte calypso than Shirley Bassey braying, but that’s a nice change of pace; and
  • like any good Bond caper, it ends in apocalyptic violence.

Bond movies are all fables of bloodletting and hubris, and so is Cat’s Cradle, though the scene of mass suicide by ice-nine is a bit more chilling than anything we get in the Bond franchise: “Since the corpses were not scattered or tumbled about, it was clear they had been assembled since the withdrawal of the frightful winds. And since each corpse had its finger in or near its mouth, I understood that each person had delivered himself to this melancholy place and then poisoned himself with ice-nine” (272).

This disturbing image is of course not from San Lorenzo, but rather Jonestown in Guyana, after Jim Jones, leader of the People’s Temple, instructed his adherents to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. One wonders what Hazel Crosby, who finds “Hoosiers in charge of everything” (90) all over the world, would have made of Jim Jones, a native of Crete, Indiana. Hazel’s obsession with Hoosiers is, we are told, a “textbook example of a false karass,” or what “Bokonon calls a granfalloon” (91). To think of the piles of dead at Jonestown as a “textbook example” of a granfalloon is to enter Vonnegut country at velocity, where the goofy and the grisly morph into one another.

Guyana—though not an island—is a compelling model for San Lorenzo in other ways as well. Like the imaginary island in Cat’s Cradle that was claimed by a succession of European powers, the area on the Northeastern coast of South America that covers Guyana, French Guyana, and Surinam, was a theater of colonial rivalry, with the Spanish, French, British, Portuguese, and Dutch at one time or another all having a presence there. Guyana and San Lorenzo have yet another link: the hook. “Then they take somebody who’s dumb enough to break the law, and they put the point of the hook in through one side of his belly and out the other and they let him go—and there he hangs. John Stedman’s The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796) features illustrations by William Blake, including this one:

The tangled web of associations—the cat’s cradle of this novel’s themes—all lead back not to WWII and the bomb, but to the long history of colonialism. San Lorenzo is an over-determined knot in this web. Supposedly “discovered” by Cortes, and then passed between European powers during and after the age of discovery, from Spain to France to Denmark to the Netherlands to England and back to Spain, San Lorenzo resembles (more than Guyana) Hispaniola, Santo Domingo, Saint-Domingue, or modern-day Haiti. First “discovered” by Columbus, controlled by Spain and then France, Haiti was the site for the first successful revolution by African slaves, and then endured much meddling and occupation by the United States. “Papa” Monzano clearly recalls “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who had come to power in 1957. In Vonnegut, the island is controlled from 1786 by African slaves who took control of a slave ship which they purposefully ran aground, leading to the dictatorial regime of Tum-bumwa, a “maniac” (126).

But here again, we need to track the associations as they jump a track. Historical parallels only get you so far. San Lorenzo is the stuff of fantasy as much as history, and Tum-bumwa is less Toussaint L’Ouverture than Prospero. The shipwreck dream in the West is often a dream of starting over as sovereign: Prospero or Crusoe. The original Utopia (Thomas More’s) is of course also an island, and so it is hardly surprising that “McCabe and Johnson dreamed of making San Lorenzo a Utopia” (127).

But one thing Vonnegut is sure of is that where there is hubris, there will be bloodletting. The shipwreck dream is also sometimes just a vision of apocalypse.

“Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John.” Cat’s Cradle begins in the belly of the whale—Melville’s whale. “Call me Ishmael” begins Moby-Dick, a tale of a shipwreck that doesn’t find land, but rather goes down in the open sea: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” Melville’s epic, with its multiethnic cast and allegories of color, has been understood—at least since C. L. R. James’s Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways (1953)—as a parable of the self-destruction of the West through the hubris of racial ideology and colonialism. Vonnegut self-consciously follows Melville in this vision of race-based apocalypse, but in keeping with his age and his temper he can only approach the epic ironically. In a sense, the catastrophe has always already happened in Vonnegut, the pursuit and the failure of the pursuit already visible:

“It was in the sunrise that the cetacean majesty of the highest mountain of the island, of Mount McCabe, made itself known to me. It was a fearful hump, a blue whale, with one queer stone plug on its back for a peak. In scale with a whale, the plug might have been the stump of a snapped harpoon. . . . ” (210)

If the harpoon is snapped, the whale got away: it is an index of ambition and failure. And it is in the bowl formed by this “queer stone plug” that Jonah and Mona find the piled corpses of the ice-nine suicides. Too late. We are always too late. Melville’s whale has always already wreaked his destruction. Hoping to quarantine apocalypse on the single day the bomb dropped, Jonah instead gets tangled up in a web of associations leading back in time through centuries of colonial savagery.

And further. Vonnegut’s novels keep circling around “Ilium,” the setting for Player Piano (it’s the first word in that first novel). Ilium is Vonnegut’s name for an upstate New York town like Schenectady (where Vonnegut worked at General Electric), or like Troy. (Ilium is the Greek name for Troy.) Ilium also recalls Ithaca, where Cornell University is located (Jonah is a Cornell man, and so was Vonnegut). But Ithaca names the dream of homecoming, and for Vonnegut there is no such thing. Ithaca is never named, while his novels never seem to escape from Ilium—the name for a total devastation that has always already happened and from which we pretend we can flee to get home again.

Hubris and bloodletting.