Monday, April 29, 2013

Cat's Cradle Book Club meeting, chapter 1-4

“Hey wasn't this supposed to be up yesterday?” Yes, yes it was, but Saturday was moving day (Where The Boy and I escaped the EVIL clutches of the student neighborhood and have now taken sheltered in a much nicer more central area!) and the internet fairy doesn't come until Thursday and though I had this ready, I was without a way to upload it. So, you get it a day late. Here, take this Dachshund as an apology. 

Now, while I am in the process of making slightly embarrassing admissions: I didn't actually page through this book when I picked it as a candidate. When I was picking candidates I walked to my bookshelf and yanked every one that I had been meaning to read, (or re-read) that I thought would give me something to pick at. Having read Vonnegut before I had less concern that he would deliver than some of the other authors on the list (like the delightful but straight forward Wallace). It wasn't until I managed to steal ten minutes to sit down with the book (yes, it had taken me until Sunday to do so) that I realized that each chapter was about 2 pages.


Well then.

So I am going to do the first 4 chapters, because if you guys are anything like me there is absolutely no way you did not read ahead, and if you didn't it will take you about three minutes to do so. I'm doing the first 4 because they fit together nicely as an intro.

Alright, let's get started, shall we?

I usually skip over the reviews for a book, at least if I already own it. They're there to sell me the thing, and I've already bought it, why should I bother? Still, this time for what ever reason I felt compelled to, the copy of the book I have was printed in 1998 so yours may not have the same reviews as mine (do they change that sort of thing?) but one jumped out at me.

Our finest black humorist.
...we laugh in self-defense.”
-The Atlantic Monthly

I'm not entirely sure why of all the passages this one jumped out at me, perhaps because it's so similar to a line I picked up somewhere that I internalized at a young age (“Sometimes you either need to laugh or cry. Might as well laugh.”) but it brings up what I know of Vonnegut. A war vet and brutal pragmatist (“Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.” anyone?) and his other book that I have read (Slaughter House 5) very much draws from those experiences. My Dad knew a bit about Vonnegut's history when I made him read Slaughter House 5 (I needed someone to talk to about it) and mentioned that Vonnegut had always been very anti-war (being 18 I didn't do things like read up authors histories). (From Wiki) "He was a citizen he was a lifelong supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union and a critical pacifist intellectual. He was known for his humanist beliefs and was honorary president of the American Humanist Association". Reading these two lines brought all this to mind, and tells me about Vonnegut's motivations (or one theory on what they might be). Vonnegut is a war-vet who has become a pacifist, having been a "baby" at the time he went to war (according to the intro of Slaughter House 5).

Vonnegut writes about war, in some capacity or another, in most of (all of?) his writing. However he doesn't just write grim gritty war actions novelizations. He writes (often surreal) satire. He writes about war and then laughs at it. While there is a lot to be said about the courage it can take to write about your own gritty horrors*, I think it takes even more courage to then turn around and laugh at them.

The preface to the book is interesting, too.

Nothing in this book is true.

Live by the foma* that makes you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”

The Books of Bokonon. I: 5

*Harmless untruths

This idea will come up often in the first four chapters. Chapter one our narrator introduces himself as Johan (though his parents named him John) because for what ever reason he has been compelled to certain places at certain times. He goes on to give us an idea of his age

When I was a younger man – two wives ago, 250, 000 cigarettes ago, 3,000 quarts of booze ago...

that he was writing a book. “The Day the World Ended.” that was to be a factual series of events of what “important” Americans had done the day when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Jonah then starts to tell us about Bokonon which is the made up religion that is outright declared to be made up of “bittersweet lies”. The gist of it (for those of you not reading along at home) is that we are all divided into teams (karass) to fulfill some aspect of God's Will. An individual is never to know what this is, just that we are. The books goes on to tell us that if we find ourselves tangled up with a person for no discernible reason then odds are we are members of the same karass. Bokonon preaches equality, and a place and purpose for all of Gods creations. Bokonon is also very upfront about the fact that it is made up entirely of foma.

That is chapters 1 and 2. Chapter 3 tells the story of a woman who claims to understand God and His Ways of Working perfectly. She is, shockingly, arrogant to think so. She believes that God holds all the same opinions and beliefs as she does (the example we're given is that He likes people in sail boats better than people in motorboats) and goes on to say she freaked out if she ever saw a worm. The book (quoting from the Book of Bokonon) calls her a fool, but also calls himself (and anyone else who thinks they can see what God is Doing) a fool.

The next chapter Jonah tells us that the goal of the book we are reading is to find as many members of his karass as possible, and to find out what they were doing the day the bomb dropped in hopes of getting an idea. He is defining people as members of his karass by their lives being inexplicably tangled in his own, and rattles off a few (I'll get into them more as they come up) and the chapter ends with him firing a letter off to the youngest son of Dr Felic Hoenikker (one of the Father's of the bomb) Newton Hoenikker asking for what he remembers going on that day even though he would have been just a kid.

There is one thing that struck me in the chapter that I haven't mentioned yet, and it's the “Bokononist warning” that we are offered. First we are told the one that resides in the very first sentence of the Books of Bokonon:

All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.”

The narrator goes on to offer his own for this book,

Anyone unable to understand how useful a religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either.
So be it.”

I first read that and laughed. It basically spelled out any speculations I had about Bokononisim leading up to this point. It's a religion for people who don't actually want to practice religion, simply the security blanket that (according to non-theists) religion offers. The moral absolution, the ability to trust some higher power when it comes to all of the big scary things in life because they're all part of God's plan (the book has yet to touch on holidays yet, but I will be surprised if there was not some Christmas stand in). It makes sense from an author who is a Humanist.

I write this as an Agnostic who was raised in a mixed-religion household (French Catholic & Jewish.) and I can totally understand why someone would embrace that. I want to scream whenever I'm facing down some big scary life issue and someone cheerfully tells me it's all in God's Plan. Really? I'm dealing with (Insert issue. Unemployment/illness/a loved one in danger) because God figured I was due? Or that (insert consequence. Not being able to work due to playing caretaker/because of illness) would build character? Through often heroic will-power I just grit my teeth and offer some generic platitude because while I disagree entirely, I understand that is what they believe, and that it helped them through hard times. If it's something you can buy into I can see how incredibly comforting the idea that everything happens for a reason is, but it's not a theology I've ever been able to sink my teeth into. To each their own. Which is why Bokononisim makes me giggle (as I believe it is supposed to) because it is sounds much like the creation of a non-theist.

So, what did you at home make of this? What are your thoughts on Bokonon? Do you think I'm way off with thinking it's meant to be a religion for people who don't like religion? Do you think personal responsibility will come up as a theme (I suspect it will be)?

Also while religion is an obvious theme here, and the author was Humanist (which is closely related to Atheist as far as my understanding goes, but I will do more research into it before the next book club meeting) I will stress the commenting rule of "Don't be a dick". Religion is open for discussion, but not debate. People's beliefs are what they are and there is to be no policing of others' beliefs.

On that cheerful note, sound off in the comments, and read chapters 6-8 for May 12! Next Sunday is Ender's Game and a Thursday will have a guest post for 50 Shades! Probably!

*You can see how much he struggled in a little more depth if you ever read the foreword to Slaughter House 5


  1. I've read the whole book many times and I'll be interested to see how you feel about Bokononism when you get farther into the book. I don't think that it's a religion for people who don't want religion or don't like it; I think in a way it's Vonnegut playing with the idea of religion: here's a religion that is deliberately created (you'll find out why and how), whose creator is still around (we meet him later) and knows what has been done in the name of his religion. And yet, for all its fakery, its obvious made-up nature, it turns out to be useful in the way that sometimes religion itself can be useful: it does help people deal with terrible circumstances (in this case, desperate poverty and the end of the world).

    There are a lot of things I liked about Bokononism when I read the book, but I don't want to spoil anything by telling you about them now.

  2. Honestly, I don't care for Vonnegut. I couldn't choke through Slaughterhouse 5, and found this one just as hard to stomach. (And I love to read, and will read anything). Truth be told, I had to force my way through Rushdie also, but enjoyed his writing more than V. I did however, read this entire book in the last 2 days, and I suppose I should re-read it by chapter with your review. I was never good at "book reports" in school (years ago), especially on books I didn't care for. So, I'm glad someone else is doing it.

  3. i read the first four chapters, but I'm still not really sure what the book is about. I'm not finding character revelations or any semblance of a plot in any of the sentences. but i'll keep reading because reading is fun. i just don't really know what to think of something i've only read a few pages of.

  4. I do think you're mistaken about Bokononism. It's not a religion for people who don't like religion; it's a religion for people who do like it, but can't get past the literal-mindedness of religious dogma. To me, Bokononism says that we think in stories -- stories make us who we are -- and if it makes you happier, stronger, and better to suppose that a particular story is true, then you should go ahead and suppose that story is true. Other people can, and should, suppose that different stories are true. These kinds of stories are never true universally.

    When I was a kid and still believed in god, it occurred to me one day that I got a lot more spiritual feeling from reading books about Aslan than I did from the Bible. It was my first dim recognition of the idea that two different stories can be about the same thing, and which story you choose to believe matters less than the thing the story is about. Ultimately it led me away from theism, and I suppose C.S. Lewis would've been sad about that as it was the opposite of his intention, but so it goes.

    Anyway, that principle is what I think Bokononism, and in particular its emphasis on foma, is all about.