Just read: Kurt Vonnegut's 'Cat's Cradle' & 'Slaughterhouse-Five'

 "Just read" is a blog where I blog about a book I just read. I'm trying to read more books this year and I don't wanna forget about them; blogging will probably help me remember, but who can be sure.


Most recently I completed my first two forays into Kurt Vonnegut's writing, going through both Cat's Cradle (1963) and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). Both were enjoyable, though I think on first read I enjoyed Cat's Cradle more, and it was very interested to compare and contrast the two novels while reading them back-to-back. Though they were only written six years apart, they are quite different in execution, while being somewhat similar in spirit.

Vonnegut's work is best remembered for its anti-war rhetoric and satire. It's easy to see why once you get even a quarter-way through either of these titles, as his political theories aren't exactly kept quiet, and some of the best moments in these stories come when he's is taking aim at something specific. 


Cat's Cradle was an extremely strange book to pick up after reading two novels by Hunter S. Thompson -- the style of prose present in Cat's Cradle is about as far apart from Thompson's long-winding storytelling as you can get. Vonnegut uses short and concise sentences, writing simply, expressing thoughts in rapid-fire succession at times, and even more striking is how short the "chapters" are in this book. Over the course of two pages, you may read text from three different "chapters," and these page breaks, along with Vonnegut's simple style, make Cat's Cradle an extremely quick read. It's not for everyone, but I imagine that if you like it, you'll really like it. The style seems like a tough thing to be in-between about, and I count myself on the side that enjoys it. 

The part of Cat's Cradle I'll likely remember most from my first reading is the fictional religion of Bokononism, which is practiced by the novel's characters. You can read about it on the Wikipedia page without getting too many spoilers into the story, but the overarching foundation of the religion is that it is entirely made up of lies.

For a reason that I can't quite put my finger on, I found Slaughterhouse-Five to be a bit more difficult to get through. I read it right after Cat's Cradle, and I think its nonlinear nature might have been what threw me off at the outset. On further readings, I think I will enjoy this book much more, and far more than Cat's Cradle; while I really liked the latter, I don't feel a strong desire to read it again anytime particularly soon. But immediately after I finishing Slaughterhouse-Five, I wanted to start over, and I only didn't do that because I wanted to move into other territories before returning to more Vonnegut. I'd like to eventually continue my way through his major works.

Slaughterhouse-Five is, again and even more forcefully, an anti-war book. It's Vonnegut's best-known and most influential writing, and it's fairly genius from its first chapter. Vonnegut establishes a present but only fractionally involved narrator, and the story is about a soldier who has visited an alien planet and who has become "unstuck in time," meaning that he lives his life one moment at a time, but the moments are experienced in a fragmented way. At any point in his life, he has seen the rest of his life take place; so at his wedding, he's aware of how his wife will die, and every day of his own life, he's aware of how he will die. During the war, he's aware of which soldiers amongst him will survive and which won't, but due to what he learned on that alien planet, this doesn't make him "quit" or become a defeated personality, as it seems like may happen. 


Vonnegut's repetitive use of "So it goes" when referencing death is probably the most versatile literary technique I've come across in the limited amount I've read. Wikipedia notes the refrain appears 106 times throughout the book. Here's a phrase I liked from the book; it comes from a letter the main character, Billy Pilgrim, began writing to his local newspaper in an attempt to explain some of his life experiences:

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is "so it goes.”

I'd recommend both novels on the principles that I enjoyed each my first time reading them, and that they are allegedly the best way to introduce yourself to Vonnegut's writing. He's an author I look forward to reading more in the future. Next, I'm reading Batman: Year One, because I was in the mood to read a comic book and I've never purchased a graphic novel. 

Both Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five are available as IRL books and e-books on Amazon. They are also both available on Audible; if you click this link, you can get a free trial of Audible that includes two free audiobooks (how perfect for this!). Even if you cancel your trial, you'll get to keep these two books. Also: clicking on any of the Amazon links in this post, and purchasing something from them, provides a small percentage kickback to the author of the blog you just read.