Fun House | Castronova on Cat’s Cradle

Ted Castronova


Whatever anyone knows is known by no one.
—Emerson Scott Boolard


This does not reflect the actual opinions of its author.


Stave I

I am a professor. I had a thought to write an essay. It was to be about Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.

I was walking across campus thinking about my essay. Some students had erected a fun house on the lawn. Just past the fun house, I met Frank McCord, a young geologist. He was chatting with someone, a stooped middle-aged man whose nose bent to the left. I waved hello.

“Let me introduce you to my friend, Wilson Craig,” he said.

“Hello,” I said.

Wilson Craig got a gleam in his eye.

“Have you ever heard of Emerson Scott Boolard? He has a theory that all meaning is composed of peanuts. It is extremely important that you worship peanuts!” he shouted, sweat dripping from his forehead like tumeric oil.

“Um,” I said.

“People who worship peanuts have better dreams!” he screamed.

“I’m sure that must be gratifying for them,” I replied.

Frank explained. “Boolard invented a new, peanut-based religion. Professor Craig here is the world’s leading expert.”

“Peanuts!” cried Craig.

“How does the religion work?” I asked.

Craig glared at me. “It’s very simple, young man. Worship peanuts, have better dreams. Why are you so stupid? I am brilliant!”

McCord related that Peanutism has a pattern of gaining converts the instant its central tenet (nuts-to-dreams) is explained. Peanutism was apparently now the only religion in China, India, Bulgaria, and the American states of Texas and Oklahoma.

“Personally, I find it better to stuff wires in my ears,” said McCord.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Peanuts!” cried Craig.

“Because wires allow us to communicate our thoughts better,” said McCord. “This is also a teaching of Boolard, but not as popular.”

“How does it work?” I asked.

“Scientists have discovered that electrons phase through a tachyon subfield that cuts across the network of neural circuits in human (though not animal) brains,” he explained. “In Geology, we call it a ‘Boolardian Forkinar.’”

“So Boolard discovered it?” I asked.

“Yes. And now, with wires in my brain, I can command the minds of all people. But only to do stupid things that imperil the entire planet. And only I have this power.”

“Sounds impressive,” I said.

Stave II

Just then a third man ran up. He was Marvin Sezto, our city councilman. “Never, never, never join anything Common Sensical,” he said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because all things that claim to be reasonable actually ARE NOT!” he said.

“Where did you hear that?” I asked.

“It came to me during a Boolardian Forkinar!” he exclaimed.

“He stole the wires!” accused Wilson Craig.

Frank McCord winked at me. “I got them back.”

“Where is Boolard now?” I asked.

McCord explained to me that Emerson Scott Boolard was studying dance in New York.

Just then I received an email from my department head: “Go to New York.” I resolved to visit Boolard while I was there.

I waved goodbye to McCord and Craig and headed for my car. On the way I saw Lizzie, the only female anyone had ever known. She was beautiful—so beautiful that she made the stars spin into cosmic nebulae of electrical circuits of space ships. I fainted in imagined pleasure. When I awoke, she was kissing a nearby student. I tried to talk to her, but she remained cryptically distant.

“Peanuts,” she whispered seductively to the student. She dropped his limp body on the ground. The boy looked at me and said, “See? It’s a fun house.”

Stave III

I went to the airport and headed inside.

Just then, the number Two walked by. Number Three was chasing it. Three caught up to Two.

“It is time to add!” said Three.

“Very well.” said Two. “Let’s do it. We must become Five.”

They tried to become Five for 78 hours and many, many pages of this essay, which I have had to cut out. So far as I know, they are still trying.

I’m a Christian. Jesus Christ.

I went to the desk and got a ticket to New York. Lizzie was on my plane. She had a beautiful mole just above her right wrist.

She was the only woman on the plane (because there are no other women, just this one). I tried to focus on the in-flight magazine but since she was within 12 rows of me I could neither think nor speak. We landed, she was met by a jerk of a man and they disappeared into the crowd.

I took a taxi by myself into the city. The taxi driver said some stupid, evil things that represent some pet peeves of mine, and I replied laconically as usual. I got out of the taxi and went toward the hotel door. A nearby hobo begged for money.

“Three plus Two equals Five,” he said. Then he kicked a kitten. I looked carefully at the kitty. It looked uncannily like me.

I gave him a dollar.

Stave IV

I walked in the hotel door. Jim Nabors suddenly crashed into the lobby in a Formula 1 car. The impact knocked me sideways and I landed on a wealthy person, probably in business.

“My name is Doopers,” he said. “Everybody here is an ignoramus. I bet you are an ignoramus too. That guy in the race car is an ignoramus.”

“I suppose,” I said.

“Hey, you ignoramuses over there!” he shouted at the bellhops. “Come get me off the floor and take me to my room! Now!”

One bellhop said, “Sir, you are like a bigoted elephant, sir.”

“You’re an ignoramus!” Doopers shouted.

After the bellhop left, Doopers said to me, “I told you they was all ignoramuses!”

“Perhaps they are,” I said.

I got up. I rubbed my hands upward on my suit. I rubbed my hands downward on my suit. Dust came off. I put my left foot forward. I rested on it. I put my right forward. I rested on it. I continued stepping until I got the front desk. I got my room key. I walked to the elevator. I pressed the button for going up. The elevator came. The door opened. I went in. There was another person there. It was Lizzie. I fainted.

Stave V

When I awoke, I was in a bed in my room, being tended by Emerson Scott Boolard. He was talking to me.

“Everyone was worshipping Jesus, Buddha, and so on. But things happened that made people sad. So I invented peanutism, and my less well-known invention, the Boolardian Forkinar.”

“I see,” I said.

“I think I am the only one who knows what is really going on, but in fact I don’t. I just think I do, and I happen to be wiser than most of the people in this essay,” he said.

“I suppose you are,” I replied.

“My role is to seem smarter than everyone but then turn out to be just as stupid and wicked.”

“Well, that’s how it goes,” I said.

I got out of bed and went to the window. There was a parade going by, down on the street. It was the annual Common Sense Parade. There were floats for Picnics Are Enjoyable, Sledding is Fun, 2 + 3 = 5, Mozart is Fine Music, Everybody Should Grow Up, and several more. The parade was invaded by a herd of friable goats that head-butted the whole thing into splinters.

“I used science to make social institutions, such as religions, in a way that would allow all the dumb people in the world to believe. I made it so that dumb people could believe in everything in that parade, and find peace,” said Boolard.

“Even though none of it is true?” I asked.

“It doesn’t matter whether it is true,” said Boolard, picking at a pimple by his nose and rubbing it on his earlobe. “We just want people to be happy, right?”

“Yes!” answered a chorus of voices.” I turned and saw McCord, Craig, Sezto, Doopers, and Lizzie all standing in the room. Lizzie was hanging on McCord, holding the wires from his ear.

“I convinced him not to destroy the world,” she said.

“You see?” said Boolard. “This is how it all works out. Like a fun house.”

“Oops,” said McCord. “Before she got the wires, I sent a herd of goats to destroy the parade.”

Then an angry mob from the parade came in and dragged them all off for execution. The city burned to the ground. For some reason, my hotel room was spared.

I did not know what to do. I had no thoughts.

Stave VI. The Unwritten

As I stood there, I found myself looking into the room’s only mirror. I saw my reflection.

“How old are you?” it asked.

“Um,” I said.

“I can tell you,” it replied. “You are too young and too old.”

“You are too young, in the sense of naivete. You offer the response of an over-optimistic young man to the suffering and the inanities of human behavior. You act as if your generation is the only one that ever experienced horror. Or that the horror you have experienced is somehow of a special kind, unlike any other.

“Moreover, you consistently cast yourself as the superior observer of human nature, above it all: The Great Mind, pondering the idiocies of the ants as they toil, sweat, and cry.

“And you act like a man who has never had a female friend, let alone lover.”

“I’ll admit, women are puzzling to me,” I said. It seemed my reflection was as much of an asinine boor as everyone else I had met.

“Yet you are too old in that your stance has lived long beyond its period of relevance. The sardonic, distant, snide, elitist, arrogant attitude you defined decades ago (alongside a legion of like-minded pals) has dissolved into a trite act performed nightly by comics posing as news anchors. Every custom-pickling, craft-brewing, Thailand-vacationing hipster from Seattle to San Diego, from Maine to Manassas, now apes your attitudes to the point of absurdity. There are jokes going around about them, old man: ‘Why did the hipster burn his tongue? He ate his pizza before it was cool.’ The world is growing tired of the stand-offish, the uncommitted, the ironic. It is growing tired of generation after generation that thinks so much of itself.”

“Oh,” I said.

“You act as though you are the only person in the world who gets it. No. Everybody gets it. People have confronted the issues of suffering and stupidity for centuries upon centuries. Read Boethius, for heaven’s sake. Why would you expect existence to be free of ignorance and evil? It isn’t—obviously—and yet the only response you can come up with is to pout. Everybody hurts. Deal with it.”

I decided to speak substantively for a change.

“But there were so many bodies,” I said.

“What bodies?” said my reflection.

“The ones in the cellars,” I said. “Thousands and thousands. Some were burned, but most were roasted. Have you ever seen a roasted human being?”

“I can’t say that I have,” said my reflection.

“Well, I have,” I said. “I had to grab hold of them and haul them up onto the streets. One at a time, unless they were kids. Then I’d take one in each arm.”

“That sounds awful,” said my reflection.

“We piled up the bodies in the square and burned them,” I explained. “But that’s not even what bothers me. What bothers me, even now, were the other guys. (We were all guys.) It didn’t seem to bother them. Or, it didn’t bother them too much. It didn’t bother our guards either. And when I got back home, it didn’t bother anybody I met. Nobody cared.”

“Maybe they weren’t as sensitive as you,” said my reflection.

“SENSITIVE!” I yelled. “Don’t you understand? It was the end of the world! It was the end of everything! Nothing can mean anything after that. Nothing!”

“Ah,” said Reflection. “That’s why you keep writing things like ‘Whatever anyone knows is known by no one.’ I understand that now.”

“Well,” he continued, “I could never experience that horrible feeling. I’m just a projection, after all. But I will say one thing. Actually, I won’t say anything, instead I’ll ask you. In the past, what do you suppose people did when they experienced horror like that?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea,” I replied.

“But wouldn’t it be helpful to think about it?”

“No. There’s nothing that can be done after such a moment. What is anyone supposed to do? That’s why I am so snide to all these people who are caring about this and going around pursuing that. It’s a waste. All of it. Obviously.”

Reflection pondered. “A waste. All right. But consider this: There’s a window over there. Break it and jump out.”

“Commit suicide, you mean,” I said. “Yes, I’ve considered it. A lot.”

“Well, why not?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know.”