Kurt Vonnegut distances his readers from the novel’s grim vision through his Rabelaisian humor, but zany as the book is, its underlying disenchantment with society and its various institutions is ubiquitous and inescapable. Even the narrator’s adopted Bokononism views itself as nonsense, but this cheerful admission is made in the process of revealing that most human organizations and institutions are granfalloon, or false karasses with meaningless beliefs, much like the cat’s cradle, string wound around fingers of human hands, having nothing to do with either cats or cradles—an appropriate symbol for the novel’s nihilism.
Like many novels and plays written in the early de-cades of the Cold War era, Cat’s Cradle uses varieties of the absurd to articulate its existential theme. Many of its characters are physically, emotionally, or mentally abnormal or deficient. Dr. Hoenikker, a scientific genius, has no feelings and reacts to his children’s pain by stringing together a cat’s cradle of noninvolvement. Others express themselves in seemingly incongruous ways. The gangly Angela, for example, plays the clarinet with consummate skill and haunting beauty. Others are emotionally crippled by their pasts, as is von Koenigswald, formerly a doctor at Auschwitz, who attempts a Sisyphean atonement for his past by saving lives at San Lorenzo’s House of Hope and Mercy.
Vonnegut’s plain style and understated...
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