Friday, 28 May 2010

Kurt Vonnegut: Breakfast of Champions (1973)

Edition: Vintage, 2000 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1402

Even today, Breakfast of Champions is a strange novel, and it would have seemed odder in 1973. It is perhaps even misleading to call it a novel, given the way it is written. Such plot as it has is revealed in the first few pages. It concerns the influence failed science fiction writer Kilgore Trout ends up having on the world. The other main character, Dwayne Hoover, is gradually going mad through the novel, which ends when he and Trout meet. Trout appears in many of Vonnegut's works, including his most famous novel Slaughterhouse Five, and is often the character used to express of the author's ideas - but here Vonnegut also makes himself a character. The plot is not only minimal, it is clearly not the point of the novel.

An immediately noticeable feature of Breakfast of Champions is its format, which is a major part of why it isn't a normal narrative novel. It consists of (mainly) short chapters, each a series of bullet points, rather like an extended Powerpoint presentation. In many of these, Vonnegut ironically describes the writing process for the book, comments on the actions and thoughts of the characters, and what he is trying to do; in others, Kilgore Trout's views and summaries of the science fiction stories are given. As if this isn't unusual enough, Vonnegut has provided a large number of illustrations, few of them particularly to the point; the text will in passing mention the Egyptian pyramids, say, and then continue, "they looked like this", followed by the author's line sketch. The effect, along with the quirky and satirical explanations of references which will be clear to any twentieth century human, is to make it seem that Breakfast of Champions is addressed to an alien race who know nothing of Earth culture. The writing style adopted by Vonnegut for the novel uses very basic and direct English, which reinforces this impression.

So what is the point? Breakfast of Champions is a satirical attack on the culture, ideas, and concerns which shaped America in the seventies; that is clear from the opening pages, which consist of an attack on the American national anthem, described as "gibberish sprinkled with question marks". This may sound like nothing more than a deliberate attempt to offend or shock, and I would agree that the placing of this passage at the very opening of the novel seems to be just that. There must have been many Americans who did not read past page two because of this onslaught. But Vonnegut is making the point that a song abut a flag is not really a sound basis for pride in a nation: without other achievements, the stars and stripes are completely meaningless except to arrant sentimentalists. Throughout the novel, nostalgia, optimism, and even rationalism are attacked.

Vonnegut deals with the major concerns of Breakfast of Champions more conventionally, and to my mind more convincingly elsewhere. The idea that our actions are fixed and meaningless is a major part of Timequake, while here it is conveyed by the continual interjections about the how the author has made the decisions which determine the actions of his characters combined with speculation about whether our actions are similarly controlled by our Creator. Similarly, Galapagos examines the idea that the human capacity for rational thought does not make us happier or the world a better place.

Breakfast of Champions has been compared to Voltaire's Candide, and there are many parallels between the two novels. Both are satirical, attacking prevalent optimistic ideas about the world - in Voltaire's case with the memorable phrase, "All the for the best in the best of all possible worlds", which is the teaching of Candide's tutor's Pangloss. By contrast, Trout thinks that "there was only one way for the Earth to be: the way it was": a pessimistic justification for the same thought, that the world cannot be improved.

In both cases, liberties are taken with narrative: in Candide, terrible things happen to the characters, including death, only for them to appear later apparently unscathed. Both Candide and Trout are quite passive, as the philosophies they hold suggest they should be, Trout relegating himself to a life as a passive observer of the follies of seventies America, from the adult movie theaters of New York, to the signs reminding those entering Philadelphia that its name makes it the city of brotherly love, to the devastation of West Virginia by mining. Both authors use a distinctly ironic style, Vonnecgut more overtly than Voltaire. The biggest difference is that there is no major character in Breakfast of Champions with the naivete of Candide himself, and this ultimately makes Vonnegut's novel far less appealing and amusing.

This is the sort of book which by its idiosyncratic nature and satirical ambitions attempts to walk a narrow path between black comedy and irritating eccentricity for the sake of it. Even though, as a non-American apart from anything else, there is nothing in Breakfast of Champions I would personally consider offensive, I generally found it much more irritating than funny. I like Vonnegut generally, but not this time - 3/10.

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