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Thursday, May 12, 2011

Breakfast of Champions

The last time I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions I finished the novel in a Chicago hotel room the day before heading to Notre Dame for Freshman Orientation. That fact lends a special poignancy to rereading the novel now, nearly seven years (seven years!) later.

Surely it has been said somewhere before that rereading a novel can be less about rediscovering the book itself than about rediscovering the person you were when last you pored over its pages. Rereading Hemingway and Fitzgerald in college would help me realize what a moron I was at 16, when I dismissed A Farewell to Arms and The Great Gatsby with sneering disdain. So what does Breakfast of Champions, a novel which I loved unconditionally, and which solidified my belief that Kurt Vonnegut was the best author I’d ever read, tell me about 18-year-old me?

At 25, I’m now trying to figure out what I was so angry about, and how I could possibly feel so righteous about it. That’s no comment on the Vonnegut novel, which is still quite humorous and bleakly entertaining, even if it’s morals seems a bit less groundbreaking and insightful these days. In seven years Vonnegut has gone from someone with unparalleled insight into humanity to someone who has an interesting, if corrosively angry, take on things.

None of this, however, has anything to do with the book. Breakfast of Champions is very arresting in its open defiance of traditional narrative structure, something I appreciate more now than I did at 18. Vonnegut deliberately removes suspense from his narrative by announcing, early and often, what is going to happen in his story. The first sentence, “This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast” refers to the climax of the novel, some 270 pages away. These two men are Vonnegut’s recurring science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout and a Pontiac car dealer named Dwayne Hoover whom Vonnegut incessantly informs us is about to go insane.

The novel takes its time getting to the fateful meeting between Trout and Hoover, which Vonnegut lets us know, will result in a violent outburst unwittingly provoked by Trout’s fiction. Along the way Vonnegut occasionally abandons any pretext at writing fiction, alerting us to where elements of the novel are taken from his own personal life, and later on even drawing attention to the shortcuts he has to take in order for the plot to make any kind of sense. Eventually Vonnegut enters the text as a character himself, as a parallel to the being he and Trout refer to only as The Creator of the Universe.

So what’s with all the chicanery? Vonnegut explains it far better than I ever could. In a scene at a hotel bar, just before the Arts Fetival which brought Trout to Midland City is about to commence, Vonnegut introduces us to a character named Beatrice Keedsler, a Gothic novelist about whom Vonnegut says,

“I thought Beatrice Keedsler had joined hands with other old-fashioned storytellers to make people believe that life had leading characters, minor characters, significant details, insignificant details, that it had lessons to be learned, tests to be passed, and a beginning, a middle, and an end.
As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books… Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.”

When this monologue is delivered late in the story it puts so much of the novel’s curiosities into focus. Why did he bother giving so much backstory to waitresses and bartenders who weren’t around for more than a page, why did he keep telling us every male’s penis size and every female’s hip and cup dimensions? Because they’re no less important than any other people or any other facts, no matter what fictions might usually try to tell you. The motto of Breakfast of Champions might well be, “It’s all chaos, here’s just some of it.”

To 18-year-old me Breakfast of Champions was a righteous rant against human stupidity, but now it stands out more as a mournful reflection on its inevitability.

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