Saturday, January 5, 2013

Breakfast Of Champions

Kurt Vonnegut's writing always had an informal, conversational tone to it, as if he were a wise Grandfather dispensing bittersweet lessons about life instead of a legendary professional novelist. With Breakfast Of Champions, he made the leap to full on meta-fictional conceits, inserting himself as a character and making crude-yet-charming drawings to accompany the text. It wasn't enough that he talk directly to the reader; in Champions there's a scene where he, as narrator/writer, and he, as a character in the novel, worry together about whether or not they'll commit suicide like his Mother did.

So, it's an uplifting book.

Though the aforementioned drawings are perhaps better known than the book itself, especially the simplistic asterisk-looking asshole (see below) which inspired the Red Hot Chili Peppers' logo, it's important to point out how they complement the often emotionless and literal descriptions Vonnegut gives of things in the world. It reveals how ridiculous and arbitrary they are while also showing that we take a lot of things for granted and don't question them. The bits about penis sizes and women's measurements read like scientific reports, as if to say that it's meaningless data and not something to fixate on. Likewise, the bits about how Vonnegut-esque writer Kilgore Trout refers to mirrors as "leaks" and how people name things what they do because they "like the sound of it" still ring true in this era of slang terms and ridiculous names for companies and products.

Written during a mid-life crisis, Breakfast Of Champions is as bleak and self-reflexive as Vonnegut ever got. With poignant passages undercut by his severe depression and characters borrowed from his other works, the novel is in many ways the most quintessential book Vonnegut ever wrote. One could also make the case that it has the most contrived, meandering, and plot-less premise of any book Vonnegut ever wrote...though that's by necessity. Many scenes seem thrown in just so he can hold forth on this or that subject, but then again, that was often the appeal of Vonnegut's style: that thrilling sense of an uncle or Grandpa telling you dirty jokes and irreverently mocking American society.

It's rare that fiction writers put so much of themselves into a novel without things crossing over into parody or pretension. It speaks both to his personable prose, full of repeated phrases and concepts, and to his disregard for telling a story in a linear order that the silly moments or matter-of-fact plot contrivances feel more like a whimsical god toying with his or her creations than they do self-parody or artsy fartsy, post-modern nonsense.

Hunter S. Thompson's Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas was published a couple years before Breakfast Of Champions and I think of them as parallel commentaries on American society during the early 70s. Yes, I think of both as being timeless works, too, but they also perfectly capture that time when the hippie movement was dying out and the self-centered cynicism of the full-on 70s was just beginning. Where Thompson sought escape and revelation in drugs and the counter-culture lifestyle, taking swipes at mainstream society and bemoaning the death of the 60s dream, Vonnegut came from the perspective of neither the hippies nor the 'silent majority' that Nixon spoke to. His problem was that bag drugs already existed in his mind, and the revelation that bad chemicals could make people do horrible things beyond their control seemed to bother him tremendously. He implies, to some extent, that we are like the robots who lack free will in the short story that sets off the main action of the plot.

Still, Breakfast Of Champions works not because it has anything concrete to say about the nature of man, free will, or American society. It works because it feels so personal and so raw. Vonnegut doesn't hold back and goes even further than Thompson, demonstrating that all of society was rotten to the core, that mankind was a blight on the Earth, and so on. It's odd to think that this was his follow-up to the beloved classic Slaughterhouse-Five, since bleak ruminations on suicide and lists of the precise measurements of different character's body parts and sex organs are not exactly the kind of material that holds a newly won audience. However, it would be difficult to imagine him as the cantankerous old cult hero he went on to become without books like Breakfast Of Champions.

1 comment:

raini said...

i dont get it but its seem clever =)