Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Now I am become Death

Current book: Cat's Cradle
Pages read: 1 - 140

I am at something of a loss on how to describe this book. I like it, but it's very, very strange.

The narrator, John, is investigating the history of a man called Felix Hoenikker, who, in this world, is the inventor of the atom bomb. He begins, though, by telling us about both that mission and his own devotion to a religion called Bokononism, which he periodically references throughout the text. It was by investigating Hoenikker, it becomes clear, that he found and devoted himself to this religion in the first place, which shows us that the whole thing is being told retrospectively.

Ok, so, Hoenikker has three children: Newton, a midget who has just flunked out of medical school, Angela, who is a housewife in Indiana, and Frank, who, we learn, disappeared for some time after being pursued by the police for racketeering charges and is now the scientific adviser to the self-made dictator of the tiny island nation of San Lorenzo. (Got it? Clearly, James and Faulkner and their long sentences are rubbing off on me. Or maybe I'm trying to translate the benefits of literature to you, the reader, out of a sense of altruism and duty. Let's go with the second one.) John goes to the town that has the laboratories where Hoenikker made his discoveries and meets one of his fellow scientists, Dr. Breed (who may have slept with Hoenikker's wife, though it's unclear). He also meets other townspeople, for no real reason other than to create a contrast between the world of the scientific thinker and the world of the "normal" thinker, I believe.

Eventually, John discovers Frank's whereabouts, and decides that he has to go to San Lorenzo to meet him. On the plane on the way there, he meets Angela and Newton (called Newt), who are on the way to attend Frank's wedding to the beautiful sex-symbol daughter of San Lorenzo's dictator. Upon viewing her picture, John falls instantly in love with said sex-symbol and mourns the fact that they can't be married, since she's already engaged to Frank. While on the plane, he also meets the American ambassador to San Lorenzo, and his wife, Horlick and Claire Minton. They give him a copy of the only available history of the island, which explains the Bokononian religion and the fact that San Lorenzo was taken over by Bokonon (actually a calypso singer named Lionel Johnson) and his friend, Earl McCabe, who landed there accidentally after a shipwreck and decided they'd like to rule. "Papa" Manzano (Have we noticed that people called "Papa" are never suitable leaders? Don't put them in power, guys; it's just a bad idea.), the current dictator, apparently took his cues from McCabe, who, subsequent to the shipwreck, had a falling out with Bokonon/Johnson and banned him and his religion from the island. So, there we are, with our hero John and his entourage just getting off the plane after landing in San Lorenzo. Oh, also, John believes that Hoenikker invented a substance called Ice-Nine before he died, which would change the crystalline structure of ice and cause water to freeze at much lower temperatures than normal, and that all three of his children are in possession of this both revolutionary and incredibly dangerous substance.

I know it sounds bizarre and nonsensical as hell, but somehow it's both convincing and compelling. The narrative voice is strange and perhaps insane, but the events move quickly, and Vonnegut intersperses the plot with cutting satirical commentary that's beautifully delivered. The comments of the "regular" people about scientists' thinking and the comments of the scientists about the thinking of "regular" people are rather expertly pitted against one another to represent the foolishness of the two extremes. It's impressive. Take this excerpt, for example, which is a story related by Naomi Faust, Hoenikker's secretary.
"There was one [conversation with Dr. Hoenikker] where he bet I couldn't tell him anything that was absolutely true. So I said to him, 'God is love' ... He said, 'What is God? What is love?'"
Nice, Vonnegut. Nice.

The little excerpts of Bokonon's calypso songs that John inserts wherever he feels like it and that illustrate the gist of his teachings are sort of getting on my nerves, but I think Vonnegut's using them to that purpose in order to illustrate the fact that quoting scripture is an exercise in absurdity. Cutting, but true.

I'm really looking forward to the rest of this one, which is a nice change. I mean, yes, the Faulkner was good, but I wouldn't exactly call it a page-turner. This, though, I would.

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