Book Review: Kurt Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle", "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater", and "Breakfast of Champions"
In the wake of, among other things, several mass shootings that have paralyzed the nation, one could reasonably argue that there is little to laugh about in the current political and social climate. Yes, comedy is supposed to push boundaries, but surely you have to draw a line somewhere, right? To do otherwise would not only trivialize these horrific events, but the memories of their victims of as well, the argument concludes. However, as with every argument, there is a counter-argument to be made: rather than simply trivialize tragedy, satire and comedy draw attention to and underline the elements that make a given development or phenomenon tragic. And while the first thing that might come to mind when one thinks of such humor is an Internet troll making racist or sexist remarks in the comment section or a 10 year-old repeating dead baby jokes they read on the Internet to friends on the playground, dark comedy has played a prominent, perhaps even integral role in our arts and culture for centuries. Indeed, one of America's most celebrated writers of the 20th century, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., made this style of humor his stock and trade. A veteran of the Second World War who was captured by the Germans and subsequently witnessed the fire bombing of Dresden, Vonnegut saw his fair share of horror. But instead of being broken by these horrors, he was inspired by them, writing dozens of novels and short stories over the course of his prolific career. His most well-known work (as well as the one widely regarded as his magnum opus) is the slim-yet-sublime Slaughterhouse-Five, but the three collected in this volume, Cat's Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and Breakfast of Champions, are also worthy entries in his impressive canon. A writer of great contrasts, each of these novels bear the simple, straightforward yet still deeply profound manner Vonnegut wrote in, the pitch-black sense of humor he reveled in, and the hopeful, humanist outlook he believed in.
The first selection, Cat's Cradle, would be a real downer if it weren't so hilarious. In fact, it starts off with John, the protagonist, telling the reader that the following chaos started when he set out to write a book called "The Day The World Ended" (Vonnegut, pg. 11) about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and what Americans were doing that day. Not what one would exactly call a rich spring of mirth, but astonishingly, Vonnegut is able to use one of only two incidences where nuclear weapons were offensively deployed (against civilians, no less) as a springboard for this chuckle-inducing satire. Making frequent quotation and reference throughout to a cryptic religious figure called Bokonon (who offers such droll tidbits of wisdom as "She was a fool, and so am I, and so is anyone who thinks he sees what God is Doing," [Vonnegut, pg. 13]), John explains how his research for his book set him on the trail of one Dr. Felix Hoenikker, the "Father of The Atom Bomb" and thus a prime target for inclusion in John's book. Described by colleagues of his as inscrutable and indifferent to the point of callousness, Hoenikker is revealed to have not only passed on, but to have limited his interaction with his children to fashioning the titular cat's cradle out of string, developed a dangerous chemical substance called ice-nine that freezes water solid, and when told by a fellow scientist after testing their first prototype atomic bomb that "Science has now known sin," (Vonnegut, pg. 19), earnestly replied "What is sin?" (Vonnegut, pg. 19). Taken aback by the literally devastating ramifications of ice-nine, John resolves to track down Hoenikker's estranged children in the hope that they can tell him more about the substance, learning that one of them, the hopelessly technical Franklin, has by virtue of his surname become Minister of Science for the Caribbean island of San Lorenzo. Soon enough, "[a]s it was supposed to happen [as] Bokonon would say" Vonnegut, pg. 53), John finds himself assigned a story about San Lorenzo-based humanitarian Julian Castle and on a plane to the curious nation, where, depending on how you look at it, fate awaits (as Bokonon would have it), or nothing awaits (as Bokonon would also have it).
On San Lorenzo, John meets a litany of larger-than-life characters: "Papa" Monzano, the island's aging dictator who is waging a brutal crackdown on Bokononist activity, Mona Monzano, "Papa's" stunning adopted daughter who plays a xylophone at a welcoming ceremony for the American ambassador and flirts with men by rubbing the bottoms of their feet with hers, and Newt Hoenikker, Frank's midget brother who spends his time painting abstract art, of which John remarks, "The scratches formed a sort of spider's web, and I wondered if they might not be the sticky nets of human futility hung up on a moonless night to dry," (Vonnegut, pg. 93). None, however, are bigger than the civilian residents of San Lorenzo, who speak in a dialect of English so completely removed from any such existing dialect as to be utterly laughable. When asked by one of John's fellow Americans who Bokonon is, the cab driver ferrying them around says he is a "Vorry ball moan," (Vonnegut, pg. 85) and that anybody who tries to help him will get the "hy-u-o-ook-kuh" (Vonnegut, pg. 85). Or as we might say in American English, Bokonon is a very bad man, and anybody who helps him will get the hook, shorthand for the San Lorenzan execution tool of choice. In spite of this horrific treatment of his followers and potentially himself, Bokonon takes it all in stride, musing in a poem that John reads, "'Papa' Monzano, he's so very bad,/But without bad 'Papa' I would be so sad,/Because without 'Papa's' badness,/ Tell me, if you would,/How could wicked old Bokonon/Ever, ever look good?" (Vonnegut, pg. 62).
While all of this is going on, John continues his search for the late Dr. Hoenikker's ice-nine, learning that his children split what remained of it amongst themselves and attempting to figure out what should be done to neutralize the threat it poses. As it turns out, "Papa" had Frank's share of ice-nine, and uses it to commit suicide, prompting a changing of the guard in which John marries Mona (much to his joy) so that he may take over as President of San Lorenzo in place of Frank, who feels he can't handle the pressure of the job. Just as things seem to taking a turn for the better, a terrible accident destroys "Papa's" palace and plunges his frozen body into the sea, turning the whole ocean solid and irreversibly changing the planet's climate. Millions die in the ensuing cataclysm, among them many of the characters in the story, with John and Mona only surviving by hiding in one of the now-destroyed palace's undergound dungeons. Upon emerging, however, Mona is shocked to the point of hysterics by the site of an apparent mass suicide of San Lorenzans, and resolves to join them. "...still laughing a little, she touched her finger to the ground, straightened up, and touched the finger to her lips and died," John matter-of-factly tells us (Vonnegut, pg. 150). Wandering through the frozen wilderness, the grief-stricken John meets the mythical Bokonon, who miraculously survived as well. Sitting on the forever-frozen earth with pencil and paper in hand, the ever-adaptable Bokonon reveals that he is at last ready to complete The Books of Bokonon, which end with him climbing San Lorenzo's highest mountain and "tak[ing] from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who" (Vonnegut, pg. 157). After this grim conclusion, readers won't be able to help but wonder if all this (this as in life, the universe, and everything) is part of some plan privy only to a higher power or intelligence with too much time on their hands, or if, as Newt says when remembering all the times his father would make X's with string and tell him there was a cat's cradle somewhere in the mess betwixt his hands, there's "No damn cat, and no damn cradle," (Vonnegut, pg. 94).
For those put off by the bleak nihilism of Cat's Cradle, the next novel in this collection, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, presents a more optimistic side of Vonnegut's philosophy, even as it operates in the same satirical vein as the previous entry. It concerns the multi-million dollar fortune of the illustrious Rosewater family, which is protected from government expropriation through a charitable foundation meant to safeguard it and fated to pass into the hands of Eliot Rosewater. A war hero, Harvard graduate and volunteer firefighter, it appears that Eliot would be a responsible steward of his family's vast fortune. But as the reader learns however, others are not so keen on the thought of Eliot inheriting his family's vast fortune, and are determined to prove him not fit to handle such a responsibility. Norman Mushari, a young, conniving lawyer eager to nab a piece of the Rosewater pie, sets out to prove that Eliot is insane and thus incapable of running the Rosewater Foundation. How does he reach such a conclusion? By reading confidential documents of Eliot's that contain lines such as this: "Be generous. Be kind. You can safely ignore the arts and sciences. They never helped anybody. Be a sincere, attentive friend of the poor," (Vonnegut, pg. 170). Crazy? More like Christ-like to this writer. But when you consider how they treated the actual Christ, it's no surprise that the Mr. Rosewater's altruistic tendencies would be pathologized by those around him. Even his wife, Slyvia, is baffled by Eliot's eccentricities, as seen when she tells him she is going to burn some overalls, fields jackets, and other working-class clothes he traded most of his high-end wardrobe for and he bluntly replies, "Burn my tails, my dinner jacket, and my gray flannel suit instead," (Vonnegut, pg. 177). He couldn't care less about the luxurious garments, the great wealth, the very life of privilege he was born into. All he cares about is helping those less fortunate than him. So great is this desire that Eliot abruptly leaves Sylvia and his responsibilities behind and heads out to Rosewater County, Indiana, built and envisioned by previous generations of Rosewaters as a great port of commerce and left to fend for itself when this vision failed to materialize. Endeavoring to care for the predominantly blue-collar residents of Rosewater County abandoned by his ancestors and become "an artist" (Vonnegut, pg. 186), Eliot explains to Sylvia over phone, "I'm going to love these discarded Americans, even though they're useless and unattractive. That is going to be my work of art," (Vonnegut, pg. 186). A tad messianic on his part, yes, but I didn't compare him to Jesus for nothing!
Naturally, Eliot's mission to become a good Samaritan is not smoothly received by his loved ones, least of all Sylvia. Having put up with Eliot's charitable inclinations since they first married, Sylvia finds herself succumbing to a nervous breakdown (the second since her marriage to Eliot) when he runs away, only to recover and find her frustration over Eliot's humanitarianism giving way to self-loathing about not being able to live up to the radical example set by him. Nor is Eliot's father, powerful conservative Senator Lister Ames Rosewater, pleased about his decision to leave the family, their foundation, and most importantly, their fortune behind and walk amongst the dregs of society, causing him no end of irritation when he tries to convince Sylvia to get ahold of Eliot and initiate sex with him on the chance that she will get pregnant and father a son who, in light of Eliot's madness, will become the rightful heir to the Rosewater fortune and she flatly refuses, saying that despite how much it hurts her, she ultimately accepts his choice. When the Senator becomes incredulous that she could agree with Eliot's decision to seek "the sniveling camaraderie of whores, malingerers, pimps, and thieves," (Vonnegut, pg. 198), the heartbroken Sylvia lets him in on a secret: "The secret is that they're human," (Vonnegut, pg. 199). Meanwhile, the wily Mushari plots to have a cousin of Eliot's, twice removed and barely making ends meet as an insurance agent in a small Rhode Island town, designated as the fortune's trustee so that he might have a chance to keep some of the loot for himself in the inevitable legal confusion. As for Eliot, he occupies himself with running a Rosewater County branch of the Rosewater Foundation (staffed exclusively by himself) from which he day and night manned two phone hotlines, one for fire department alerts and one for Rosewater Foundation business (that is, if you call letting bums and whores pour their hearts out to you "business"). Things come to a head when Senator Rosewater, his hand forced by Mushari's efforts to prove Eliot's insanity, comes calling for his son so that he can defend himself before his peers and is mortified by the ascetic lifestyle Eliot has arrogated to himself, claiming that only a "nut" (Vonnegut, pg. 272) could live like that. "What if the nut came out and gave sensible explanations for his place being the way it is?" Eliot innocently asks (Vonnegut, pg. 273). "He would still be a nut," the Senator retorts (Vonnegut, pg. 273).
The strain of looking after the people of Rosewater County and handling his family's efforts to extricate him from said people proves to be too much for him, and sure enough, the metaphorical prophecy fulfills itself and Eliot actually undergoes a nervous breakdown, from which he is snapped back to reality only by the intervention of Kilgore Trout, an obscure science fiction author (as well as Vonnegut's recurring, perpetually unfortunate spirit animal) who was summoned by Senator Rosewater to the facility Eliot was staying at on account of the Senator remembering Eliot's passionate appreciation of his work. After being told that Trout explained to everyone else involved that, far from being the acts of a lunatic, Eliot's stint in Rosewater County "was quite possibly the most important social experiment of our time," (Vonnegut, pg. 294), Eliot learns that a plan by Mushari to tarnish his reputation backfired when one of the prostitutes Eliot comforted in Rosewater County claimed he fathered twins by her, sparking a series of similar allegations to arise across the county. With the sheer volume of women claiming to be pregnant by Eliot, Mushari's original claim is effectively discredited and the family fortune is once again safe. Having regained control of his faculties as well as his fortune, Eliot delivers one last, unwelcome surprise to his father: he is adopting all of the children in Rosewater County, making them the new inheritors of the fortune shielded by the Rosewater Foundation. Not content to share the family's wealth with his newly-adopted sons and daughters, he instructs the Foundation's legal counsel "And tell them... to be fruitful and multiply," (Vonnegut, pg. 300). Considering that one might look at God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater as a 20th century variation of the Christ story, it's only fitting that it concludes with a quotation of scripture. Not bad for a book by an avowed atheist like Vonnegut.
The final entry in this volume, Breakfast of Champions, is easily the most experimental of the bunch, and thus the most open to interpretation. It ostensibly revolves around the karass (to borrow a word from Cat's Cradle's Bokonon, meaning two or more people linked by fate) of Kilgore Trout, promoted from a cameo appearance in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater to the admittedly protagonist of his own novel, and Dwayne Hoover, a well-off automobile salesman on the brink of losing it. What pushes Dwayne to finally lose it? A combination of his body "manufacturing certain chemicals which unbalanced his mind," (Vonnegut, pg. 322) and an invidious idea put into his head by one of Trout's absurd novels: that "Everybody else was a fully automatic machine, whose purpose was to stimulate Dwayne. Dwayne was a new type of creature being tested by the Creator of the Universe. Only Dwayne Hoover had free will," (Vonnegut, pg. 323). Trout, as down on his luck and starved for recognition as ever, is not entirely responsible for this unfortunate development however. In fact, he isn't even aware of Dwayne's existence until he is invited to be the guest speaker at an arts festival in Dwayne's hometown of Midland City. It is here that Trout meets Dwayne, who at this point is drunk, desperate, and begging for "The message, please" (Vonnegut, pg. 496), leading him to seize Trout's copy of the book containing his dangerous idea. Having read that "You are surrounded by loving machines, hating machines, greedy machines, unselfish machines, brave machines, cowardly machines, truthful machines, lying machines, funny machines, solemn machines... Their only purpose is to stir you up in every conceivable way, so the Creator of the Universe can watch your reactions," (Vonnegut, pg. 498), Dwayne promptly goes on a rampage, sending eleven people to the hospital, including visiting Gothic novelist Beatrice Keedsler, earnest cocktail waitress Bonnie MacMahon and his gay son Bunny before being apprehended. Strapped down in an ambulance, Dwayne doesn't "notice the restraints. He thought he was on the virgin planet promised by the book by Kilgore Trout... The book had told him that he went swimming in cold water on the virgin planet, that he always yelled something surprising when he climbed out of the icy pool. It was a game," (Vonnegut, pg. 511).
Of course, Vonnegut doesn't let the plot resolve (and I use the term loosely) as smoothly as I make it sound. Much of the book digresses from the action involving Dwayne and Trout to explain familiar objects, symbols, and various other things to the reader as if they were an alien phenomenon. Accompanying Vonnegut's plain-English descriptions are hand drawn illustrations, rendered in a child-like but truthful manner by the author's own hand. These explanatory episodes usually serve to point out failings or shortcomings of humanity in general and the United States in particular as Vonnegut saw them, an example being a detailed drawing of an electric chair followed by this line of text: "The purpose of it was to kill people by jazzing them with more electricity than their bodies could stand. Dwayne Hoover had seen it twice-once during a tour of the prison by members of the Chamber of Commerce years ago, and then again when it was actually used on a black human being he knew," (Vonnegut, pg. 428). The honest, direct language forces the reader to shed their prejudices about whatever is being described and reevaluate their opinions towards it while the pictures make us wonder what our children would make of such things. Vonnegut's commentary is not just limited to a passive role as narrator. Towards the end of the book, he directly addresses the reader, bemoaning the way Americans live as though they were characters in story books. "Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done," he declares (Vonnegut, pg. 466). From this point on, he is directly involved in the story, sitting in the same cocktail lounge as his characters and observing their actions as he writes them. When Dwayne is taken away, Vonnegut pursues Trout, revealing that he, unlike the people he so derided, actually is a character in a book and that he is his Creator, the Creator of his Universe so to speak. Overwhelmed by this revelation, Trout breaks down and collapses on his knees, only for Vonnegut to add some heartening news. "I am approaching my fiftieth birthday, Mr. Trout... I am cleansing and renewing myself for the very different sorts of years to come," he explains. "I am going to set at liberty all the literary characters who have served me so loyally during my writing career... Arise, Mr. Trout, you are free, you are free," and with that, Kilgore Trout fades away from the hard, unrewarding life Vonnegut consigned him to (Vonnegut, pg. 526). As his avatar disappears, Vonnegut catches what are both Trout's and the novel's last words: "Make me young, make me young, make me young!" (Vonnegut, pg. 526), followed by a large, hand-drawn "etc." and ending with an illustrated side profile of a teary-eyed Vonnegut. This postmodern ending perfectly demonstrates the ambiguous tone of Breakfast of Champions; should we rejoice that Vonnegut has developed spiritually and artistically as he set out to do by freeing his long-suffering literary avatar, or should we mourn as Vonnegut does that he has let a significant part of himself go? It's a value judgment that discerning readers will have to make for themselves.
Although each of the aforementioned novels offers seemingly different takes on mankind and existence, they are all united by a common theme: adaptation. This is most evident when Vonnegut exclaims to the reader in Breakfast of Champions, "It is hard to adapt to chaos, but it can be done. I am living proof of that: it can be done," (Vonnegut, pg. 467). For every disaster caused by man's folly and triggered by his increasingly terrible weapons, there is a Bokonon to climb to the highest peak and thumb his nose at the architect of such apocalyptic affairs. For every lawyer scheming to acquire what isn't his and every senator who can't see beyond his own fortunes and misfortunes, there is an Eliot Rosewater to step up to the plate and look after the people that no one else will. And for every Dresden, every wanton destruction of innocent lives, there is a Vonnegut, to remind us that we can and indeed we must change. This message is so urgent and yet so simple that Vonnegut is able to convey it in almost-excessively accessible prose without diluting it's importance whatsoever. Even when Vonnegut makes jokes at the expense of his characters or treats crimes and catastrophes as premises to mine for laughter rather than calamities to decry in solemn tones, it is because of the weight of the situations in question that there is humor, not in spite of it. If, in these trying times, you don't know whether you want to laugh, cry, or something in between, read Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and Breakfast of Champions. I challenge you to come away from reading all three saying anything other than "God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut."