Can you still call a work satirical if it hews so close to real life that it might as well be? This is the conundrum I was left with after I read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, a darkly comic and yes, satirical, novel about, amongst other things, a fictitious religion and the end of the world.
Vonnegut was one of those authors who had always remained at the periphery of my reading interest, until my sister Asha began devouring his books en masse several years ago. She kept insisting I should read him too. But when I asked her why or what his books were about, she’d struggle to explain before ending with: “You just have to read him to know!”
(No surprise, then, that one of the books she suggested I read for this column was by Vonnegut.)
While Cat’s Cradle (published in 1963) may not be as popular as Vonnegut’s most influential book, Slaughterhouse-Five, it is nevertheless an excellent introduction to his style. It is also one of those books that you can dive right into, without much prior knowledge of it.
The story begins with a writer named John, who seeks to write about Felix Hoenikker, the (fictional) co-inventor of the atom bomb who had died several years ago. This leads John to Hoenikker’s three children, and the discovery of a secret that could potentially annihilate the world.
Eventually, they all end up on the Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, an impoverished country where a religion called Bokononism has taken hold, and to say any more would be to do a disservice to this excellent, subversive novel.
Now that I’ve experienced Vonnegut’s writing first-hand, I finally understand what my sister meant. His writing defies easy descriptions, explanations or categorising.
He writes in simple, direct prose, which often conceals a surprising amount of depth. He maintains an almost cold distance from his characters, but still manages to expose their raw humanness.
He ruthlessly parodies many facets of modern society – religion, politics, science – while also seeming to reserve some measure of affection for it. He manages to go from describing a buffoon cheerily drinking liquor made from acetone to a poignant speech about young men dying at war without missing a beat.
Take his treatment of religion in Cat’s Cradle, for instance. As an atheist and a humanist, one might expect Vonnegut to skewer religious practices. And certainly, with Bokononism, he exposes many of the contradictions and hypocrisies of organised religion.
Yet, by examining the place religion holds in society, Vonnegut slyly makes a rather compelling case for it – more so, perhaps, than most believers could.
As for whether he writes satire, I suppose he does, but that isn’t nearly enough. It seems more accurate to say that Vonnegut writes in that no man’s land between humour and tragedy, and therefore captures life in all its absurd truthfulness.
Sharmilla Ganesan is currently a Hubert H. Humphrey fellow at the University of Maryland in the United States. She is reading her way through the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at facebook.com/BeBookedOut or Tweet @SharmillaG.