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.

Twenty Writers: Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics

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

So far in this series, about half of the books I’ve discussed have been nonfiction and the other half fiction. This is the first time I’ve written about a text on critical theory—and it may be the best lit crit book I’ve ever encountered.

The text I’m speaking of is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Published in 1993, the book remains the definitive work on comics theory a quarter century later. Others have attacked the subject, but none come close to McCloud’s exhaustive treatment.

McCloud is an unlikely “Aristotle of comics.” Prior to Understanding Comics he was best-known for Zot!, a lighthearted superhero comic book series which introduced many American readers to the tropes and style of Japanese manga. While Zot! was a success in the 1980s, its reputation has not swollen over time, as evidenced by McCloud’s sheepish preface to a 2008 reprint.

There’s nothing sheepish to be found in Understanding Comics—McCloud is not merely comic’s Aristotle, he’s one of its best ambassadors. His belief in comics’ power and universality is unshakeable. Page after page he convincingly argues comics belong in the same inner circle as other high art forms, including art considered vulgar upon its first appearance, such as film and jazz. Comics may even be more inclusive than other forms, as the language of comics is the language of the modern world. Advertising, software, religion, news, and entertainment all employ comics’ visual cues for their own purposes. This isn’t so much a book on comics as a book on perception and semiotics.

When I first picked up Understanding Comics in the mid-1990s, I enjoyed reading comics occasionally, but only as a guilty pleasure. I’d read superhero comics as a teen but set them aside as childish even before I left high school. (And this was during the 1980s rise of so-called “adult” comics like The Dark Knight Returns and the all-but-forgotten Camelot 3000.)

McCloud’s treatise left me with a renewed pleasure for reading comics. He disassembled and reassembled what I “knew” about comics before my eyes, all the while with concision, humor, and infectious zeal. His unraveling of the “invisible art” also left me with a fresh re-looking of the world at large. I can’t think of higher praise for McCloud’s magnum opus.

The sequential art

Understanding Comics is not the first work on the principles of comics. That honor goes to Will Eisner’s Comics & Sequential Art.

Before Eisner, books on comics focused on technical production: inks, scripting, musculature, shading, etc. (The most prominent example I know of is How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, the standard go-to guide for aspiring fourteen year-olds back in the day.) Comics & Sequential Art focused on the language of comics, much as a book on film theory would discuss camera angles and shot selection as the “language” of movies.

Prior to Eisner and McCloud, books on writing comics skewed toward technique and process.

Sequential Art‘s biggest contribution is right there in its title—Eisner put forward a general definition for comics. He held up comics as a special style of communication with unique properties and advantages. Eisner saw the field still struggling to break free of cultural restrictions (“comic books are for kids”) and waiting to be applied to broader purposes. For example, Eisner advocated using comics for technical manuals and in education.

Reading comic books in grade school may be more acceptable today than when I was young, but I suspect the suggestion still earns chuckles among certain educators. That’s too bad; Eisner remains ahead of his time. After all, while IKEA’s assembly guides and their Ziggyesque “IKEA Man” character have elicited much lampooning, their ability to transcend written language stems from the fact that they are comics. And when Google wanted to introduce the world to its new Chrome browser in 2008, it hired none other than Scott McCloud to present the software’s design and features via a digital comic book.

Understanding Comics takes many cues from Eisner’s work, and McCloud is eager to tip his hat to the master as well as introduce readers to a plethora of other comic artists you may or may not have heard of. But where Eisner’s book is head’s-down on the drawing easel, McCloud’s eyes are fervently skyward. Eisner’s intended audience is other comic artists; McCloud’s audience is everyone. To McCloud’s thinking, the language of comics permeates the modern world. He’s not merely comics’ Aristotle and ambassador, he’s its evangelist. Understanding Comics may be the first foundational lit crit text written by a fan boy.

The invisible art

The care and thought put into Understanding Comics is evident from the front matter onward. Consider that a book subtitled “The Invisible Art” opens with an enlarged image of an eye staring back at the reader—an iris, eyelashes, and eyebrow framed by a comic panel. Seeing is everything for McCloud, which is why Understanding Comics earns a space on the shelf beside Berger’s Ways of Seeing.

One bit of lingo in the software business is “dogfooding,” that is, the idea software developers should use their own software to better understand the problems and bugs their users are experiencing. (Imagine if every Apple employee used Microsoft PCs and Android phones, or if the entire workforce of The Gap wore Armani suits.)

McCloud dogfooded comics. His entire thesis, from first page to last, is told in comic form. He demonstrates the ubiquitousness and power of comics by drawing comics. The only places McCloud “reverts” to pure text are the Acknowledgments and Bibliography pages (where he can be forgiven, since I doubt anyone wants to read a Bibliography set to comic form).

Cleverly, McCloud inserts a cartoon representative of himself into the book to gently guide the reader along (and even analyzes the strategy itself as a graphic device). He deploys every trick in the comic biz to illustrate his points: alternate panel layouts, strange word balloon shapes, odd and abstract art styles, and so on. Every page offers a surprise for the reader. I can’t imagine the quarts of blood McCloud must have sweat to craft this masterpiece. Whatever criticism you may lob at McCloud, you can’t call his book dry.

After an ambitious and vivid history of comics going back to prehistory (no, really), McCloud appropriates Eisner’s term for comics—”sequential art”—and develops his own rigorous definition. From this foundation he launches into the depth and breadth of the language of comics: panels, gutters, lines, word balloons, transitions, and the utility of color (as opposed to the job of coloring, a la How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way).

McCloud’s ambitious “picture plane,” from photo-realism (left) to iconography (right) with the degree of abstraction rising up the pyramid. The eye on the left is the realm of visual and the mind on the right is the realm of ideas. Notice on the far right how McCloud considers written language a kind of “pure” iconography.

But McCloud isn’t satisfied to stay grounded on matters pertaining to comics itself. He reaches further with chapters on iconography, the nature of vision, and perception versus self-perception. He muses on the unique language of comics, where pictographs plus written word combine, and how space on the page can represent shifts in location and time, and sometimes shifting both simultaneously. He concludes with a surprisingly moving chapter on the relationship between artist and art that should be required reading for students of all creative disciplines.

Whether you agree or disagree with his conclusions, McCloud’s faculties for persuasion are appealing and impressive. The power of Understanding Comics is in taking McCloud’s tour through language and imagery, even if you don’t always agree with his destinations.


If you enjoy Understanding Comics, I recommend exploring the terrain McCloud mapped out. What follows is a list of graphic novels reflecting McCloud’s vision. They’re also rewarding in their own right:

  • City of Glass, Paul Karasik & David Mazzucchelli: Engrossing graphic novel adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel. City of Glass reads like a pure application of Understanding Comics.
  • Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, Shigeru Mizuki: Mizuki’s semi-autobiographical World War II manga features a “cartoony” military against a backdrop of stark photo-realistic Pacific island landscapes, a visual strategy McCloud fleshes out in his book.
  • Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China, Guy Delisle: A story of palpable solitude, Shenzhen spends much page real estate showing off modern China via “aspect-to-aspect” transitions discussed by McCloud.
  • Asterios Polyp, David Mazzucchelli: Like Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Polyp is a personal tale about a man hitting the road intertwined with philosophical musings on nature and existence. As with City of Glass, Polyp is obsessed with structure, symbols, and synthesis. Mazzucchelli’s detailed visuals slyly make the abstractions concrete.

For an entertaining stroll through the lingo and icons of the funny pages, I also recommend “Quimps, Plewds, And Grawlixes: The Secret Language Of Comic Strips”

In praise of front matter

This is prehistoric by Internet time, but a few months ago Paul Cantor’s essay “eBooks Are Great But….” left me thinking about a lot of issues surrounding the rise of digital books. I responded to him directly on Medium (you can read my full response), but as time passed one detail I touched on kept nagging me:

My biggest gripe with the Kindle is how it opens a new book to the first page of the first chapter. Here Amazon screwed up. Show me the cover, then let me page through the front matter to the first page. This is the pleasure and ritual of reading a new book.

Now every time I download a new ebook or sample, I think back to this comment. Amazon really did screw this up. When I pick up a physical book, the first thing I read is the cover, then the title page, then the rest of the front matter (“prelims” in the trade), before reaching the first page of the first chapter. This is not wasting my time. This is part and parcel of to the reading experience.

Hiroshima by John HerseyFor the sake of example, let me take a physical book off my shelf—John Hersey’s Hiroshima.

The cover for my paperback version is superb, a rising sun drenched in suggestive red. It rises over a moon bridge with the water below as blood-red as the sun. (Without a word printed on the cover I would immediately know this book regards Japan.) The quoted Saturday Review of Literature‘s exhortation that “everyone able to read should read it” is almost unnecessary at this point in time for a book of Hiroshima‘s stature, but I suppose it gives lingering on-the-fence customers one more reason to buy a copy.

Since I was a child I’ve studied book covers before diving in to the book itself. I’ve seen plenty of crappy book covers in my lifetime, but a great cover is worth moments of reflection. I’ve always admired the illustrator who can capture the essence of an entire book in a single image. Wendell Minor (the cover illustrator for this edition) did a fine job of that without exploiting the more obvious emotional signals the name Hiroshima evokes. The cover is tasteful, evocative, mournful, and thoughtful—just like the book itself.

Opening the book, the first printed page (titled “When the Bomb Dropped”) lists the main characters of Hiroshima along with brief biographies for each. This isn’t filler. This page suggests to me that Hiroshima is a book of many people, not just one. What’s more, this is not a book of dry facts about the detonation of the first atomic bomb against a population, nor is it scientific analysis. It’s also not a military history, as none of the names have a government or military title.

The next page lists John Hersey’s other books, published between 1943 to 1987. I was under the impression that Hersey was a journalist who fortuitously had a magazine feature article turned into a bestselling (and now historical) book. I didn’t know he had such a prolific career. While this seems minor, skimming down the list shaped how I received Hiroshima.

Hiroshima title pageThen comes the title page, a clean, almost retro layout befitting the book’s original publication in the 1940s. A small note indicates the final chapter was written more recently, forty years after the bombing of Hiroshima. Again, that’s a nice piece of information to have—that while I’m reading a history book originally published contemporaneously with the events it describes, it’s not been frozen in time.

The colophon or copyright page may be the driest page of all front matter, but again, I glean something from it: “Copyright 1946, 1985 John Hersey.” Not everyone who picks up Hiroshima will recognize Hersey wrote it in the immediate aftermath of the bombing; that’s worth knowing before reaching the first page. Another tidbit to be learned: “The entire contents of this book originally appeared in The New Yorker,” additional historical context.

Then a modest table of contents. Five chapters numbered, each with a brief summarizing phrase that, even before reading the rest of the book, acts as a primer on the history Hersey records: “A noiseless flash.” “The fire.” “Details are being investigated.”

Only upon turning the table of contents does the first page of the first chapter arrive. If I’d downloaded Hiroshima to my Amazon Kindle, this would be the first page presented. I would have been robbed—look again at the experience I’ve accumulated perusing the book’s cover and front matter.

I’m not blasting ebooks or declaring them dead or a horrible experience. I’m suggesting Amazon has made a questionable design decision, and one easily corrected. A simple option in the Settings would be enough to satisfy me.

Update: More on Hiroshima, John Hersey, and book covers here.