Catch a wave, and you’re sittin’ on top of the world.
And catch that wave Kurt Vonnegut did, sitting on top of the world from the early 1960s until his death in 2007. Well, maybe not all the way to 2007. Even as early as the publication of his novel Galápagos, in 1985, the wave was clearly ebbing. But it had been a hell of a ride: over 20 years, during which Kurt Vonnegut drove his quicksilver board through the curl of American literature—our one great novelistic surfer, the dude who made it all look easy. The guy who made it all look cool.
It was 1963 when the Beach Boys recorded “Catch a Wave”—and 1963, as well, when a nearly failed proto-New Wave science-fiction writer named Kurt Vonnegut Jr. made a sudden leap up into mainstream public fame with the publication of a novel called Cat’s Cradle. It’s hard to say quite how the 41-year-old author managed the unpredictable jump. Among science-fiction writers his contemporary Philip K. Dick was (in his own peculiar way) a deeper thinker. The younger Roger Zelazny was slicker. The even-younger Tom Disch was cleverer.
Yes, Vonnegut had managed to produce Player Piano (1952), The Sirens of Titan (1959), and Mother Night (1961), but to read the Library of America’s new collection is to realize that, with Cat’s Cradle, he broke through the limitations of his previous work to find the pounding heart of the American moment—the central beat, the bam-bam pulse of it all. The book sparkled on the page. It popped and glistened, in prose that was some impossible mash of sophisticated and naïve, smart and silly, straightforward and bizarre.
“Call me Jonah,” it opens. “My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John.”
After his service in the Second World War Vonnegut enrolled as a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Chicago, although by all accounts he was a terrible student. In his 1999 story collection Bagombo Snuff Box he insists on the comic but not entirely believable story that he withdrew after the rejection of his proposed thesis on the parallels between Cubist painting and the American Indian uprisings of the 19th century—an account, apparently, of why Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque were just like Red Cloud and Crazy Horse, which the university had the gall to tell him was “unprofessional.”
Perhaps it’s worth noticing, however, that in 1971 Chicago went ahead and gave Vonnegut a master’s degree in anthropology, proposing (and accepting) Cat’s Cradle as an ersatz thesis. What the school was after, of course, was a little of the glory surrounding the man and his public fame. Still, the anthropology department wasn’t exactly wrong: Cat’s Cradle contains a surprising amount of anthropological imagination as it tells the story of a made-up religion called Bokononism and its effect on the final days of the world.
Add in a bit of pop theology, a lot of agitation about the atom bomb, a beach-bum ethic, a smart amateur’s knowledge of science, and a wry sense of the world’s absurdity, and Vonnegut had all the intellectual pieces to make a rich stew of a book. And yet, the funny thing is that Cat’s Cradle, in the central structure of its plot, is essentially a genre novel: no more or less than an Agatha Christie mystery, a Georgette Heyer romance, or a Louis L’Amour western.
Or, of course, a science-fiction story by anyone from Jules Verne and H. G. Wells to Robert Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon. Vonnegut was hardly the first to sprawl out in the futuristic genre: From its beginning, science fiction has always been a capacious kind of literature, with plenty of room inside its accounts of what-if technology for a little low-rent philosophy, a bit of recreational theology, and a touch of down-market anthropology. In 1961 Vonnegut himself wrote a sci-fi short story called “Harrison Bergeron,” which has became a libertarian classic—a cacotopian fantasy about an America in which the government creates absolute equality by forcing strong people to carry heavy weights all the time, beautiful people to use masks, and smart people to wear thought-destroying noisemakers in their ears.
In Cat’s Cradle, however, the streams of his imagination coalesced into something that seemed to leave genre fiction far behind. Mostly, that involved the writing, especially Vonnegut’s newfound ability to coin memorable names for his inventions: the seed crystals of ice-nine, which will freeze the world at room temperature, for example, or wampeter, the fundamental purpose of a karass in the religion of Bokononism. Karass, for that matter, by which Vonnegut named a group of people who are, somehow, often unknown to themselves, working to bring about God’s purposes.