Skip to main content

Breakfast Of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

To be the eyes and ears and 
conscience of the Creator of
the Universe, you fool.
In days gone by, when repeatedly pressed about what my favourite book might be, a banal question seeking an impossible and crude reductionist answer to which I was usually rude in response, I would offer Breakfast Of Champions as a pacifier. 

I first read it in University, and it has, to some degree, influenced how I think and feel about a lot of things. Strikingly, I've never wanted to re-read it. Perhaps I was afraid I'd find fault the second time around and wanted to uphold it as a paragon of meta-fiction. Perhaps, but then I'm a relentless consumer of fiction and was always on to the next consumable work, never having time or inclination to go back.

So in the spirit of a more considered and thoughtful phase of my life I decided I wanted to read something that once made me feel good.

I'd clearly not remembered it very well.

But before that, I'm amazed I've gone *mumbles* years without once mentioning Kilgore Trout in my reviews, even in passing. The same goes for The Simpsons, the repeated watching of which provided my frame of reference throughout a number of my formative years. I'm amazed because they have been prevalent throughout my life, and that they are connected.

In an episode of The Simpsons, Homer meant to be stealing Moe Szyslak's car so he can claim the insurance, but is instead at a drive-in movie watching a film called 'Hail To The Chimp.' Observe:




Hail To The Chimp is a nod by the writers to one of the many Kilgore Trout précises* liberally littering the pages of BOC, thusly:
Trout couldn't tell one politician from another one. They were all formlessly enthusiastic chimpanzees to him. He wrote a story one time about an optimistic chimpanzee who became President of the United States. He called it "Hail to the Chief." The chimpanzee wore a little blue blazer with brass buttons, and with the seal of the President of the United States sewed to the breast pocket... Everywhere he went, bands would play "Hail to the Chief." The chimpanzee loved it. He would bounce up and down.
I'd entirely forgotten this connection. It came as a surprise  like a smack in the mouth. I'd also forgotten how black, bleak and acerbic Vonnegut could be, odd since I'd not long re-read Mother Night for similar reasons** and I ended up, as is often the case, mildly depressed. But at least I wasn't Dwayne Hoover.

Hoover, owner of a car showroom and a serial entrepreneur, is experiencing upset due to the imbalance of bad chemicals in his brain. He is considering suicide, constantly searching for a sense of meaning, and finally snaps after reading a copy of a Trout story called Now It Can Be Told, an epistolary novel wherein the Creator of the Universe informs his own Adam, The Man, that he is the only truly autonomous being on the planet, and that all others are automatons, simply programmed to do just what they do, in a great big experiment exploring free will. Dwayne reads this rather too literally, finding in it answers to questions like why his son Bunny was gay. It was because he was programmed to be gay. And so on.

Parallel to Dwayne's story is that of Trout himself, invited to the very same city by his biggest fan, a man whom Trout travels to confront because of the affront of his having invited Trout there in the first place. In the end, Trout is the one to give his novel to Dwayne, watched sadly by the author, Kurt Vonnegut himself, safely hidden behind mirrored glasses and nursing a cocktail in the bar where the two protagonists collide.


Anyone who has read a draft of my own abortive novel would immediately see how this metafiction trope, the author appearing in his own novel (and his own drawings illustrating the action and descriptions throughout), would tickle me, or maybe how I was desperately failing to pay homage to Vonnegut by shamelessly and unsuccessfully copying him. 


Throughout, Vonnegut never fails to remind the reader the book is an artifice. He constantly offers his own, Creator-of-the-Universe-like commentary on America and its virtues and vices. He mentions his life outside the novel. He explains his mother had a surfeit of bad chemicals too and drank Drano until she died. It is a smorgasbord of blackly comic observational humour and satire, deeply upsetting if you're easily bruised, but something that represents the cognitive dissonance of the human experience–that deep down you know something is wrong, but you do it anyway, for whatever reason. On the road, Trout interrogates an ex-miner.

Trout asked him what it had felt like to work for an industry whose business was to destroy the countryside, and the old man said he was usually too tired to care.
In short, it is a cautionary tale. With brilliantly wild asides, slapstick and deadpan delivery in spades, it lampoons humanity, expressing Vonnegut's own impotent fury at man's idiocy. But he does offer a smidgen of hope in the form of a clear directive, an instruction on what it is we're here for after all, straight from the author to his creation and into the cosmos, a way to reflect his often expressed notions of what it means to be human***. In response to the question, scrawled on the wall of the toilet in a New York theatre showing smutty movies, "What is the purpose of life?", Trout would have responded "To be the eyes and ears and conscience of the Creator of the Universe, you fool." 

It's as good a reason as any.



*For a for-fun-only run-down of all Kilgore Trout's works as represented in Vonnegut's fiction, you'd do well to check out Marek Vit's archived blog.

**Namely, I really like Nick Nolte and was feeling sorry for myself so wanted to watch a film with him in it, and I had a copy of the movie Mother Night to hand, which prompted me to re-read the novel. Oddly enough, Nick Nolte plays the cross-dressing Harry LeSabre in what I'm lead to understand is the worst film ever, the Alan Randolph version of Breakfast of Champions, also 'starring' Bruce Willis and Albert Finney. I've ordered a copy on Amazon to check, and you can do the same by clicking that picture down there.

***As follows, expressed in God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine (1965):
Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies–God damn it, you've got to be kind.

Comments

How's about that then?

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Argh, Neil Gaiman blah blah, waffle waffle, and so on.
There, that’s out of the way.
I can’t help but equate the resurgence in popularity of the Norse mythos, Icelandic sagas, and Skaldic and Eddic poetry in all their new televisual, literal and figurative forms, to the similarly resurgent popularity of comic-book- and super-heroes. In fact, they’re two sides of the same interrogative coin: one asks, “How did we get here?” whereas the other asks, “Who can save us?” for the world needs heroes, and people to blame.
I will leave it up to you to project your own personal Them into the nice Them-shaped gap that leaves behind.
You may think it very necessary and timely to have brought out such a book. Alternatively, you may be suffering from hero-fatigue and see it as all a bit unnecessary. Or you may have been seduced by the big hammer on the cover and the lovely tactile matt-finish cover. In any case and in my own humble opinion, other than talk William Warder Norton into springing for a lov…

High-Rise by J.G. Ballard

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

I can hold nothing against or up to either Neil Gaiman or the late Terry Pratchett. In respect of their fans and their work, my problems are mine and mine alone. In general, both are of the highest standard. In context however, I can only judge Pratchett’s early work, such as TruckersThe Carpet People (currently reading to my four-and-nine-tenths year old who is loving it) and The Light Fantastic etc. (all of which I enjoyed as a very young teenager). Post-Carpe Jugulum I have read exactly diddly squat, and the stage plays and TV adaptations have passed me by without so much as a flicker of interest. Whereas Gaiman continues to intrigue, chipping away at my natural scepticism with his charm and wit and style and great children’s books, and I did enjoy Stardust the movie, for the most part because of Robert De Niro, and also in spite of Ricky Gervais. Of course, were they to collaborate on a novel (not De Niro and Gervais; that would be one to avoid), then I would expect the world to…

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

Before you start, read this disclaimer:
Fans of Neil Gaiman beware – I don’t tolerate you very well, despite counting myself amongst you. It’s nothing personal (about you – it’s very personal to me), and I believe it’s Neil’s own fault for being such a very good writer. Please read on through the fan-bashing to the bit about the book. Thank you.

Neil Gaiman is an annoyance to me. I really (REALLY) liked American Gods but found that as soon as I mentioned this fact to anyone, I got one of two responses: nose-turned-up snobbery of the most scornful sort, or sickeningly gushing über-fanaticism, if that isn’t tautological. I don’t know which is worse. The snobs I can dismiss as most will be operating within the conceit that Gaiman is fantasy and therefore unworthy of further study or consideration – they are very unlikely to have ready anything by the author. The fans, though, start dribbling on and on about the time they met him in Bath Waterstone’s or how much better he is than the Latin …