Hear Kurt Vonnegut’s Novel, Cat’s Cradle, Get Turned into Avant-Garde Music (Featuring Kurt Himself)

vonnegut drawing

Image by Daniele Prati, via Flickr Com­mons

Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 nov­el Cat’s Cra­dle resem­bles its title, a web of over­lap­ping and entan­gled sto­ries, all of which have huge holes in the mid­dle. And the book—as have many of his slim, sur­re­al­ist pop masterpieces—was read by many crit­ics as lightweight—whimsical and sen­ti­men­tal.  One review­er in The New York Review of Books, for exam­ple, called Von­negut a “com­pil­er of easy to read tru­isms about soci­ety who allows everyone’s heart to be in the right place.”

Not so, argues Uni­ver­si­ty of Puer­to Rico schol­ar Mark Wekan­der Voigt. For all its silliness—such as its Calyp­so-heavy “par­o­dy of a mod­ern invent­ed reli­gion that will make every­one hap­py”—Cat’s Cra­dle, writes Voigt, “is essen­tial­ly about the moral issues involved in a demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­ern­ment using the atom bomb.” Vonnegut’s nov­el sug­gests that “to be real­ly eth­i­cal, to think about right and wrong, means that we must dis­pense with the author­i­ties who tell us what is right and wrong.”

John, the hero of Cat’s Cra­dle, begins his absur­dist hero’s quest by intend­ing to write a “fac­tu­al” account­ing of what “impor­tant Amer­i­cans had done on the day when the first atom­ic bomb was dropped on Hiroshi­ma, Japan.” The ref­er­ences would not have been lost on Vonnegut’s con­tem­po­rary read­ers, who would all have been famil­iar with John Hersey’s har­row­ing 1946 Hiroshi­ma, the most pop­u­lar book ever writ­ten about the drop­ping of the bomb, with six survivor’s sto­ries told in a thrilling, engag­ing style and “all the enter­tain­ment of a well-writ­ten nov­el.”

Von­negut, how­ev­er, writes an alien­at­ing anti-nov­el, in part to demon­strate his point that “to dis­cuss the eth­i­cal impli­ca­tions of drop­ping the bomb on Hiroshi­ma, one should not look at the vic­tims, but at those who were involved in devel­op­ing such a bomb and their gov­ern­ment.” Increas­ing­ly, how­ev­er, it becomes hard­er and hard­er to look at any­thing direct­ly. In the novel’s par­o­dy reli­gion, Bokonon­ism, all lies are poten­tial­ly truths, all truths poten­tial­ly lies. Lan­guage in the mil­i­tary-indus­tri­al-com­plex world of the bomb, Von­negut sug­gests, had become as change­able and poten­tial­ly dead­ly as the sub­stance called “Ice‑9,” a poly­morph of water that can instant­ly turn rivers, lakes, and even whole oceans into ice.

Evok­ing the nov­el­’s high-wire bal­anc­ing act of goofy songs and rit­u­als and metaphors for the glob­al anni­hi­la­tion of the earth by nuclear weapons, the 2001 album above, Ice‑9 Bal­lads, pairs Von­negut with com­pos­er Dave Sol­dier and the Man­hat­tan Cham­ber orches­tra for an adap­ta­tion, of sorts, of Cat’s Cra­dle. Von­negut nar­rates evoca­tive snatch­es of the book, and the songs illus­trate key themes, such as the strained patois the inhab­i­tants of the fic­tion­al island of San Loren­zo speak. One exam­ple, the phrase “Dyot meet mat” (“God made mud”), gives us the title and refrain of the sec­ond track on the album.

“The music switch­es tones through­out to match the tone of the nov­el at some lev­el,” writes All­mu­sic, and there are also two addi­tion­al, vague­ly-relat­ed pieces at the end. “A Soldier’s Sto­ry” is a “faux-radio opera,” notes Time Out New York’s Mol­ly Sheri­dan, with a libret­to, writ­ten by Von­negut, about Eddie Slovik, the only sol­dier exe­cut­ed for deser­tion dur­ing World War II. A lat­er 2005 release of “A Soldier’s Sto­ry” bore a Parental Advi­so­ry warn­ing, though it is “not the obscen­i­ties that cause alarm, but the way in which moral con­tra­dic­tions inher­ent in the tale res­onate against present-day mil­i­tary involve­ments.”

The final piece, “East St. Louis, 1968,” is a sur­pris­ing­ly exper­i­men­tal, orches­tral-backed pas­tiche of soul, hip-hop and gospel. Tru­ly, like many a Von­negut nov­el, Ice‑9 Bal­ladswrites All­mu­sic, is “get­ting the avant-garde label from the eclec­ti­cism in it, but pro­vid­ing decid­ed­ly non-avant garde bits and pieces through­out that make the whole.… Don’t go in expect­ing some­thing bland or pre­dictable.” See more cred­its for the album at its label’s web­site here.

You can stream Ice‑9 Bal­lads on Spo­ti­fy for free (get Spo­ti­fy’s free soft­ware here) or pur­chase a copy online.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

In 1988, Kurt Von­negut Writes a Let­ter to Peo­ple Liv­ing in 2088, Giv­ing 7 Pieces of Advice

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads Kurt Vonnegut’s Incensed Let­ter to the High School That Burned Slaugh­ter­house-Five

Kurt Von­negut Dia­grams the Shape of All Sto­ries in a Master’s The­sis Reject­ed by U. Chica­go

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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