Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut


Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

There are a hell of alot of interesting things going on in Breakfast of Champions: a distinctive authorial style that challenges fictional conventions, insightful social commentary, and an exploration of the relationship between fiction and determinism.  But because all these ideas are held together by a weak plot, the whole ends up being less than the parts.

The plot revolves around a science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout, who has “doodley-squat”, and a Pontiac dealer, Dwayne Hoover, who is “fabulously well-to-do”.  We are told that, in the future, the American Academy of Arts and Science will recognise Kilgore Trout as a great man for both his writing and his often hilarious insights, such as this:

“…we can build an unselfish society by devoting to unselfishness the frenzy we once devoted to gold and underpants.”

In the time period covered by the book, however, no one has heard of Kilgore trout, and his stories have only been published in porno magazines.  He’s surprised, then, when he is invited to speak at the Midlands Arts festival by someone who thinks that he’s written the greatest novel in the English language.

Meanwhile, bad chemicals in Dwayne Hoover’s head are sending him insane.   When he hears Kilgore Trout read one of his stories at the Arts Festival, it gives shape to his madness and he goes on a homicidal rampage.

That’s about all there is to the plot.  Of course, there are a few more details.  To get to Midland City, Kilgore Trout has to travel across an America sick with gross social inequality and environmentally degraded by the production of cheap consumables.  Dwayne Hoover’s slide into insanity and its impact on those around him reveals the farcicalness of society and its conventions.

But Vonnegut tells us pretty much the whole plot in the second chapter, in a synopsis that is almost as short as the one above.  As we near the climax, he quickens the pace of events by stating to the reader that he is quickening the pace.  And when Dwayne finally the snaps, there are no surprises, making it distinctly anti-climactic.  Thankfully, there is a thematic climax in the epilogue.  But it’s not enough to make us feel like there was enough plot glue to hold it all together.

Still, there’s more than enough brilliant ideas to keep us engaged.  For starters, there’s Vonnegut’s distinctive prose – direct, poignant and hilarious.   He writes like he’s explaining things to a child or, as is more likely considering his interests, an alien experiencing Earth’s culture for the first time.  He uses this technique to highlight injustice and the artificiality of social values.

Vonnegut is fearless in attacking the foundations of his often fervently proud country (I’m over in the States now and, man, there are a lot of flags around).  The first Europeans who discovered America are “sea pirates” whose “chief weapon was their capacity to astonish” with “how heartless and greedy they were.” The anthem is “gibberish sprinkled with question marks”.  Obviously, his observations are divisive and reductive, but also insightful and brave.

His position on race is probably even more controversial. On the one had, he uses the n-word (which I’m too politically correct to even spell out), and writes things like this:

“Nobody white had much use for black people anymore – except for the gangsters who sold black people used cars and dope and furniture. Still, the reindeer [black people] went on reproducing. There were these useless, big black animals everywhere, and a lot of them had very bad dispositions.”

But then he also also writes things like this:

“Actually, the sea pirates who had the most to do with the creation of the new government owned human slaves. They used human beings for machinery, and even after slavery was eliminated, because it was so embarrassing, they and their descendants continued to think of ordinary human beings as machines.”

He shows sympathy with the disadvantaged blacks, but also seems to enjoy airing racism. You might want to steer clear if you’re offended by taboo language or use of outdated African-American stereotypes.  The character of Dwayne Hoobler, in particular, is risky for his stupidity and subservience.  But at the end of the day, Vonnegut wouldn’t be half the writer he is if he was constrained by political correctness.

The novel is dotted with simple, childlike, elegant drawings that illustrate everyday objects, like varieties of beaver.  These are used to highlight the ridiculousness and inadequacy of language, and just as often to get a laugh.  Critics have called this “visual writing”.  Less pretentious people might just call it drawing.

Further breaking convention, Vonnegut inserts himself into the novel as a character, and repeatedly breaks the fourth wall to lift the curtain on his real-life inspirations:

[Kilgore Trout] had the same legs the Creator of the Universe gave to my father when my father was a pitiful old man.  They were pale white broomsticks.  They were hairless.  They were embossed fantastically with varicose veins.”

He concedes even more personal influences, too, connecting Dwayne Hoover’s wife’s suicide with his own mothers.  Its one indication of how intensely personal the book is.  In the introduction, he says that its is his “fiftieth birthday present to myself” and that “…I am trying to make my head as empty as it was when I was born onto this damaged planet fifty years ago.”  Following is perhaps the most telling passage on his state of mind when he wrote the book:

‘”This is a very bad book you’re writing,” I said to myself behind my leaks.
’I know,’ I said.
’You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,’ I said.
’I know,’ I said.

Vonnegut’s breaking of the fourth wall extends into showing that he controls all aspects of the character’s lives and actions, tying into the novel’s theme of determinism.  In the book, Vonnegut is expressing a “suspicion… that human beings are robots, are machines”.  Dwayne Hoovers actions are dictated by bad chemicals: he is a broken machine.  In this philosophy, people don’t have free will, just automatic responses.

SPOILERS

Having built up the idea of complete authorial and biological control over the course of the novel, Vonnegut then turns this idea on its head by revealing himself to Kilgore Trout, and granting him, and all of his fictional creations, past and future, free will.  However, at the same time that he’s doing this,  he seems to have less control over both Kilgore Trout’s actions, and his own.  He gives himself a symptom of Dwayne Hoover’s insanity, echolalia.  In typically smutty fashion, he responds to a fictional fright by retracting his testicles into his abdominal cavity, and, in what is hopefully make-believe, gives himself a short penis with what may be a world-record girth.

The implicit futility and desperation of giving his own creation free will and inner peace that he is unable to obtain makes for a touching and satisfying conclusion full of pathos and fun paradoxes.

In an interview, Vonnegut graded all of his works, and gave Breakfast of Champions a B-.  I’d dive it a more generous B+: with its strong social critique, challenging of convention and philosophies, its not hard to see why it’s one of his more popular works.  But at his pinnacle, Vonnegut harmonised both form and the ideas, which he doesn’t quite pull off here.

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4 Responses to Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut

  1. Sarah says:

    Have you read much Vonnegut? I have read only Cat’s Cradle. He has a reputation as such a good writer so I was disappointed to be unable to appreciate his talent. Since then I pick up his novels only to put them down again.

  2. (D)Wayne says:

    The African-American was WAYNE Hoobler… not Dwayne*

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