Friday, January 29, 2010

Is also fine, and would suffice.

Current book: Cat's Cradle
Pages read: 140 - 287 (end)

I estimated last night when I posted the end page, so 284 was wrong. It's actually 287. You may censure me for inaccuracy if you so desire.

After John gets off the plane with the rest of the visiting contingent, "Papa" Manzano prepares to give a rousing political speech. Instead, he has some kind of stroke and keels over. With his stricken, gasping breaths, he makes Frank the next President, and then subsides into unconsciousness (but not death). Everyone is, of course, upset by the whole thing, and they all scatter to various important places. John goes to check in at his hotel and discovers that it's being run by Philip Castle, son of the multi-millionaire Julian Castle, who was once a playboy but now runs a pro bono hospital on the island. Julian does not share his father's interest in healing the sick, and is, fact, rather deliciously caustic, instead. Anyway, they get to know each other, and eventually everyone ends up at the President's mansion. (And a couple of other places, but I'm glossing over locales for ease of explanation.)

Frank begs John to become President in his stead, offering him the incentive of marrying the beautiful Mona. After a little deliberation, he accepts. During this period, Newt paints an impressionist painting of a cat's cradle - a game, he explains, that is a perpetration of falsehood against the young, since there's no cat and no cradle, but just a set of xs made of string. Afterward, he makes several references to this idea to illustrate the lies that govern everyday life. For example, just after Newt explains that his sister's marriage is an abusive disaster, John says,
"'From the way she talked, I thought it was a very happy marriage.'

Little Newt held his hands six inches apart and he spread his fingers. 'See the cat? See the cradle?'"
It's brilliant, I have to say. I love it when an author makes me smile wryly and go, "Nice." I did it even more dramatically when Newt said the same thing about religion. It's a thoroughly well executed metaphor, and he uses it for cutting social commentary. (I'm falling on love with Kurt Vonnegut. Can you tell?)

Anyway, everyone's hanging around the President's castle (Palace? Fortifications? There's not a good word for what it is.), and John eventually gets called to go investigate the fact that "Papa" Manzano is dead. Well, he is, and it's clear that he's died of taking Ice-Nine, which has caused all the water in his body to freeze at the room temperature, killing him instantly. John confronts the Hoenikker siblings with the information, and they admit to having had Ice-Nine all along. Frank gave his to Manzano, Angela gave hers to her husband, and he's sold it to the government, and Newt gave his to a lovely Russian ballerina who turned out to be a spy, and so took it back to Russia. The United States and Russia, therefore, are both in possession of this substance that can destroy the world at the drop of hat. (Sound familiar? Yeah, I bet.) They all agree to try to hide the evidence by melting it with blowtorches and simply go on with the ceremony that has been planned for that day (which celebrates a great sacrifice made by some war heroes), after which they'll announce that John will be the new president and everything will be hunky-dory.

Of course, things go awry, as they so often do, and one of the demonstration planes doing the flyover for the aforementioned ceremony crashes into the presidential palace, sending it cascading into the sea. Unfortunately, this also sends remnants of Ice-Nine cascading into the sea, which promptly turns to ice and spreads the contamination throughout the entire world, immediately destroying the entire ecosystem. Cheery.

Oh, I forgot to mention that John has discovered, prior to all this, that everyone on the island is actually a Bokononist, and that it was Bokonon himself who asked that the religion be outlawed in order to make it more popular. (Clever. It would totally work.) After discovering this and the fact that Mona is a Bokononist, he also converts to Bokononism, though he intends to keep it outlawed, as President, in order to make sure it stays around. (Not that that matters now, what with the Ice-Nine and all. This is why I try to keep things in order when I summarize, but sometimes they slip by me.)

Mona and John survive by hiding in an underground bunker, and emerge after several days (during which, realistically, there were tornadoes and hurricanes and the like) to find the world a frozen, desolate wasteland. They do find some of the other Americans from the plane, but mostly the island seems deserted. Eventually, they discover that Bokonon gathered everyone together and advised them to commit suicide by licking the Ice-Nine, and they, in fact, did so. John is bewildered by this, but Mona explains that it's better to die when there's nothing else to be done, and promptly follows suit. The book ends with John finding Bokonon himself, who tells him the same thing, but also that he should go out grinning, thumbing his nose at God. That's the end.

So it was crazy and interesting and sharp and engaging and it made me think. I'm impressed by how well Vonnegut told a completely insane story, how often he made incisive points about modern society, and how apropos the book still is after almost fifty years. There's, of course, the clear parallel between Ice-Nine and nuclear weapons, but there's also the sense that it is frighteningly easy to destroy the world by accident as well as on purpose. In other words, it's not just nuclear weapons that could end our existence, but also a thousand other things that we may not even know exist. More important even than that dire warning is the idea that most of us are happy to remain blind to the constant threat of destruction that is the modern condition.

I will think about this book many, many times in future, and that lends it a depth that I value as much as any other facet of literature, and perhaps more. It's definitely worthy of the list. I'm sure some people would argue that literature shouldn't be about fake substances that could destroy the world. They'd say literature has to deal with reality, and must be written with long, descriptive passages that showcase the depth and complexity of the language. These, they would say, are the hallmarks of what makes the literary world great, and science fiction has no place there. These are the people who have created the literary canon.

See the cat? See the cradle?

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