Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Breakfast of Champions

            Breakfast of Champions*. I experienced one of these winning meals only two weeks ago--when I went temporarily insane and voluntarily ran 3 miles before bottomless brunch. Things were poppin off for the LGBT pride parade (woop woop), so I heartily downed several mimosas while we waited 2 hours for our food. I’m too little for that nonsense, so I ended up like this:


            This Vonnegut novel turned out much better than my embarrassing afternoon.  Published in 1973, it emerged after his acclaimed works Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five. As such, he ingeniously capitalized on his previous fictional characters that readers already knew and loved. For instance, Kilgore Trout is a minor character in Slaughterhouse-Five who I found endearingly nutty and unsuspectingly wise. I was disappointed that he wasn’t more in the forefront; so, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter him as a B-of-C main character. Trout is a profuse writer, though not successful by conventional standards, who creates outlandish science fiction tales strategically imbued with currents of deep-thinking. These stories usually describe the customs and belief systems of alien races on far away planets. For example, “Gilgongo” is an anti-conservation story about a planet with a creation problem. Every single hour, new species come into being, which is overwhelming and unpredictable for the planet’s residents. Consequently, they try their best to systematically eradicate whole species. In the end, the planet is suffocated by a blanket “composed of passenger pigeons and eagles and Bermuda Erns and whooping cranes” (Vonnegut, 89). Like I said…wacky but thought provoking. Trout eventually collides with another main character—Dwayne Hoover, a wealthy Pontiac dealer who loses his marbles. Not in the sense that he’ll have a difficult time playing Mancala… he literally becomes deranged.
            While these two characters are certainly a large focus, Vonnegut emphasizes that even the seemingly insignificant peripheral ones hold key roles. He does this implicitly, by intricately weaving everyone in and out of each other’s lives and connecting them by ties, both loose and tight. He also conveys this message explicitly, when he explains, “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…If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead” (Vonnegut, 215). Additionally, his several allusions to communism help bolster this notion of shared significance.

            The excerpt above uses the word “I”, openly offering the author’s perspective, which is one of my favorite aspects of this novel. Vonnegut himself is an actively involved character who comically interjects himself into his own book! Towards the end of the story, he announces to readers, “I had come to the Arts Festival incognito. I was there to watch a confrontation between two human beings I had created” (Vonnegut, 197). In past novels, he consistently mockingly refers to “the Creator of the Universe”. Here, in a *meta* sense, he is the Creator of the Universe, acting as a puppeteer to guide what characters do and say. Yet admittedly, the characters sometimes shock him and don’t act exactly according to plan. SoOoOoOo we have the ingredients for a deep discussion on determinism. Hook me up with some philosophical soup.

In veritable Vonnegut fashion, Breakfast of Champions is in many ways concerned with free will or lack thereof. Some of those ways include:
  • The notion of human beings as specifically programmed machines. We might all just be complex compilations of chemicals/molecules trying to interact with other chemicals/molecules of varying assembly. Our history of slavery reflects the idea that humans are machines that can be employed for physical labor. Perhaps, though there is a sacred part in each of us that is not dictated by machinery—our individual awareness. But perhaps not! 
  • The belief that humans are controlled by consumerism. In the name of “progress”, we are inevitably bombarded by advertisements, which we use to navigate life. He repeatedly reminds us that the name of the book “is a registered trademark of General Mills, Inc., for use on a breakfast cereal product” (Vonnegut, 1). As machines, we take in this data (the cereal box says the cereal tastes good) and spew out formulaic responses (this cereal tastes good).
  • The impression that ideas are transmitted, augmented, and belittled not by the basis of their merit, but because of friendship/enmity. Truth becomes relative because friends agree with friends and enemies disagree with enemies, thus rendering certain ideas “common sense” in some circles and their opposing ideas “common sense” in others. 
  • Echoes of recurring sentiments found in his other novels. In reference to Trout, Vonnegut says, “But his head no longer sheltered ideas of how things could be and should be on the planet, as opposed to how they really were. There was only one way for the Earth to be, he thought: the way it was” (Vonnegut, 106). How very Tralfamadorian of him.
  • Vonnegut’s use of foreshadowing. As the Creator of the Breakfast of Champions universe, he knows how the book is going to end and he repeatedly tells us what will happen before it actually does.
  • The erratic nature of his text, with page breaks and intermittent drawings. This novel is laden with felt-tip pen illustrations—a style that I find unique, relevant, and sometimes even impressively skillful. The aforementioned quote in which Vonnegut strives to “bring chaos to order” is expressed even in the atypical presentation of words on a page, fragmented by his artwork  (Vonnegut, 215). For your viewing pleasure: 

  •         The possibility that Vonnegut, like Kilgore Trout, is writing this novel for an alien race. He often refers to “planet Earth” or “the wrecked planet” in a detached manner that implies he is speaking to an audience unfamiliar with the world’s structure. Just like we find Trout’s stories of alien activity slightly ridiculous, viewing our planet from an outsider’s perspective sheds light on our more peculiar habits and how we view ourselves as “free”.

These metaphors and themes unload a series of questions on readers. Are we unknowingly squandering our free will? Does embracing the concept of free will lead to constructive activity or demise? Is there space for individual creativity in a world devoid of free will? Can alcohol as both a social and private lubricant change our machinery or chemical composition such that it enables or inhibits autonomy? What is the appropriate role of government and environmentalism in a universe dictated by determinism? As usual, Vonnegut leaves me with more questions than I have answers. While I’m tempted to demand that his grandiose ideas need more elaboration, he himself confesses that writing this book simply helped him “clear [his] head of all the junk in there” (Vonnegut, 5). He might have some well-articulated opinions on the subject but that doesn’t necessarily lead to concrete solutions. For instance, I love (and this is often a turning point where Vonnegut-haters vehemently disagree) when he forces readers to deal with the ugly facts of life by framing situations in pure, simplistic terms. He satirically strips away all of the frivolity so common in literature and reaches the core, nagging concern behind a phenomenon to expose its absurdities. At one point, he states, “Viet Nam was a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes” (Vonnegut, 88). This is a perfect example of how Vonnegut addresses intense subjects—usually involving oppression—without directly giving us “the answer” to the problem. Instead, he equips us with ways of thinking; he arms us with a manner of seeing the world that makes it tolerable to live in a place where oppression exists.

This is all to say—don’t read this book if you don’t want to think. If you get on your summertime carefree grind, by all means, turn to something less intellectually exhausting. But I feel quite strongly that everyone at some point should read Vonnegut in some form. Just like the last two, I give Breakfast of Champions 5 out of 5 camel humps and I find the three Vonnegut novels I’ve read equally compelling in their own way. He is refreshingly capable of probing larger-than-life issues head on while maintaining an entertaining plot. His writing is intricate and intentional—with carefully placed symbolism and themes that continue to pleasantly haunt you well after you’ve put the book down. He is full of the good kind of surprises—the ones that don’t piss you off—and I’m excited for what else he has in store for me. Next up: Player Piano.

*Vonnegut, Kurt. Breakfast of Champions. New York: Dial Press Trade Paperbacks, 1973. Print.

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