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Monday, April 04, 2016

Cat's Cradle (1963) by Kurt Vonnegut

Author Kurt Vonnegut
Book Review
Cat's Cradle (1963)
 by Kurt Vonnegut

   The two most common routes for an Artist or work of art to obtain a long-term audience is either:
1)   Obtaining critical success, with a popular audience coming at the same time or later.
2)   Obtaining an immediate popular audience, with critical success coming at the same time or later.

  Both routes require that a specific work or artist receive a channel of distribution to either a critical or popular audience.   Historically, obtaining this channel of distribution was the most difficult part facing an Artist seeking to place a work before a wide Audience.  Today, distribution is available to anyone with access to a computer, and it is drawing the attention of EITHER a critical or popular audience that is the main road block to obtaining a lasting audience.

  Genre fiction, be it a romance, science fiction or mystery/detective/thriller, sits at the intersection of these routes to a long term audience.  The popular Audience for genre fiction compared to self-consciously "literary" fiction is enormous.  Traditionally, the appetite by publishers for genre materials was strong, but obtaining a critical audience for that work was close to impossible.  Today, many can and do self-publish genre fiction and find financial success, but I can't think of a single self-published genre author who has obtained a significant critical response of any kind.

   Kurt Vonnegut is notable as an Author who emerged out of the genre ghetto (science fiction) to obtain a lasting popular and critical audience as a writer of literary fiction.  This was not an instant process.  Cat's Cradle, published in 1963, was ignored by non-genre critics (though it did win a Hugo (best science fiction) Award in 1964)  and it was only after the breakthrough success of Slaughterhouse Five, published in 1969, that Cat's Cradle was elevated to it's status as a canonical text.    In other words, Cat's Cradle is an example of a book that received neither a popular nor critical audience when it was initially published.

   And yet today is widely regarded as a canonical text, and Kurt Vonnegut is typically placed just below the top rank of American novelists for his generation.  In recent decades, his popularity has been amplified by the relative popularity of science-fiction with the creators and denizens of the internet.  In terms of the initial delay of recognition by a large, popular audience, the best explanation is that he was "ahead of his time" even as he worked within the confines of a genre (science fiction) that typically dealt with the future.

  He was ahead of his time because he blended non-science fiction themes with settings and plots derived from science fiction.  This is a trait he shares in common with Robert Heinlein, another genre writer who became a canonical author.  Cat's Cradle is mostly set on the fictional Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, where a population that lives in great poverty is ruled over by a pair of American castaways.  One is the island dictator, the other the creator of the island religion, called "Bokonoism."

   Bokonoism is a quintessentially Vonnegut-ian creation, a religion that starts from the premise that all religion is based on lies.  The narrator, a writer alternately referred to as John and Johan is hired to write a story about the (fictional) inventor of the atomic bomb, Felix Hoenikker.  Hoenikker has three children, one of whom is the unlikely Major General of San Lorenzo.  John flies to San Lorenzo in pursuit of his story, and after his arrival typically Vonnegt-ian events begin to pile up, aided by the division of this 200 page book into over a hundred separate chapters.

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