One of the disadvantages of electronic downloads is that you lose physically obvious metadata - by which I mean the size of the literary object you've acquired. This is a short story of 13-15 pp., probably originally published in a magazine. It has all the hallmarks of a good science fiction story of its era: quick dystopian world-building, a few sharply, even harshly, delineated characters, and a single disturbing event that leaves you pondering. The dystopia in this case is a world where illness and natural death are defeated, and population control is carried out by state-enforced euthanasia, and through a set of social norms (the elderly must agree to be killed to make way for the babies). I wondered as I read whether Vonnegut was thinking of the similar, but differently resolved, dystopia of the least-known destination in Gulliver's Travels, the nation of the Struldbrugs. Anyway, disappointed though I was not to have a Vonnegut novel in my hands, I enjoyed reading this little thought-jolter.
As a huge fan of Vonnegut, I was looking forward to reading Breakfast of Champions as one of his most famous works beside Slaughterhouse Five. As always, he keeps his syntax and sentence structure fairly simple, which for me is a main component of the charm of his writing.
Breakfast of Champions was definitely not the most fun to read, though. This was by far the most sarcastic and/or cynical of Vonneguts novels that I have read, some parts of it have quite a dark turn to them, others get even scary. Especially the pieces, which are autobiographically inspired – for example, when he writes about his fear of actually having inherited his mothers schizophrenia – were sometimes borderline scary or desperate to read, which is quite unusual for his writing.
Sometimes, it felt like reading a manual on humans and their life on earth, written for a foreign species. The writing style is fairly simple, easy to understand and absolutely honest. Vonnegut himself added numerous drawings to his book, therefore it is by far the most excessively illustrated book I have ever seen (children’s books excluded, of course).
At some point, the book turns meta, introducing the narrator, who significantly calls himself „I, the author“ and who kind of participates in the story he himself creates.
John, who starts off researching what family members of the makers of the atomic bomb were doing on the day when Hiroshima was bombed, but soon gets caught up in a minor mystery that involves the children of physicist Felix Hoenikker. Add in a calypso singer’s personal theology, the odd substance called Ice-Nine, and a large helping of satirical humor and you have quite the book!
This was my first Vonnegut book (yep, I know, where have I been?) and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Sometimes I don’t care for satire because so often it is tied to certain political events or a political climate, and if you aren’t versed in those happenings, lots of it flies over your head. Not so with this book! Sure, there is some satire that refers to people and events that I’m not familiar with, but much of it was easy to pin down. Plus there’s plenty of other humor and the whole plot going on to keep me entertained. I was especially interested in the Ice-Nine. I figured it was tied into the dystopian theme the book’s description mentions, but it took forever to get around to it. Indeed, Ice-Nine and the ending of the world don’t play a part until the very end of the novel. So if you’re going into this novel hoping for a dystopian story, you will be a bit disappointed.
The calypso singer, Bokonon, has this theology (called Bokononism by the practitioners) that kicks off the book as John relates his story to us as if it’s all over, said, and done. John, in his own tale, doesn’t come upon Bokononism until he travels to the island of San Lorenzo, where he meets two of the Hoenikker children. The theology is filled with little truths that gave me a chuckle here and there. One of the little rituals Bokononists partake in is touching the soles of their feet to one another, making them feel closer to each other. Oddly enough, Bokononism has been banned on San Lorenzo even as everyone is secretly a Bokononist.
Each of the three Hoenikker children are rather different, but it was Newton Hoenikker, the youngest child, who caught my attention. He’s a dwarf and also a medical student. I liked his recollections of his dad and older siblings, his sister being the care-taker of the family once their mother passed away. Indeed, his descriptions of his father, the physicist, reminds me of so many scientists I knew when I worked in Los Alamos.
It took me a while to figure out why this book is called Cat’s Cradle and if you’re wondering the same thing, the answer does eventually come. It seems much of the book is that way: there’s this set up at the front end but it takes time to eventually arrive at those same things once again so that we fully understand them. For instance, the book starts off with some Bokononism stuff but it’s only later that we learn the origins of Bokononism. John hints that the world has ended, but we only find out how and why towards the very end of the novel. In this regard, I think this is one of those novels that is best read all in one sitting rather than broken up over a week.
In the end, I liked it. Yes, I did spend the entire book eagerly awaiting the dystopian bit the book’s description promises, but when it comes it is indeed a bleak world and I’m not sure how humanity will survive it. I didn’t get all the Bokononism stuff but it did provide quite a bit of entertainment. Hoenikker and his kids are the backbone that made this book interesting to me. I really enjoyed hearing what the now-grown kids had to say about their now-dead dad and growing up in the shadow of the atomic bomb project.
The Narration: Tony Roberts was a good pick for narrating this book. He had distinct voices for all the characters and carried off the humor quite well. I liked his Indiana accent for Ma Hoosier and his Caribbean accent for the native San Lorenzoans. Also, this edition of the audiobook contained an older interview with Kurt Vonnegut that I found informative and amusing. In the interview, it’s rather informal as the interviewer is one of his good friends and it sounds like they are simply having a chat about his book and other things, like Vonnegut’s military experience.