From the get-go – when the narrator Jonah explained that he was collecting material for a book on dropping of two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, “an account of what important Americans had done on the day” – it appears that Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat Cradle” is a broader socio-political critique: of conflict and nuclear destruction, of technological advancement and its purpose, and of culture, religion, and history too. Jonah also adds at the start that he never does finish his book, “The Day the World Ended”, though with the ice-nine substance the ensuing narrative does not deviate too far from the themes of destruction which characterised the atomic bombings
As straightforward as the chronological plot may be, “Cat Cradle” was very readable. Vonnegut used short chapters – each concise, summarised by witty and to-the-point titles – allowing Jonah to move quickly across characters and scenes quickly. One moment he is in Illium, New York interviewing the Hoenikker children and talking to Dr. Asa Breed, and the next moment he is on a plane to the island of San Lorenzo, where most of the action happens. And when describing these characters and scenes, only the most essential traits were identified: characters have their dispositions and speech patterns, while scenes have odd features which are emphasised.
Above all, it is the deadpan humour and bitter irony which complete it. When philanthropist Julian Castle, after an outbreak of bubonic plague, tells his son “Someday all this will be yours”. When Jonah shares one of the lessons from the faith of Bokononism, that “Duffle, in the Bokononist sense, is the destiny of thousands upon thousands of persons when placed in the hands of a stuppa. A stuppa is a fogbound child”. A reader like me may not necessarily draw the socio-political connections – with the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance – yet amidst a no-fuss novel there are macabre warnings of what our world might have been, and what it could be.