“”I don’t know what it is about Hoosiers,“ said Hazel, ”but they’ve sure got something. If somebody was to make a list, they’d be amazed.“
”That’s true,“ I said.
She grasped me firmly by the arm. ”We Hoosiers have got to stick together.“
”You call me ‘Mom.’ “
”Whenever I meet a young Hoosier, I tell them, ‘You call me Mom.’ “
”Uh huh.“
”Let me hear you say it,“ she urged.”

Mrs. H. Lowe Crosby—Hazel—clearly wants to reach out. We cannot fault her for genuine kindness, and her enthusiasm for our Indiana-born protagonist is perhaps a more awkward reflection of our own. But one still wonders—why the blind, frantic attempt at community, as if scrambling for the last spot on a packed bus?

Vonnegut, aided by his invented religion, Bokononism, has the answer. According to Bokonon orthodoxy, the far-flung and eminent Hoosiers are a granfaloon, and, in its sing-song nursery rhyme liturgy, if you wish to study a granfaloon, “just remove the skin of a toy balloon.” The opposite of a granfaloon is a karass. These are the true teams, organized unwittingly to do God’s will. Should your life merge inexplicably with another’s, it may well be that you two belong to the same karass.

Such a view of community animates the whole novel. Vonnegut disregards official, human-imposed boundaries—class, sex, occupation, citizenship—for those imposed by the motives underlying them, and by chance itself. He throws up his hands at humanity in a way that never seems pessimistic, despite the fact that he has no hope for the future whatsoever. His sympathy for yammering Hazel and all of her pathetic counterparts is clear.

In fact, it is difficult to find anyone genuinely unpleasant in Cat’s Cradle—even those who bring about the end of the world. As this dismal and apocalyptic future becomes the present, the cheerful and wry teachings of Bokonon prove to be the most powerful method we have to reduce the world of Cat’s Cradle to order.

The novel’s world is at once unrecognizable and very familiar, conveying a manner of absurdity that instantly reminds the reader of his or her own life—or at least the news. One of the book’s great accomplishments is how it wills a fantastical and dissonant arrangement of fictional settings into bein—rom the upstate boredom of Ilium, NY to the superlative and sultry Republic of San Lorenzo. Vonnegut populates these lands with a cast that clashes as violently with their surroundings as they do with each other.

Despite the novel’s dark conclusion, it is a surprisingly optimistic—and unsentimental—story. Cat’s Cradle is written by a master who can actually do something original with the English language, and that alone should convince you to read it, if nothing else will.

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