Faith is only a word, embroidered.
Do not think about sin, he thought. There are enough problems now without sin. Also I have no understanding of it.
“No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X’s . . .”
“No damn cat, and no damn cradle.”
I recently went on vacation to Portland, Maine. I took a few books with me to read, waiting to decide which one would get the call up from the general population to a seat of high honor until I arrived at our destination and got a feel for the place. You can’t just charge into these things willy-nilly. The lucky book was a used copy of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale. I don’t know why. Anyways, I read it, and I got some new used books. I finished it on our second night there. The next night I had to decide what book would succeed it. I took our location into account and decided that Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea should enjoy its reign. It was short, a one night stand. And then, finally, I chose to re-read Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, a book I hadn’t read since high school and had only vague memories drifting around in my head. These three books in the span of a week. So there won’t be any single review, instead let us look at each book as it relates to the other. Because what good are coincidences if they are not explored?
The Handmaid’s Tale and The Old Man and the Sea
Here are two books that seem to be complete opposites. Atwood’s prose is, quite literally, flowery. We are introduced piece by piece into a world where the religious zealots have taken over and made everything more sacred. Some women are lucky, married to officers in the new government, and enjoy some degree of freedom. Others are less lucky and are forced to have sex with the officers in the stead of the wives because such an act cannot be left to chance anymore, and these women are the best bets for conception, that most holy of acts. The remaining women are forced into labor camps where they spend the short remainder of their lives working in radioactive wastelands. It’s not a fun time. In fact, the strongest element of Atwood’s novel is the illustration of how little good has actually come of these changes. The wives despise their replacements and the replacements despise everything. The sense of despair permeates the descriptions provided by the narrator, Offred, one of the replacements. Her language is detailed and florid, emphasizing the physical and mental limits she has taken on. It’s a tough read at times, but so goes the dystopian novel.
The Old Man and the Sea is opposite in almost every way. Where Atwood describes everything in long, detailed thoughts, Hemingway is the master of the short, concise sentence. It is a simple story of an old man who goes fishing as he does every day and lands an almost mythic marlin. Half the book describes his attempts to tire the fish out enough to kill it and the rest details his journey back to his hometown on the island of Cuba while he fends off sharks from eating his prized fish. The book is short, very short, and not much really “happens”. Hemingway takes time to describe the physical torture of a multi-day battle with such a gargantuan force and then the sinking spirits of a man that has his great accomplishment taken away from him, piece by piece. We get a few insights into the old man’s thought process, too, but little more than a few thoughts on God/The Great DiMaggio and a young boy who had been his apprentice until a recent unlucky spell forced the boy to abandon him for a different fishing crew.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that my descriptions do overlap a bit. Both books are focused on the physical torture forces outside of the characters impose upon them, and they both examine the role of God and religion in the lives of their protagonists. Where The Handmaid’s Tale takes the time to chronicle minute details of Offred’s situation, The Old Man and the Sea takes an almost workman-like look at a very physical job. It’s taken as a given that the man would suffer great pain in order to finally catch the fish, and then it happens. When the old man arrives back at his port with only a skeleton, head, and tail lashed to the side of his boat we see how much the long journey has taken from him. He’s malnourished and has almost nothing to show for it. Similarly, Offred undergoes much pain, though we see a lot more of the emotional side for her, with nothing to show for it. Were she to get pregnant she would never know the joy of raising her child, nor would the wife have any emotional attachment to the kid. It’s the worst of all possible worlds. The religion that forced everybody to change for the benefit of a few in The Handmaid’s Tale is taken a little less seriously in The Old Man and the Sea. He thinks about God and whether he should be killing such a marvelous animal and the harm he is doing to himself while he does so, but equal merit is given to the great baseball stars of the time, including Joe DiMaggio. Maybe the worst part of his week-long expedition is the fact that he’s missed reading about the baseball games that have happened while he was doing battle.
Like I said above, this one was a re-read. I remembered only a scene on a plane and the effects of Ice-Nine vividly, the rest was a swirl of ideas and characters that meant little to me. Upon this reading I think I understood more of what Vonnegut was going for, having settled more into what I do and do not believe in. Religion is a big part of the book, the made-up religion of Bokononism permeates almost every chapter and page. It’s probably the best kind of religion you can have. One of the central tenants is the implicit silliness of any belief system, and it exploits the way our lives overlap and interact with other lives. Perhaps the most cogent element put forth is the idea of a karass and a granfalloon. The first is the group of people that make up the important players in your life, the second is a group of people that think their connection is important when it is actually meaningless. It’s a great way of thinking about the ways we try to organize ourselves. There are the people that we think matter and those that actually do. The book is full of these fantastic ideas and it’s presentation is at once hilarious and sad. I knew the ending this time around, and the point of view presented by our main character acknowledges the kind of cosmic comedy of such a disastrous scenario.
If The Handmaid’s Tale is the ultimate serious examination of the potential problems of a religious regime, and The Old Man and the Sea gently points out some of the ways pop culture has begun to replace religion, then Cat’s Cradle presents both the benefits and detriments of religious belief. There’s something to be said for the idea that, in our own wandering from point to point we are really fulfilling some kind of cosmic destiny. I don’t necessarily believe that’s the case, but I do think that by doing what we do, we form our own kind of meaning. If this is all there is it’s our duty to do the best we can. Bokononism places the highest value on love and the intermingling of selves through the touching of foot to foot, sole to soul. This ritual serves as a metaphor for all of our interactions. There’s always a mixing of ideas, personalities, feelings when a person interacts with another. And that’s the most important thing we can do.
Ok, that’s enough of that. I’ve been away for a while, so I hope you excuse this longer post. Turns out I had a bit to say. If you want to talk about any specific element of any of these books or any idea’s I brought up in this piece, please do so in the comments. They’re all great books with a lot to say, no matter the subject or style. And follow me on Goodreads to see what I’m reading and my ratings for what I’ve read in the past.