Reading one’s own obituary: P. T. Barnum

P. T. Barnum

I’ve written in the past about the profession of obituary writing. My interest is rather simple: I wrote a story years ago about an obituarist (kindly published by North American Review) and I’ve remain interested in the vocation since. It strikes me as a unique field of work to compress a person of note’s life down to six or seven informative paragraphs without simply being encyclopedic.

More interesting to me is that most obituaries are written while the subject is still alive. If newspapers are going to stay in the business of publishing timely work, they have to be. Who wants to read the obituary of a one-hit wonder or has-been star six weeks after their death? The magic of the obituary is to be at once timely and timeless.

One danger in the obituary business is premature publication. It turns out there’s a history of notables who had the pleasure of reading their own obituaries, from Axl Rose to Abe Vigoda to Alfred Nobel. I won’t bother quoting Twain about exaggerated reports, but Rudyard Kipling may have topped it with his letter to an editor: “I’ve just read that I am dead. Don’t forget to delete me from your list of subscribers.”

Mindful of current events in the United States, I found myself reading over Wikipedia’s entry on P. T. Barnum. The man’s life was surprisingly varied. While he’s most famous as a huckster and a showman, I didn’t know one of his first ventures was publishing a crusading newspaper (which might explain his later skill of manipulating the press) or that he didn’t get into the circus business until age sixty, when his greatest exploits and promotions were well behind him.

And then there’s this tidbit about his life and death, as told in the New York Times:

In ill health in 1891, he persuaded a New York newspaper, The Evening Sun, to publish his obituary while he was still alive so he could read it; he died days later at the age of 81.

In my short story, the obituarist remarks that writing one’s own death notice stands outside the bounds of professional decorum. But to bless one’s obituary be published while on death’s door, all for the pleasure of reading it before you pass—P. T. Barnum was quite a man.

Kurt Vonnegut on story shapes, writing with style, and running experiments

Recently I picked up Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut, part of the Literary Conversations Series from University Press of Mississippi. The collection offers interviews and profiles of Vonnegut published between 1969 and 1999. The first comes shortly after the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five. The subsequent rocket ride of literary stardom Vonnegut enjoyed—or endured—follows.

The collection seems rather complete, culling all manner of sources, right down to a softball Q&A with Harry Reasoner for 60 Minutes. The collection is enjoyable if light reading, much like many of Vonnegut’s books, but it still held a few surprises for me. (Apparently after the success of Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut contemplated throwing out Breakfast of Champions when he realized he could now sell any book he wrote no matter its quality.)

The more I learn about Vonnegut the more I’ve come to see how pragmatic he was when it came to the craft of writing. Vonnegut often lists Robert Louis Stevenson as one of his favorite authors because, as a boy, he was “excited by stories which were well-made. Real ‘story’ stories…with a beginning, middle, and end.” His essay “How to Write With Style” is advice of the roll-up-your-sleeves variety, featuring chestnuts like “Find a subject you care about” and “Keep it simple.” While teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop he led a course help students make a career out of writing after graduating—teaching, technical writing, ad copy, anything to put bread on the table. Apparently the course was not well-received by other faculty.

One popular meme is Vonnegut’s lecture on the shape of stories. The audience chortles as he chalks out curves and lines graphing a set of basic story structures. (Maya Eliam’s infographics of these shapes are lucid and wonderful.) Most likely many in the auditorium thought he was satirizing when he said story forms could be graphed mathematically or analyzed by a computer, but his lecture is in earnest. This was his master’s thesis in anthropology, after all.

In a 1977 interview with Paris Review—the most in-depth interview in the collection—Vonnegut drops a mention of his story shapes:

Vonnegut: Somebody gets into trouble, and then gets out again; somebody loses something and gets it back; somebody is wronged and gets revenge; Cinderella; somebody hits the skids and just goes down, down, down; people fall in love with each other, and a lot of other people get in the way…

Interviewer: If you will pardon my saying so, these are very old-fashioned plots.

Vonnegut: I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. … When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do.

The last sentence may be the most plainly spoken argument against the avant-garde I’ve read.

Vonnegut even compared writing novels to experiments, which I’ve explored myself. He felt experimentation was in his nature due to his education as a chemist and an engineer. (I believe this is the first time I’ve read another fiction writer describe creating fiction as a kind of experiment.) Here he talks with Laurie Clancy about Breakfast of Champions (still unpublished at this point):

Interviewer: Could you indicate what direction your new work is taking?

Vonnegut: It’s in the nature of an experiment. I don’t know how it’s going to come out or what the meaning’s going to be—but I’ve set up a situation where there’s only one person in the whole universe who has free will, who has to decide what to do next and why, has to wonder what’s really going on and what he’s supposed to do. … What the implications of this are I don’t know but I’m running off the experiment now. I’ll somehow have a conclusion when I’ve worked long enough on the book. … Regarding [God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater], I said to myself “Well, all right, what happens when you give poor people money?” So I ran the experiment off and tried to control it as responsibly as I could.

The Clancy interview is one of the best in the book. Vonnegut is engaged, thoughtful, and revelatory.

Kindle Scout in Memoriam

Originally published at Hidden Gems Books.

At the end of May Amazon’s e-publishing venture Kindle Scout was put to rest after a run of three-plus years. Amazon announced the winding down in an email sent to all of Kindle Scout’s registered users (“Scouts” in their parlance) on April 2. The email was cool and understated considering the subject matter: “[W]e wanted to let you know of some upcoming changes being made to the Kindle Scout program” followed by businesslike details of the program’s orderly shutdown. Amazon’s Kindle Scout was an innovative approach to publishing never before tried, yet it died with neither a bang nor a whimper, but with the clearing of a throat.

Reader-powered publishing

Let’s rewind and look at what made Kindle Scout so different in the publishing world. Rather than the traditional process of publishing—unknown authors cold-submitting into a mountainous slush-pile while well-known authors are courted by editors—Kindle Scout tacked a direction both democratic and meritocratic in nature, a process it dubbed “reader-powered publishing.”

It worked like this: Writers submitted their novels to Kindle Scout for consideration. Kindle Scout posted the first three chapters on their Amazon.com web site along with the book’s cover, author’s bio, and so forth. Readers perused these novels much like bookstore patrons sample paperbacks from a rotating wire rack. Readers—”Scouts”—could then vote on which novels they wanted to see published. (Scouts were rewarded for participating by receiving free ebooks of accepted work, which in turn drove reviews and ratings on Amazon.) Each books’ nomination campaign lasted thirty days, giving authors ample motivation to promote their work via the social networks, word-of-mouth, message boards—some even purchased online click-through advertising for their campaigns.

If an author earned enough attention from Scouts (and the approval of the Amazon editors) they could secure a contract with Kindle Press, the e-publishing arm of Amazon that administered Kindle Scout. The contract included publication in Kindle format (sorry, no paperback), a $1,500 advance, fifty-fifty ebook royalties, and marketing backed by Amazon’s muscle power. Not shabby for any struggling writer attempting to break into the publishing world.

Kindle Scout’s first round of winners were announced on November 27, 2014. Over the next three and half years, Kindle Scout would select for publication nearly 300 titles of all genres and styles. Books ranged from the straightforward to the bizarre, from romance to science-fiction to historical dramas to novels of literary intent. Kindle Press was not a publisher of genre fiction—it published everything.

Royal Date by Sariah Wison is one of Kindle Scout’s biggest success stories.

Kindle Scout’s semi-open approach to publication was bolder than it sounds. An unspoken belief in the traditional publishing world is that book editors have reached their position because they’re fit to judge a novel on its artistic merits and profit possibilities—editors are the professionals, the gatekeepers, the tastemakers, the adults in the room. Granting Scouts that responsibility and power sounds absurd on the face of it. After all, anyone with an Amazon account could sign-up and start voting—who do you know without an Amazon account? And yet—it worked.

In addition to the manuscript itself, Kindle Scout expected writers to provide a submission package: a 45-character tag line (harder than it sounds!), a book description, a thank-you note for Scouts, and even the book’s cover. Off-loading these tasks on the author meant the writer was wearing shoes normally reserved for book agents and front-line editors. Kindle Press sometimes released the author’s submission package as-is with no editorial or artistic revisions. (Unfortunately, this led to an early reputation of publishing “trash” novels fostered in part by a snarky write-up in Slate magazine.) Later on, editorial services were offered to accepted writers. Some books received new covers after publication gratis Kindle Press.

Kindle Scout was one-part bold experiment, one-part do-it-yourself publishing, and one-part partnering with Amazon’s marketing might. Another way to put it: Kindle Scout was turn-key independent publishing for the small-time author ready to step up their game.

My experience

When I submitted my novel Bridge Daughter to Kindle Scout, that’s pretty much how I viewed the program: An experiment in independent publishing with potential big returns. I’d shopped my book around to a handful of agents with the usual discouraging results and form-letter responses. Curious, I studied Kindle Scout’s FAQ and legal boilerplate and thought it was worth a go. If nothing else, I knew I’d kick myself later if I didn’t at least try.

My attraction to Kindle Scout was not merely its web-savvy nomination process. Kindle Scout’s winners list boasted publisher-friendly genres like romance and epic fantasy as well as quiet and quirky work. I found myself drawn to novels like Katie O’Rourke’s family drama Finding Charlie, Erik Therme’s chilling Resthaven, and Bradley Wind’s wonderfully personal A Whole Lot.

With my novel prepped and submission package assembled, I filled in Kindle Scout’s online form, clicked a mouse button, and sent my book into the aether. Four days later, my book was on the Kindle Scout web site and accepting votes. If you’ve submitted work to agents or literary magazines and waited months for a response, four days probably sounds like sheer fantasy. It was another example of Kindle Scout ignoring accepted norms in the publishing world.

Plenty of people (including myself) pondered the skeleton key leading to acceptance by Kindle Scout. Was it page views of your book’s Scout page? Reader nominations? Kindle Scout’s secret sauce was its mysterious “Hot & Trending” badge which signified growing interest in your book. The speculation was so rampant, disreputable “services” arose on the Internet purporting to guarantee thirty days of Hot & Trending for a modest nonrefundable fee.

It may sound naive, but I suspect Kindle Press editors tended to accept selections based on content and marketability—in other words, using criteria much like their traditional publishing counterparts. The number of nominations a book received was never revealed to a winner so far as I know. (There’s a reason Scouts “nominated” books rather than “voted” for them. It was not a purely democratic process.) It seems to me the coveted Hot & Trending badge kept authors busy promoting their book during the 30-day campaign, doing the legwork a tech-shrewd publicist would normally perform.

And perhaps that was the best reason for an independent author to try Kindle Scout: Promotion. Putting sample chapters of your latest book on amazon.com before tens of thousands of potential readers is a fine way to generate prerelease buzz. The Kindle Scout platform was custom-built to kick-start ebook sales.

Alas, the good times hit a road bump in the first quarter of 2017. A change in editorial staff was announced via private channels to Kindle Press authors. Although not obvious at first, as the months wore on the pace of accepted manuscripts slowed to a trickle. The diversity I’d so admired also narrowed. A Kindle Press editor admitted to me earlier this year they were seeking work for the “Kindle Reader:” accessible fiction for an adult readership. Nothing wrong with that, merely unfortunate that Kindle Press couldn’t keep the door open for writers striking out on a different trail.

What’s next?

With Kindle Scout’s funky little experiment shuttered for good, I find myself strangely nostalgic. There really was something exhilarating about joining the experiment and seeing where it would take me. It strikes me that Amazon charted a map showing a new way of doing business in the publishing world. Kindle Scout’s formula could be replicated by an ambitious and web-savvy small publisher, or even an established house’s imprint seeking to shake things up. Yes, the book closes on Kindle Scout with the clearing of a throat. Let’s see if there’s a sequel.

Ray Bradbury on getting stories published

When I was a younger writer, one question that monopolized far too much of my time was how to get published. Early on I recognized publishing was a numbers game for the starting writer. Any naive notions I held about the quality of my short stories leading to quick publication were dashed. Publication would only come by getting my work out there, far and wide.

Although short story writers are admonished to “study the market” and zero in on magazines suitable for their work, I honestly can’t say studying the market helped me get published in an of itself. What was more educational was when magazines flat-out rejected my best work, which encouraged me to continue to hone my craft and expand my scope. In other words, rejection slips taught me my best work was not so special after all.

I’ve been dipping into Wayne L. Johnson’s 1980 book Ray Bradbury the past couple of months, part of the Recognitions series published by Frederick Ungar. The Recognitions series features critical work on genre writers who’ve transcended their genre. Johnson’s Ray Bradbury is a biography of the author tracked through his output rather than a stiff-backed recounting of dates and locations of events in his life. Bradbury’s short stories are grouped by subject matter and style as a strategy for analyzing the author’s approach to fiction. Johnson’s book paints a picture of a man who delved deep in the human imagination and returned with some fantastic stories for the ages.

Galaxy Magazine (February 1951). Bradbury’s novella “The Fireman” was the nucleus for Fahrenheit 451.

Ray Bradbury was one of the most prolific short story authors of the 20th century because he never abandoned the form, unlike other authors who move on from them to novel writing. Bradbury capitalized on his bounty by disguising his short story collections as novels (The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man). Even Fahrenheit 451 is itself a maturation of a shorter work first published in Galaxy Magazine.

What caught my eye (and sparked the idea for this blog post) was a brief aside in Johnson’s introduction about how Bradbury was able to sell his prodigious output of short stories across the spectrum of American publishing:

Convinced that most editors were bored with seeing the same sort of material arriving day after day, Bradbury resolved to submit stories which, at least on the face of it, seemed inappropriate to the publication involved. Rather than send “Dandelion Wine” (later a chapter in the novel) to Collier’s or Mademoiselle, therefore, Bradbury sent it to Gourmet, which didn’t publish fiction. It was immediately accepted. “The Kilimanjaro Device” was snapped up by Life, which also didn’t publish fiction, after the story had been rejected by most of the big fiction magazines. … Bradbury insists that he places complete faith in his loves and intuitions to see him through.

Bradbury was certainly a known quantity when these short stories were published but, as Johnson indicates, he still faced his share of rejection slips. I don’t think Bradbury’s wanton submissions were ignorant of market conditions; it sounds to me he was quite savvy with this strategy. (Sending “Dandelion Wine” to Gourmet magazine is kind of genius, actually.) But Bradbury’s strategy transcends the usual mantra to “study the market.”

I’ve been a front-line slush pile reader at a few literary magazines and I can tell you Bradbury’s intuition is spot-on. When you’re cycling through a stack of manuscripts one after another, they soon begin to look and read the same. Too often short stories trod familiar paths. Too often they introduced characters awfully familiar to the last story I read from the pile.

A story with some fresh air in it certainly would wake me from my slush-pile stupor. The magazine market has changed dramatically in the past ten years—and absolutely has reinvented itself since Bradbury was publishing “Dandelion Wine”—but I imagine similar dynamics are still in place in the 21st century. Surprise an editor with your story and you just might have a shot at publication.

And if you’re banging out short stories and fruitlessly submitting them one after another to the usual suspects, try taking a risk and following Bradbury’s lead. Trust me, if you can put on your next cover letter that your short fiction was published by Car & Driver or National Geographic, that will surprise editors too.

“Kindle Scout in Memoriam” at Hidden Gems Books

My retrospective on Kindle Scout and its passing is up today at Hidden Gems Books blog. A sample:

Kindle Scout’s semi-open approach to publication was bolder than it sounds. An unspoken belief in the traditional publishing world is that book editors have reached their position because they’re fit to judge a novel on its artistic merits and profit possibilities—editors are the professionals, the gatekeepers, the tastemakers, the adults in the room. Granting Scouts that responsibility and power sounds absurd on the face of it. After all, anyone with an Amazon account could sign-up and start voting—who do you know without an Amazon account? And yet—it worked. …

Kindle Scout was one-part bold experiment, one-part do-it-yourself publishing, and one-part partnering with Amazon’s marketing might. Another way to put it: Kindle Scout was turn-key independent publishing for the small-time author ready to step up their game.

Read the full post at Hidden Gems Books.

New covers for Bridge Daughter and Hagar’s Mother

I’m pleased to announce new covers for Bridge Daughter and Hagar’s Mother! As much as I liked the old covers, these better reflect the concerns and characters of the books and the series overall. They also point to the aesthetic direction I want to take for the next book—or books!—in the Bridge Daughter Cycle.

Kindle editions with these covers should be available shortly at Amazon. Paperback versions are on the way. (Go here to download a sample of Bridge Daughter and here for Hagar’s Mother.)

I’d like to extend my thanks to Debbie at The Cover Collection for her tremendous taste and talent in producing these covers!

Twenty Writers: Kurt Vonnegut’s Bokononism in Cat’s Cradle

See the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” home page for more information on this series as well as a list of other books and authors


Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Scholars elevate Slaughterhouse-Five as Kurt Vonnegut’s greatest literary achievement. Readers gravitate toward the warm embrace of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. For me, Vonnegut’s masterpiece is Cat’s Cradle. It belongs on the shelf beside 1984 and Invisible Man as one of the great novels of the 20th century.

Yet it’s a crime to call Cat’s Cradle a novel when it’s so much more. It’s not so much a work of fiction as Vonnegut laying down brick-by-brick his idiosyncratic worldview. It’s a worldview he spent a lifetime attempting to communicate to his readership. I say “attempt” because I’m unsure Vonnegut will ever truly be widely understood. Scholars and readers will be decoding his work three hundred years from now…assuming there’s any life left on this planet.

Most summaries of Cat’s Cradle will home in on topics like nuclear annihilation, existentialism, the role of Big Science in postwar America, and postmodernism and metafiction. The book orbits around all those topics of course, but it’s primary concern is a fictional religion called Bokononism, possibly the only legitimate secular religion ever invented. Make no mistake: Vonnegut’s phony Bokononism is the heart of Cat’s Cradle. You can hear its theology beating on every page.

“Secular religion” comes off sounding pretentious and self-consciously contradictory. My “legitimate” qualifier does little to shore up my praise for Vonnegut’s work. I choose these words carefully.

For context, secular religions were a booming cottage industry in mid-twentieth century America. 1950s and 1960s America is often viewed (or derided) as orderly, pious, and gray. Look again; freshly-minted religions based on pseudo-psychiatry and pseudoscience flourished in the 1950s among the upper-middle- and upper-classes seeking release from restrictive Judeo-Christian morality. A decade later, their teenage children would likewise search for escape from their dreary petite bourgeois existence among the raft of America’s invented religions.

Consider Unitarian Universalism. Founded in 1961, it espouses “no shared creed” among its adherents and draws upon Western and Eastern religions of all stripes for guidance. Eckankar (1965) states its religion’s name means “co-worker with God” and teaches its adherents how to achieve out-of-body experiences.

More sinister additions to America’s theologically-loose religions are Scientology (1952), Synanon (1958), Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple (1955), The Process Church of the Final Judgment (1966), even Charles Manson’s Family—the list of so-called New Religions in post-World War II America is staggering.

(Yes, many of these so-called secular religions dabble with a higher power, but on closer inspection the theology is window-dressing for more earthly philosophies. For example, The Church of Satan does not believe in a supernatural Satan.)

Kurt Vonnegut, 1972.

This is the zeitgeist Vonnegut was writing into when he produced Cat’s Cradle in 1963. While he’s properly regarded as a satirist, his faux religion in Cat’s Cradle is not a literary device for poking fun at God or devotion. It should not be considered a parody-religion like The Church of the SubGenius or that Spaghetti Monster joke. The humorous tenets and terminology of Bokononism are laid-out with absolute dead-pan conviction—an earnest joke, the first open-source religion with the source code being Cat’s Cradle itself and the sacred communion being laughter. Vonnegut expected no one to convert to his religion, but it’s apparent he hoped his readers would at least take its teachings to heart. If they didn’t—well, so it goes.

The contradiction of Bokononism is not that it’s a secular religion. The contradiction is that it was proposed by an atheist who distrusted scientists as much as he distrusted clergy, a man who found consolation in, of all things, religion. The final sentence of Cat’s Cradle is the final sentence of the Books of Bokonon: “If I was a younger man, I would write a book about human stupidity.” Vonnegut did just that.

Call me Jonah

Cat’s Cradle opens with the narrator (“Call me Jonah”) at work on a non-fiction book called The Day the World Ended. It’s to be a collection of interviews with various famous people discussing what they were doing the day America dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima. In the course of making inquiries he’s introduced to the family of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, an absentminded scientist who worked on the A-bomb project. From there the narrator’s life begins to spin in crazy directions as he finds himself caught up in Caribbean politics, Big Science, a new form of water, and, of course, Bokononism, Vonnegut’s secular religion.

Big Science is represented in Cat’s Cradle by the research arm of the General Forge and Foundry Company, a stand-in for General Electric. There the narrator is introduced to one of Dr. Hoenikker’s lesser-known scientific discoveries: Ice-Nine, the most famous fictional device to emerge from Cat’s Cradle.

(Vonnegut briefly worked for GE in the 1950s. The character of Dr. Felix Hoenikker is based on a scientist employed there, Dr. Irving Langmuir, who died before the book was written.)

A single flake of Ice-Nine will “teach” all water it comes in contact with how to freeze and remain frozen at room temperature. Those water molecules will, in turn, teach all liquid water they come in contact with to freeze as well, and on and on. (Ice-Nine is real; the version Vonnegut describes is not.) Dr. Hoenikker thought he was solving a practical problem of allowing Marines to cross swamps and lakes without being mired down in the mud. However, if a molecule of Ice-Nine were to make contact with, say, the Pacific Ocean, it would teach all the water in the world to freeze and bring life on this planet to an end. Perverse outcomes due to the actions of well-meaning individuals is a common theme in Vonnegut’s work (Mother Night, Jailbird), and it’s certainly a healthy component of Cat’s Cradle.

Flag of San Lorenzo

While writing his book on the end of the world, the narrator travels to the fictional island of San Lorenzo to interview one of Dr. Hoenikker’s grown children who is now second-in-command of the entire island. There the narrator is introduced to Bokononism, a religion indigenous to San Lorenzo.

By Vonnegut’s own telling the religion started as a sham. It was concocted by two shipwrecked passengers during World War I in order to control the indigenous peoples of San Lorenzo. One of the passengers, a U.S. Marine deserter, made himself the dictatorial President of San Lorenzo while the other took the role of pauper-philosopher Bokonon, who began crafting his religion from whole cloth. The chain reaction of Ice-Nine “teaching” every molecule of water it touches to become more Ice-Nine mirrors the way Bokononism spreads.

As Vonnegut later remarked:

Q: Did the study of anthropology later color your writings?

Vonnegut: It confirmed my atheism, which was the faith of my fathers anyway. Religions were exhibited and studied as the Rube Goldberg inventions I’d always thought they were. We weren’t allowed to find one culture superior to any other. We caught hell if we mentioned races much. It was highly idealistic.

Q: Almost a religion?

Vonnegut: Exactly. And the only one for me. So far.

Although Bokononism arrives late in Cat’s Cradle, the narrator has been discussing it since page one. He’s often discussing Bokononism without the reader being aware of it. The narrator’s late conversion to Bokononism has fitted him with new glasses to see anew the events of his own life and the world at large. As I said, the religion’s theology beats on every page of the book.

“Shameless lies”

While religion may be the focal point of Cat’s Cradle, the reach of this slender novel is far broader: Ice-Nine, Big Science, a fictional religion, the history of the atom bomb, the history of a fictional Caribbean nation, Cold War politics, and more. Vonnegut ably covers all this territory over the course of 127 (!) chapters, some only a few paragraphs long. My copy of Cat’s Cradle clocks in at a mere 191 pages, and that’s a pocket-sized mass market edition. Each chapter comes close to standing alone, a necklace of koans strung together in such a way to reveal greater truths.

While Vonnegut is recognized as one of the great writers of the last century, he’s not particularly well-regarded for his use of language, which is often received as plain or unadorned. I think Vonnegut’s prose is wildly underrated. Vonnegut was in possession of a finely-tuned bullshit detector. He was so attuned to honesty in writing (in his own and others’) that I believe he couldn’t bear to lard down his work for style points. His direct manner and careful choice of words is Vonnegut’s style. Anyone who attempts to imitate him, beware: it’s not a pose, it’s a way of thinking.

In Cat’s Cradle Vonnegut’s prose is at its best (yes, even better than Slaughterhouse-Five). He produces some of the most economical and expressive scenes in his entire body of work. Here the narrator examines one of the Hoenikker children’s model railroad dioramas:

And then he turned on a switch, and the far end of the basement was filled with a blinding light.

We approached the light and found that it was sunshine to a fantastic little country built on plywood, an island as perfectly rectangular as a township in Kansas. Any restless soul, any soul seeking to find what lay beyond its given boundaries, really would fall off the edge of the world.

The details were so exquisitely in scale, so cunningly textured and tinted, that it was unnecessary for me to squint in order to believe that the nation was real—the hills, the lakes, the rivers, the forests, the towns, and all else that good natives everywhere hold so dear.

And everywhere ran a spaghetti pattern of railroad tracks.

This is not Hemingwayesque tough-guy economy but the economy of describing a rather involved bit of scene and symbol with a modicum of words. (The child who built this model island would grow up and become second-in-charge of another island-in-miniature, San Lorenzo.) The language may not be impressive, but it wasn’t designed to be impressive. Vonnegut manages to describe all of Cat’s Cradle‘s intricate clockwork in a handful of pages because he’s boiled down his scenes with terse concision. The payoff is a readable, approachable book discussing a lot of big, abstract concepts.

Many paperback editions of Cat’s Cradle play up the apocalyptic science-fiction aspects of the novel without acknowledging the gallows humor and whimsical nature of Vonnegut’s world.

The succinct koan-like chapters reflect the contradictory nature of Bokononism. McCabe’s first edict upon taking power as President of San Lorenzo was a strict ban on Bokononism itself. This means, of course, everyone on the island practices Bokononism, including the President. The “dynamic tension” of absolute martial law versus an illicit but freeing religion keeps the people preoccupied. “All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies” reads the first line of the Books of Bokonon, perhaps an opening sentence Vonnegut considered for Cat’s Cradle itself. This is how the book folds in on itself: the religion it describes permeates the telling of the novel rather than being a crude device to express some ideas.

While Ice-Nine is the most powerful symbol to emerge from Vonnegut’s book, the child-like language of Bokonon’s concepts are also famous. A karass is a group of people cosmically linked for some greater purpose (although they might not realize it), while a granfalloon is a false karass (like Hoosiers or Democrats). A vin-dit is a “sudden shove in the direction of Bokononism.” Perhaps the most important Bokononian concept is foma, “harmless untruths” which serve a more important goal.

“Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, ‘Why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.”

Let’s face it: Bokononism is a pretty thin theology compared to the rich wisdom of the Jewish midrash, the teachings of Jesus, or the scope of Buddhism. And for every surprising observation Vonnegut tosses effortlessly at the reader, he pairs it with a circus-style joke, such as the Bokononist foot fetish. Compared to the world’s major religions, an exegesis of Bokononism would not be a terribly long tract. It might not be much longer than Cat’s Cradle. And perhaps that’s the point.

Much of Bokononism centers around discovering one’s purpose in life and the people who share that purpose with you. The funny names for Bokonon’s concepts—wrang-wrang or wampeter—playfully mask deeper and more serious human dilemmas. Bokononism is concerned with ideals like happiness, acceptance, and forgiveness. It makes a point to single out those who stand in the way of those ideals, the greedy, intemperate, and spiteful. Bokonon’s theology may be as simple as this: Be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem. Or, going back to Vonnegut’s anthropology studies: We are sadly far more alike than we want to believe.

The only misstep I find with Vonnegut’s religion is the (perversely) celebrated saying Bokononists utter when they commit suicide: “Now I will destroy the whole world.” While it plays into the major concerns of Cat’s Cradle, I find the self-centeredness of the statement uncharacteristic of the rest of the religion, and indeed the entire book.

In his final interview before his death, Vonnegut noted

…I don’t mock religion at all. It’s very helpful to people. … I am enormously influenced by the Sermon on the Mount.

Cat’s Cradle returns to the concept of fomas repeatedly, the “harmless lies” we tell ourselves to make us happy. If harmless lies keep us from hurting one other, then perhaps we should be lying to ourselves even more. This is the price of peace.

Postscript: “Busy, busy, busy”

I find it appropriate that the Dell pocket edition I’ve owned since junior high school contains a major typo in the front matter, apparently the result of a confused typesetter:

For Kenneth Littauer,
a man of gallantry and taste.
The Books of Bokonon, 1.5
*Harmless untruths

Nothing in this book is true.
“Live by the foma* that make you brave
and kind and healthy and happy.”

Read through it one more time. Obviously the attribution was married to the dedication and not the epigram. It’s an appropriate mistake for a remarkable little book concerned with mistakes, as well as truth, harmless lies, forgiveness, the end of the world, and most of all laughter.