Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
September 7th, 2011
Just finished Breakfast of Champions, now my third Vonnegut book!
Kilgore Trout is a science fiction novelist. Dwayne Hoover is a car salesman on the brink of insanity. One of Kilgore Trout's science fiction books proposes everyone on Earth is a robot, except for the reader of the book, who has free will. Dwayne meets Trout, reads the book, believes it to be a personalized message from God, and goes on a violent rampage.
The reader is told this succinct plot summary in the very first pages. The novel then starts from the beginning of the outline, with Kilgore Trout setting off for travel to Midland City where he will eventually meet Dwayne and become the spark that initiates his downfall.
THERE IS TOO MUCH TO WRITE ABOUT THIS BOOK! I can't make it through without rambling. Maybe I'll give a tl;dr version?
- This book could have been mediocre but instead it's amazing
- This book would be terrible if Vonnegut didn't have a remarkable intuition for storytelling
- Vonnegut uses 3 gimmicks here: drawings, Kilgore's micronovels, and author-in-story
- Thought the micronovels were well done, the author-in-story was brilliant
- Wasn't really sold on the drawings
And with that, the avalanche!
Breakfast of Champions is not a book everyone will like, though it is a book that is trendy to like. The details of the story — Kilgore's chaotic journey to the city, Dwayne's encounters with his townfolk in the mean time — are silly and contrived. To say that this sort of neglect is "intentional" might suggest that it is done for artistic effect, which I don't think it is, but the weak story is certainly a conscious decision: Vonnegut mostly cares about having a stage to place his witty and thoughtful ruminations on life, and he'll abuse the plot however necessary to accommodate that.
But Vonnegut would be a poor writer in my mind if all this novels were just weak scaffolds for his numerous opinions, even if his opinions are interesting, or well-written. What impresses me so much is Vonnegut's seemingly random anecdotes and ramblings do have a greater tangible purpose — and so cleverly packaged!
Humans are Machines
Much of this book is about distance and selfishness. Vonnegut's fascinated by humans' ability to over-sentimentalize when a tragic situation is current and obvious, like the 2 monuments made for the high school football player (brilliant anecdote btw), but to turn so cold and unfeeling when there's any bit of distance from the matter.
So Vonnegut proposes humans must be machines. The tone of the novel reflects this indifferent sentiment. Tragedies are recited very neutrally. Kilgore's novels are summarized simply and without flourish. The effect is a distance between the reader and the characters, making it easy to discuss lightly thoughts on war and death and life's purpose, or purposelessness.
The entire book is rather unsuspensefully leading up to Dwayne's mental breakdown. Vonnegut has more than prepared his reader for this moment: we know the extent of Dwayne's insanity, we know what his outburst will entail, we even know whom he will attack, and what his victims will think and say afterward.
And yet, when the scene comes, … it's staggeringly poignant. Unlike all the other anecdotes and microstories in the book, this one's not so light and distant and amusing. The few lines of dialogue provide a close view into Dwayne's unhappiness, the shame and confusion and anger regarding his son, and the deep and unspoken heartbreak over his wife. It's a disturbing scene, and perhaps the only truly emotionally engaging scene in the book.
This is Vonnegut's way of saying, We're not machines. Dwayne's wrong. But at the same time, what are we doing to prove him wrong?
It's a question and a plea.
Kurt Vonnegut, the character
Breakfast of Champions is also notable for Kurt Vonnegut's appearance as himself, the author of the novel. It's wonderfully well done.
In addition to the Dwayne/Kilgore story, there is a B story with the Creator of the Universe. The Breakfast of Champions universe is, of course, the book itself, so its Creator must be the author.
Vonnegut wisely introduces the Creator into the book fairly late, near the book's midpoint. In the first half of the book, the reader has established a pretty solid idea of the book's world and its rules of reality — then the sudden introduction of the Creator really does feel like a spooky, unnatural intrusion. It's clever manipulation and an interesting experiment.
The book ends with Kilgore begging the Creator, "Make me young, make me young, make me young!" It's a strange ending and I wonder what Vonnegut intended with the message. Was he trying to make a broader statement with this wish, or is this just Vonnegut's personal regret? Not sure. Something I'll ponder.
THERE IS STILL MORE TO SAY! But writing is hard and nighttime is tired. I encourage you to read the book, or at least (my still-favorite) Cat's Cradle. With that, I'll end with something pretty:
Eddie Key knew so much about his ancestry because the black part of his family had done what so many African families still do in Africa, which was to have one member of each generation whose duty it was to memorize the history of the family so far. Eddie Key had begun to store in his mind the names and adventures of ancestors on both his mother's and father's sides of his family when he was only six years old. As he sat in front of the disaster vehicle, looking out his windshield, he had the feeling that he himself was a vehicle, and that his eyes were windshields through which his progenitors could look, if they wished to.
Francis Scott Key was only one of thousands back there. On the off-chance that Key might now be having a look at what had become of the United States of America so far, Eddie focussed his eyes on an America flag which was stuck to the windshield. He said this very quietly: "Still wavin', man."