Monday, June 14, 2010

Breakfast of Champions - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Oeuvre rule: as previously reported, the only major items by Kurt Vonnegut that I have not read number few more than five: Slapstick, Player Piano, Jailbird, the new story collection, and various collections of essays, unpublished stories, etc. I first read Breakfast of Champions nine or ten years ago, in the midst of Vonnegut mania after reading his oft-cited masterpieces (Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five, Deadeye Dick--Sirens of Titan would languish in libraries for five more years, Hocus Pocus less than one), God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Welcome to the Monkey House, and Mother Night. Timequake fell along somewhere in there too. It was safe to say that Kurt Vonnegut and J.D. Salinger were my two favorite writers before I got into F. Scott Fitzgerald, and then many others later. Vonnegut is prime material for high schoolers because the language is so simple--but moreover, in his re-definition of what literature can be, readers may be driven to reassess the total value of books themselves, and to explore unthought philosophical tangents relating to the fabric of their existence and consciousness. This is one of Vonnegut's chief virtues as a writer: his ability to make his audience think. His body of work is also probably the single funniest in the canon of Great Books.

Breakfast of Champions came out in 1972, or around the time Vonnegut turned 50, and in his preface he writes of how the book is a birthday present to himself, and how he plans to "retire" several of his characters. Up until this point in his career, he had written six other books--Player Piano, Sirens of Titan, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Mother Night, Cat's Cradle, and Slaughterhouse Five. The progression from novel to novel seems to indicate greater experimentation and more absurd humor--which I think hits its pitch for Vonnegut's career in Breakfast of Champions. In addition to its relative plotlessness, there are probably close to a hundred small drawings by Vonnegut also.

The book concerns Dwayne Hoover, who is a car salesman who is one of the richest men in Midland City, Ohio, whose wife killed herself by drinking Drano. He goes crazy. That is basically the plot of the novel. But in the meantime, a whole other cast of characters is introduced, and destiny will bring him into contact with another major character: Kilgore Trout, who will make Dwayne crazy by giving him his novel Now It Can Be Told, which posits that the reader is the only live creature in the universe with free-will and that everything around them has been created for their stimulation. The novel is actually fairly complex, when you get down into all of the individual episodes--but here is where it differs from Vonnegut's previous work: it can barely be classified as "science-fiction" at all. Kilgore Trout is a "science-fiction writer" and many of his stories are retold or recapped in this novel, but none of the major themes are particularly science-related. Instead, this is Vonnegut's "realist" novel.

Midland City could be any city in America, and Vonnegut's evocation of "small town life" where everyone is interconnected reads like a play on popular television and film of the day. More importantly, Vonnegut breaks down the concept of the novel itself when he juts into the narrative and offers a personal detail about how someone he knew, or someone in his family, is like one of the characters currently being discussed. And later, when he introduces himself as a character as the novel nears its climax. There is absolutely no pretense about the act of reading this book. Vonnegut does not attempt to disguise it as anything but what it is--which can barely be called a novel, though ultimately it is.

I struggled with whether to blog review this book for one important reason: Kurt Vonnegut needs no introduction. He does not need any "press." Anyone who is ever going to read his books will find them on their own. By high school, anyone who cares about literature will be exposed to him in some way. Several of his works stand up in comparison with some of the greatest novels any American has ever produced--while making it look way too easy. Perhaps Vonnegut is responsible for my own (failed as-of-yet) ambitions of writing.

I struggle with whether to quote any single portion of this book for fear that I cannot reproduce the pictures. Any single paragraph could be quoted as emblematic of the rest:

"Dwayne had a hamburger and French fries and a Coke at his newest Burger Chef, which was out on Crestview Avenue, across the street from where the new John F. Kennedy High School was going up. John F. Kennedy has never been in Midland City, but he was a President of the United States who was shot to death. Presidents of the country were often shot to death. The assassins were confused by some of the bad chemicals which troubled Dwayne.
Dwayne certainly wasn't alone, as far as having bad chemicals in him was concerned. He had plenty of company throughout all history. In his own lifetime, for instance, the people in a country called Germany were so full of bad chemicals for a while that they actually built factories whose only purpose was to kill people by the millions. The people were delivered by railroad trains.
When the Germans were full of bad chemicals, their flag looked like this: (Nazi flag picture)
(German flag picture) Here is what their flag looked like after they got well again:
After they got well again, they manufactured a cheap and durable automobile which became popular all over the world, especially among young people. It looked like this: (picture of VW Bug)
People called it a 'the beetle.' A real beetle looked like this: (picture of beetle)" (669-671--my edition, which contains the first six Vonnegut novels, sans Rosewater, a collection I will keep with me forever.)

And so on.

One quirk of this novel that is perhaps worth noting is the prevalence of the "n-word." It appears so many times in this novel that it could be banned on those grounds alone. Of course, it is used satirically, but I am sure it would be difficult to publish this book thirty years later. Upon reflection, the "n-word" appears so many times (it far outnumbers the "f-bombs") that it makes me want to say Breakfast of Champions's secret theme is racism. Its major theme is of course, the "illness" that civilization suffers from (perhaps the major theme of all of Vonnegut's work)--but its primary variant is racism. There are perhaps a dozen little tangents in this book, hateful little anecdotes about racism, sometimes shocking in gruesomeness. The message is ultimately anti-racist of course, but so much of the material is presented with such detachment and objectivity and ambiguity that many could be confused. This "racism theme" is something I did not notice my first time reading it, but seemed to stick out much more the second time.

Of course, both times I could not forget about all of the statistics of penis sizes. Or the line "dumb fucking bird."

I didn't like Breakfast of Champions as much as the other supposed masterpieces by the same author, and I think it does leave a bit of a sour taste in one's mouth. But it's only because the hero is an anti-hero (though Trout is something of a hero), and there is no easily defined plot or action to anticipate. As Vonnegut became more absurd in his humor around this time, he also moved increasingly into autobiography over the next two decades, and one can witness the shift in his artistic sensibilities with this volume. He is confident that he can do whatever he wants and it will be published. But he uses that template to create a much more ambivalent work of art that still contains some of his most beautiful moments (the description of Rabo Karabekian's The Temptation of St. Anthony, the last line of the novel, spoken by Kilgore Trout) but will probably confuse or distress some. I recommend everyone read every Vonnegut novel. I still have several left to go, myself.

I have never read Player Piano, but it is in this edition, and I should blog review it. I have never been able to get into it, the one or two times I tried to start it. I really just want to read Cat's Cradle for the third or fourth time.

1 comment:

Joe said...

We all go through a Vonnegut phase in high school. His books had a voice that was accessible, and prepared minds for the contemplation of WW2 in the context of Vietnam. I hope that today there are authors who are able to do the same thing with the GWOT(e), Global War on Terror/Everything. At least he showed us some humility in the face of the ridiculous. I'm glad you are still able to keep it "light" for us here.