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.


Greatest rejection letter of all-time

Galaxy Science Fiction, March 1953Recently I picked up Robert Silverberg’s superb Science Fiction 101: Exploring the Craft of Science Fiction, an unfortunate title for a remarkably sturdy book. Part memoir, part writing guide, part anthology, I’d recommend it to every writer whether or not they’re interested in science fiction as a genre or pursuit.

Silverberg mingles his breezy autobiography of struggling to get published as a young man in the 1950s with nuggets of practical writing advice he picked up along the way. All of this package is humbly offered to the reader. Even when penning the book in 1987, Silverberg remains in awe of Asimov, Bradbury, and Heinlein (“our Great Exception in almost everything”), although by that time Silverberg’s name was mentioned in the same breath as those masters, and more.

Galaxy Science Fiction, August 1951Science Fiction 101 also reprints thirteen classic science fiction stories from authors like Damon Knight, Philip K. Dick, Robert Scheckly, Vance, Pohl, Aldiss…the table of contents reads like the short list of first-round inductees to The Science Fiction & Fantasy Hall of Fame. Alongside each story, Silverberg comments on why it impressed him and what he gleaned, offering hard, complete examples to his writing wisdom that so many other guides lack.

It’s fair to compare Science Fiction 101 to Stephen King’s On Writing. Both books are a bit more practical and pragmatic in their advice than loftier musings on the craft, such as John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I suspect Gardner would peer down his nose at writing advice from Silverberg or King, which is too bad. Anyone who can forge a lifetime career with pen in hand deserves to be listened to and considered.

As a young man, while sweating over a typewriter struggling to earn publication credits in the science fiction magazines of yore, Silverberg also earned a degree in English Literature at Columbia University. He applies some of that study here, coming up with incisive observations about storytelling I’ve not seen made before. Offering advice on how to build a story, Silverberg does something wonderful and avoids the conflict word. I’ve discovered “conflict” is off-putting to some young writers, possibly because it suggests violence or supercharged stakes or overwrought emotions. Instead, looking back to the ancient Greeks, he frames story as propelled by dissonance:

Find a situation of dissonance growing out of a striking idea or some combination of striking ideas, find the characters affected by that dissonance, write clearly and directly using dialog that moves each scene along and avoiding any clumsiness of style and awkward shifts of viewpoint, and bring matters in the end to a point where the harmony of the universe is restored and Zeus is satisfied.

It’s not the final word on how to write a story, but it’s a surprisingly serviceable start.

Galaxy Science Fiction, November 1951Silverberg’s candor and generosity to the reader is so no-nonsense, he even reprints the rejection notes he received while canvassing science fiction magazines with his early work. Big-name writers usually dip into their rejection stack for the wrong reasons: to settle a score, or thumb their nose at those who stood in their way years past. Here, Silverberg reprints rejection slips that served to make him a better writer, admitting how he deserved them, and how he was often too young to take their advice at face-value.

My favorite rejection letter comes from H. L. Gold, editor of Galaxy Science Fiction. Galaxy was a bit before my time (I grew up reading Analog, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction). but Galaxy was well-known to me merely by its reputation. Galaxy was a “serious” science fiction magazine, known for avoiding the lewd subject matter and titillating covers the other science fiction magazines lured in readers with. (I’ve included a few of Galaxy‘s best covers here. The Internet Archive has a remarkable collection of back issues, covers and inside matter, that’s well worth perusing if you have any interest in science fiction’s past.)

Galaxy editor H.L. Gold sent Silverberg this rejection in 1956, when Silverberg had already broken into the field and was padding the back pages of science fiction magazines:

You’re selling more than you’re learning. The fact that you sell is tricking you into believing that your technique is adequate. It is—for now. But project your career twenty years into the future and see where you’ll stand if you don’t sweat over improving your style, handling of character and conflict, resourcefulness in story development. You’ll simply be more facile at what you’re doing right now, more glib, more skilled at invariably taking the easiest way out.

If I didn’t see a talent there—a potential one, a good way from being fully realized—I wouldn’t take the time to point out the greased skidway you’re standing on. I wouldn’t give a damn. But I’m risking your professional friendship for the sake of a better one.

Robert Silverberg was 21 when he received this remarkable letter, perhaps the greatest rejection letter of all-time.

Fiction as a controlled experiment

On Literature by J. Hillis MillerNot too long ago I finished reading J. Hillis Miller’s On Literature, a slim and thoughtful consideration of the role of the written word at the end of the 20th century. Born from a lecture at UC Irvine in 2001, Miller expanded his talk into six chapters and 160 pages of conversational prose asking the simple but still-unanswered questions of literary theory: What is literature? Why read it? And how does it “work”?

I almost didn’t finish the book, however, or even start it. Standing at the bookstore stacks pondering whether or not to purchase it, I almost returned On Literature to its place on the shelf after noticing the word “deconstruction” in its table of contents. Like a home cook who dabbles in books on nutrition, I enjoy reading how and why fiction works, but my patience runs low when I encounter the thick postmodern language of the deconstructionists and post-structuralists. As far as I’m concerned, literary theory veered into the weeds after the 1950s, becoming circular, reactive, insular, and insulated.

J. Hillis Miller

J. Hillis Miller

Miller’s On Literature does venture into deconstruction, but only briefly and at the end, and in the most surprising way. Miller proposes C. S. Lewis’ Alice books were inadvertently deconstructing Robinson Crusoe, in the sense that Alice offers an unnatural world of random occurrence and contradictory logic. This pushes against the grain of Defoe’s orderly world, a world of British conquest over nature and British uplift of the “savage.” Connecting these two unrelated works typifies the kind of thoughtful playfulness that makes On Literature something much more refreshing than the dry lit theory of graduate studies.

As Wikipedia notes, Miller is an English professor specializing in deconstruction, and his academic work suggests the kind of dry examination of literature that most so-called average readers would not identify with. In On Literature, Miller loosens the knot in his tie to reveal a lifelong love of reading and all its pleasures.

But what’s most surprising is Miller confessing to seeing literature as a kind of virtual reality or “secular dream vision.” Miller argues fiction

Myst linking book

Myst linking book

is not, as many people may assume, an imitation in words of some pre-existing reality but, on the contrary, it is the creation or discovery of a new, supplementary world, a metaworld, a hyper-reality. … A book is a pocket or portable dreamweaver. [Emphasis mine.]

This is not a fashionable approach in academia today. It’s far more common to dissect literature with the scalpels of Marxism, feminism, post-colonialism, and gender and sexuality—in other words, to view fiction through the lenses of power dynamics and identity politics. And Miller goes farther than viewing books as portable virtual worlds. He proposes these hyper-realities are not merely witnessed by the reader, they’re discovered, magically, when the book is opened and the first words begin to settle in his or her mind. Like the linking books in the video game Myst, a novel is a device that not only opens a door to an alternate reality, it allows us to dwell within its world, briefly.

Dealing in Futures by Joe HaldemanThe problem with talking about fiction as a hyper-reality or virtual world is that those terms suggest science fiction. When I was young, one of my favorites books was Joe Haldeman’s science-fiction story collection Dealing in Futures. Its title instantly suggests that the book will generate for you any number of alternate worlds of a future time—that it’s “a pocket or portable dreamweaver.” Miller doesn’t limit this idea to science fiction, however. He sees all fiction as generators of virtual worlds.

Miller admits that this view of fiction has long been out of fashion in the academic world. He sometimes sounds a touch embarrassed admitting it, which is why I say the book reads more like a confessional than a treatise.

Over the years I’ve met writers who’ve told me they have little interest or use for books on how fiction “works.” To study literature is to kill the magic and pleasure of book-reading, the thinking goes—a notion that conveniently plays right into Miller’s “secular dream vision.”

On Literature recharged a personal theory I’ve been tossing around in my head for some time now. I don’t claim it’s original, but if I picked it up from somewhere, I couldn’t name the source. I also don’t claim it’s an earthshaking theory either, but it has changed how I view books and my own writing. The theory is simply this: Fiction is a controlled experiment being run by its author (or authors).

By “experiment” I mean something closer to trial-and-error than a formal scientific process. Books are not beakers of liquids bubbling over open flame. I also don’t mean the experimentalism of avant garde literature, the breaking of rules to create distance between the work and its reader, such as the mathematical formalism of the Oulipo. By “experiment” I mean an author asking “what if…?” or “what would it be like if…?”. The author imagines a world not their own to answer that question, and then, by writing the story, plays out that experiment to its conclusion.

Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë

The “what if?” doesn’t have to be particularly daring or fantastical. “What would it be like if a young governess fell in love with her married employer?” could describe the experiment of Jane Eyre. In it, Charlotte Brontë constructed an experiment in experience—an experiment in the human condition, and from the point of view not commonly told up to that point in British literature. The experiment’s result is a document of 19th century countryside England, a world fairly foreign to us today but recognizable as a landscape of the human psyche. And thanks to Brontë’s experiment, we can visit that world without a time machine or other exotic technology.

When I say a “controlled experiment,” I mean controlled by the kind of restrictions Brontë imposed on herself throughout the creative process. Fiction is a plastic form. Brontë could’ve introduced any number of outlandish plot devices or characters. Instead, Brontë kept the novel’s details and events near to the world she knew and let the characters push through the complications themselves. Jane Eyre‘s ending is not clean and crisp, but it was under Brontë’s control. These decisions are guided by the hand of the author, controlling (but perhaps not dictating) the experiment’s outcome.

For an example of an experiment with a different set of controls, there’s Lewis’ Alice books. “What if my little friend Alice was transported to a world of playful illogic and word games?” Lewis gave himself the freedom to veer wildly from the known world. For one, the Alice in the books isn’t even the real Alice Liddell. And if gravity suddenly reversed itself the Alice books, we wouldn’t be surprised at all. On the other hand, gravity reversing itself would utterly destroy the experiment called Jane Eyre. Alice and Jane Eyre were written in the same time period by authors living a few hundred miles apart, but they ran very different experiments in what it means to be human.

Just as in science, not every experiment is a success. Some are duds. And Brontë did produce a dud of sorts: an experiment called The Professor, a novel about a male teacher at a Belgian all-girls school. The manuscript was rejected by every publisher she offered it to. Years later she tweaked the parameters of that experiment—tweaked the parameters of the experience—and wrote Villette, a novel about a female teacher at a Belgian all-girls school. Of Brontë’s works, The Professor is considered for completists and not widely read. Villette is thought by some to be Brontë’s true masterpiece.