Sunday, May 12, 2013

Cat's Cradle Chapters 5-8

So a quick apology--I realized glancing over the last book club that I said chapters 6-8 for this week, apparently deciding 5 didn't exist. It however seems to be a really important chapter so I'm changing my mind and deciding it does, in fact, exist.

So, want to know my favorite part of writing about this book assuming you're reading along at home? I don't need to break down every single passage like I do with 50 Shades!

Alright--*rolls up imaginary sleeves*--let's get this show started!

Chapter 5 and 6 is a response from one of the members of Johna's karass Newt Hoenikker, the youngest son of Dr Felix Hoenikker. I imagine we will get to meet all three of the "good" doctors children, but we meet Newt first. He is in university, a member of the same frat as Johna was in his university days, and has just flunked out, and he tells us about the day the bomb dropped.

I want to take a moment here to say how much I love Vonnegut's writing, he gives us a letter talking about what happened and still managed to show, not tell. So we're given characterization of the Hoenikker family.

Newt describes the family dynamic: his Mother died in childbirth with him, so his sister Angela (22 at the time) is the head of the family and has devoted her entire life to caring for her father and brothers. She has one hobby, Newt tells us, the clarinet, other than that, her whole life is her family. Given the setting of this book that doesn't surprise me that we're meeting a sister-mommy*. His brother Frank, we're told, has been missing for about two years, and is described in slightly sociopathic terms. We hear about him putting bugs into jars, and shaking the jars to make the bugs fight, and punches his sister and laughs as she rolls around in pain crying.

His father was... well, Felix is an interesting case of innocence not equating morality. The man is the father of the atomic bomb and when testing, a co-worker turns to him and says "Science has now met sin." to which Felix's response is "What's sin?" Felix is described as a totally absent parent, needing to be coddled and cared for like a child both by his family and his employers. He seems uninterested in those around him, and works on things as they strike his fancy. We are given the impression that in his childish simplicity, he is quite happy: even though he is responsible for the atomic bomb, there is seemingly no guilt of it.

Newt tells us that his father never played with him as a kid, and the day of the bomb was the first time he had tried to. Newt was playing with trucks on the carpet (or so he assumes, since his sister has commented he often did that) while his father played with a bit of string from a manuscript sent to him by a man in prison. The man was looking for ideas of what kind of bomb he should use, but we're told that Felix never read anything that wasn't a scientific journal (which I think is the most vilifying thing I've ever seen Vonnegut write about a character) and so he probably never read it, he just liked the string. He was making a cat's cradle (title drop!) and decided that he would sit and play with little Newt. So he sits next to his youngest son and starts shoving this bit of string in his face singing an adapted version of "rock a bye baby". Newt tells us that he remembers his father reeking of cigars and looking absolutely terrifying and ran away crying, frightened by his father.

Newt, being 6, finds his brother fighting bugs and is fascinated by that because, well, 6 year old boy. Angela later comes out looking for him and scolds Newt for running away from their father, saying that he hurt him terribly. I want to dwell on this a moment, since, well, Felix has never really taken time to play with his six year old son, ever. He does so on a whim and is hurt when he scares the child so much that he runs away crying. Felix, on top of being oblivious, is deeply self-centered. Angela and Newt start fighting, because Newt keeps just calling his father ugly and scary and saying he hates him, and Angela slaps him. This at first was shocking to me, and adult-Newt seems totally blase writing it, but then I remembered time-context, so I won't read too much into it. Angela is supposed to be emotional about it as she screams that their father just won the war, but we're not supposed to see her as bad for slapping a child, largely because of how she's been forced into the sister-mommy role. This is the point Frank gut-punches her and she rolls around in pain, calling to their father for help. He pokes his head out, but as Frank predicted, no interference comes. Newt tells us that he never even asked about the event after the fact.

Chapter 7 and 8 are about Newt as an adult. His post-scripts, telling us that his family is not "illustrious" with him being a midget (I am aware it's not a great term, but it's what the book uses) and his brother Frank being wanted by the FBI, Florida police, and Treasury Department for running stolen cars to Cuba. He suggests that perhaps "glamorous" is a more fitting word. Newt also tells us though he has flunked out of school and is no longer a frat-member, he is still happy, and mentions he is getting married soon. Johna then tells us that Newt married a Ukrainian dancer named Zinka. This was fine until shortly after the wedding Newt discovered she was not 23 as she had said but 42. Old enough to be his Mother. Newt says that he has no regrets and the matter is between him and Zinka, but the media is, well, the media. I'm not quite sure what to make of this, to be honest. It feels a touch random, but I think this is meant to give us a frame of reference for Newt so we can decide if he is a reliable narrator (since he does narrate two chapters in his letter) or perhaps is just to give us closure on what happened to the character. If I look at it as determining the reliability of the narrator, than I would say that Newt seems reliable. He doesn't lie- he simply refuses to talk about the things he doesn't wish to talk about, and so I would say that his willingness to speak means he is willing to tell the whole truth.

What do you make of these characters? Do you think I'm over or underestimating Felix, or getting chapters 7 and 8 wrong with my interpretation of Newt? I admit I'm a little miffed on how to interpret that one. 

On the 26th we'll cover chapters 9-12. Tune in Thursday for 50 Shades!

*I use the term sister-mommy because of an old English teacher of mine, and I now think she may have coined the term for the trope because I can't find a TV-tropes page to quite fit what I want. I linked to promoted to parent because it was the closest, but sister-mommy means something a little different. It's the case of an older sister having to step into a mother role for her younger siblings and basically give up their own lives/freedom/wants to take care of them. The sister-mommy is usually shown to be a sympathetic if not admirable and pitiable character. From the little of Angela I've seen so far this seems spot on.


  1. Felix is an interesting character, though we only know of him through what other characters tell Jonah. I'm not sure I would say he's "innocent," exactly. He's more like a Sherlock Holmes, paying no attention to anything that doesn't strike him as important for his work (remember in A Study in Scarlet where Holmes tells Watson he doesn't care if the earth goes around the sun or vice versa because it has nothing to do with his work?). Felix probably doesn't have the same notion of the mind being like a closet which only holds so much stuff, but the principle is the same.

    When I first read this book as a teenager, I thought Felix was a little over the top, but having married into a family of scientists, I see him as a somewhat realistic, if also a bit exaggerated, version of a particular type of scientist. There are people out there who are so focused on their work (not just scientists, of course) that the rest of the world simply doesn't exist, or if it does, exists as a momentary distraction, to be dealt with and then ignored. Some people would see this as sociopathy, some would see it as a version of autism, but I'm not sure it's really either.

    One of the things I see in this book is a kind of pervasive sadness. None of these people is happy; no one has a good life, and even things that seem to alleviate the misery of their lives turn out to be illusory (don't want to give spoilers, but poor Newt!).

  2. I liked these chapters. I like Felix. I like playing with string too. The slapping didn't bother me. It's what siblings do. *shrugs*