Early in my freshman year of high school, a friend told me about the concept of ice-nine. I was morbidly intrigued, as I feel any teenager is in the possible end of the world. But I was also mildly stunned at the idea that literature not YA could cover such fantastic ground. That adult literature and sci-fi could be fun, push boundaries, and use such world-ending devices as metaphors for real life subjects! Naturally, now, I do not think I would describe Vonnegut as fun, per se. Funny, most definitely, but Cat’s Cradle is not a novel that I would describe as fun. In fact, most of it can be near painful to read, with the main character lusting over a teenager, the threat of human extinction looming behind every word, and some uncomfortable “other”-ing of the native population of San Lorenzo. Regardless, when I first read Cat’s Cradle, I fell in love with the black humored prose, searching for all the Vonnegut my local Half Price Books would allow. As the years pushed forward, and as the pages kept turning, I came to a startling realization: Dear God! The women in nearly all of these books are absurd. I am sure, if I said this to one of Vonnegut’s protagonists, he would reply with a taciturn, “Um.”
That is not to say that these women’s absurdity comes from a place of pure malice. No, of course, Vonnegut’s novels are highly satirical and biting—it would come as no surprise for the actions of these women to be a dig on how society already sees women. Or… is this wishful thinking? It is impossible to know for sure unless we asked the man himself, and that is—for now!—impossible. Still, Vonnegut tells readers many things about himself through his writing. Jonah, the main character, was initially supposed to also be named Vonnegut. A writer, he is clearly a surrogate for the author himself. This brings us to a very important role in Cat’s Cradle: Mona.
Mona is San Lorenzo itself. Outside sources (Jonah) wish to possess her without considering her wants, wellbeing, or culture. He “obtains” her only after he simultaneously takes authoritative control of the island, for she is always engaged to the President of San Lorenzo. After disaster has struck, Jonah still seeks his own pleasure over her needs, and possibly assaults her while they are in a disaster-bunker together. They couple, and she asks if he knew if that is where babies come from, for she does not want a child in a post ice-nine world. Her consent or wants were obviously not important. Neither are the wants of Caribbean nation when the US decides to interfere with them.
She is also perverse desire itself, as shown by her exemplary beauty and promiscuity. Due to the cultural significance of boko-maru (a religious act of rhythmically pressing the sole of one's foot to another's) and how it differs societally from sex, it is perhaps not appropriate to call her promiscuous. To Jonah, however, she is, and seeing her perform boko-maru with others is just as enraging as if he caught her with a lover in their marital bed. It is all very interesting, this setup and detailing around Mona, for him to lose her at the end of the novel. She chooses to put ice-nine to her tongue willingly, instantly killing herself. She dies with the rest of those under the Bokononism religion, though not Bokonon himself.
This leads to some interesting questions. What is Jonah’s, and to an extent Vonnegut’s, intense and perverse lust doing in a Cold War themed sci-fi novel? What does it symbolize, and what of Mona’s does he want, besides her youth and beauty?
Her portrayal is not exactly nice—she is a follower of an admittedly false religion, her most defining quality is her looks, she speaks in a simple manner. Her presence or lack of presence would not have changed the deployment of ice-nine, though, neither does Jonah’s. She clearly has deeper meaning, as seen in the aforementioned musings, though her presence still leaves me with a feeling of discomfort, as does a number of Vonnegut’s female characters.
As I revisit Vonnegut and his biting satire, I think about satire’s role as a tool. It can be devastatingly effective, and yet, it can sometimes be indistinguishable from what it wishes to criticize. I wonder if it is truly possible for a member of an oppressing group to make a satirical portrayal of the oppressed, without ‘punching down’, as it were.