After Slaughterhouse 5, Cat's Cradle is the second Vonnegut book I've read. I've heard wonderful things about Vonnegut, and this book exemplifies a lot of those, namely uncomfortable observations and a black, dry humour. The book circles a number of themes, principally the dangers of purely objective or impersonal scientific research, and the role of religion to society and people. It hits these notes well throughout the piece, but I found the meandering, seemingly powerless, plot arch a little unstable at times - like there wasn't anything for me to reliably hold on to. Our narrator is very much at the whims of those around him, and feels more like a vehicle to show different things to the reader rather than a person.
This lack of depth to our narrator could be purposeful - he is, after all, essentially writing a memoir which covers his (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to write a biography of the Dr. Felix Hoenikker. Hoenikker is a scientist working on the creation of nuclear weapons, who is the classic absent-minded genius. Though fictional, Hoenikker is a semi-transparent copy of (the real) Irving Langmuir: the Nobel laureate who actually did once leave a tip for his wife after she prepared him breakfast at home.
Hoenikker is dead, so we have to piece Hoenikker together from the testimonies of his children and people who knew him. We are presented a portrait of someone doing very dangerous work around nuclear weapons, but who cannot form or understand the most basic of relationships with even his immediate family. The placement of someone who is not aware of, let alone able to discuss, the moral implications of their possibly apocalyptic work is an undercurrent through the work. To be fair - it is an interesting note, it's easy to praise science for its own complexity, and forget the messiness of actually using it.
From this setup, we get some moments which show moral indifference and ignorance as almost indistinguishable. Hoenikker's work is purely hypothetical to him and his kind, but globally important to the rest of the world. I have never had to struggle with in any of these questions in the real or immediate context (which I'm grateful for). It is fairly clear that the book was conceived in a place where the Arms Race and scientific research dominated the author's attention. Vonnegut clearly had to wrestle with these thoughts in a very applied setting. Historically and contextually, it is clear that this is a very important and well-timed book.
The world and events which form around our narrator is often full of moments of black humour, of the absurd, of hypocrisy where all you could do is laugh. Which is, from what I hear, the realm of Vonnegut.
Cats Cradle also throws us into the existential ocean with Bokonism - a fictional religion created by Vonnegut. The essence of Bokonism lies with foma - which are harmless untruths, and the related belief in some kind of predestination. Bokonism explores the genesis, adoption, and persecution of a religion - it's a very concise, sometimes oversimplified (though often for humour) examination of religion.
Again, here Vonnegut finds the most bleak or despairing parts of humanity and you're forced to laugh at it, because the alternative to feel a bone-deep worry or despair.
Unfortunately, these ideas weren't enough to carry me through the book. They could have been if I had found the narrator a bit more fleshed out, a bit less willing to just accept everything. He feels like an observer, like his role is just to document what's happening. He's a journalist/author writing a book, so it wouldn't be odd to pair these observations with some kind of cross-reference, anecdotes, fact-checks, or journalistic flair. He didn't subtract from the story, but he definitely didn't add anything to the book.
While this fits with the helplessness/comfort of predestination from Bokonism, and it is indeed fun to piece together the life/thoughts of a person through what other people share about them - the narrative itself just didn't engage me. Maybe I've been ruined by expecting too much to happen in a plot, but I don't think that's true.
I felt I could have stopped reading at any point and not wonder about what was going to happen next. Especially towards the end of the book things just get more and more absurd, but it's left to us, the readers, to notice this absurdity. Which is a nice touch, but at the same time there doesn't seem to be a ceiling or climax to how weird things can get. There's no tension or threat, it just keeps getting weirder. This is only really in the last 10-20% of the book - it's a real gear change.
Admittedly, it has been a while since I have read a "modern classic", and so I wonder if I would have enjoyed this book a little more if I was better prepared, more critical, or more aware of the historical/personal context. I read it in 2020, a year when literature served more of an escapist purpose than academic exercise. Nevertheless, the book had enough interesting ideas and darkly funny moments, and was frankly short enough, that none of these became deal breakers. I'm glad I have read it, I just didn't particularly savour the reading. 2.5⭐