Thursday, January 31, 2013

Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Breakfast of Champions has a madcap style and erratic narrative structure. It’s the sort of novel that looks like its been doodled by a teenager in his or her bedroom, but at its core there is a tightly wound clock of emotional and psychic distress.

In my early twenties I read everything I could find by Kurt Vonnegut. His  zany and humane novels appealed enormously as sincere attempts to make sense of a mad, mad world. They were childlike and simple in style, yet full of punchy jokes, surreal observations and seemingly random digressions. Vonnegut was a genius who refused to take himself seriously. 

Breakfast of Champions (1973) was my favourite, but it had been over 20 years since I first read it. Re-reading a book that moved you greatly a long time ago is much like revisiting your younger self. The first thing that struck me was that I couldn’t believe I used to read these books for kicks. The most alarming thing about Breakfast of Champions is how obviously Vonnegut seems to be on the verge of a mental breakdown. He admits to fears of following in his mother’s footsteps of suicide and discusses his sessions with his psychiatrist. Many of the novel’s characters are society’s fringe dwellers, loners and nut cases.

The design and structure of Breakfast of Champions breaks all the rules. Vonnegut doesn’t do this to appear innovative or groundbreaking. Rather the mad format of the book, fully illustrated with child like drawings by Vonnegut himself, seems to be his natural working mode. In one section he derides novel writers who try to create order out of chaos. He states that he is here to bring chaos to order. He protests that story telling and art making, the attempt to make sense of life’s randomness, is wrong. Life is a state of chaos that we must constantly adapt to; it is wrong to lie to people by creating coherent and meaningful stories out of this chaos.

Vonnegut’s narration is another unique feature. He discusses the construction of his novel throughout, tells of plot ideas he ditched from early drafts, and most bizarrely of all, enters himself as a character in the plot. He actually has confrontations with his own main character, the science fiction writer Kilgore Trout. None of this should really work, as the novel refuses any sort of logic, but somehow it does. It’s perhaps believable as fiction because of Vonnegut’s utter sincerity and bewilderment at modern life. Like so many writers, Vonnegut writes as a form of therapy and as a way to seek understanding.

In the end, it’s hard to say what Breakfast of Champions is actually about, besides describing everything that has gone wrong in the world. The science fiction writer Kilgore Trout is asked to appear at an arts festival. He treks across the country to the fictional Midland City. At the festival is the wealthy car dealer Dwayne Hoover, who is about to go on a violent rampage. Hoover’s problem seems to be that he is living the American Dream, but his personal life is a disaster. A book by Kilgore Trout, titled Now it Can be Told, which deals with the meaning of life, triggers a violent episode.
It’s hard to resist wondering if Dwayne Hoover is a deeply repressed Vonnegut. Could he have similarly gone nuts if he didn’t have his writing? Vonnegut could also be the eccentric science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, although in the text he tells us this character is based on his father.

Breakfast of Champions ends up achieving Vonnegut’s goal of creating chaos out of order. The American dream promises neat stories of success and heroism. Vonnegut shows what happens when this repressive fairy tale is pushed down its citizens’ throats: an ugly, unhappy mess is the result.

Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut. Published by Vintage Classics. ISBN: 9780099842606  RRP: $12.95