Notes on Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions (or Goodbye, Blue Monday)

1.)    Any art form can be used to poke fun at reality and the human condition. In poking fun, we are given a new perspective on certain matters about life, society, faith, and politics. Slowly, we see the absurdity that surrounds the ideas ridiculed. Mockery and the techniques used to elicit laughter is a time-honored tradition in the novel. We see it in Cervantes’ narrative about the washbasin wearing knight-errant of La Mancha in Don Quixote, which gave birth to the modern novel, where society, chivalry and the beliefs of the fifteenth century was held and scrutinized from the crazed-eyes of Alonso Quijano. We also see it in Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. The book does not only ridicule the life of one fictional character in a world that largely resembles reality, it also ridicules the prevalent writing techniques of that era. The end of the Second World War also gave birth to the Theater of the Absurd, where a number of works, like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, utilized humor to expose the inanities of dogma and life.

2.)    Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions revolves around two characters. The first one is Kilgore Trout, the cynical and alienating science-fiction writer who figures prominently in Vonnegut’s early works, Invited to the first Midland City Arts Festival by Mr. Eliot Rosewater to talk about his personal views on writing and about his works, he sets out on a journey towards the festival, terrified that the world has finally become aware of his writings. The other is Dwayne Hoover, a widow and a successful Pontiac dealer in Midland City, who suddenly finds his sanity going down the drain. In the attempt to find a balance between his emotional outbursts and his life, he seeks solace in the Midland City Arts Festival, where he expects to find an insight to the meaning of life. At the festival, they eventually meet, and their most auspicious meeting brings forth a violent spree and a confrontation with Mr. Vonnegut himself, the man who created them and the situations they just experienced.

3.)    Reading Breakfast of Champions, one gets the feeling that the narrative was written for the sole purpose of ridicule and mockery. The novel’s narrator, who through a revelation and illustration at the very last page of the novel, is revealed to be Kurt Vonnegut himself, pokes fun at everything, from the characters, to the situations they find themselves in, to politics, race, gender and sexuality, religion, to assholes, beavers and ladies’ underpants.

4.)    Vonnegut has the ability, and makes the conscious choice, of stripping down ideas to their basic and most naked state. This violent and aggressive unclothing is one of the sources of the satire and humor overflowing from the narrative. These ideas are at first look, funny. One can’t help but laugh, smirk, or simply close the book to get a breather. After a while, one eventually realizes the truth behind what is written. Pretty soon, the reader will say, “Damn, so fucking true.” Take for example the eleventh page, in the middle of a short anecdote where the narrator talks about the founding of the nation of America and how the pirates contributed to it, he makes mention that:

“The sea pirates were white. The people who were already in the continent when the  pirates arrived were copper-colored. When slavery was introduced onto the continent, the slaves were black. Color was everything.” (11)

In this short statement which is composed of four simple sentences, he touches on the semantics of color in society, which, actually, reeks of absurdity. Another humorous passage which elicits the same response is found in the beginning of the novel where he comments on America’s law about flag dipping, and the law which prohibits the flag from being dipped in any person or thing. Again he exposes the absurdity of a law which has long been accepted.

5.)    During the course of the reading, one cannot help but say, “Damn, so fucking true,” a couple of times. I made an attempt to track and estimate how many times I repeated this crass acknowledgement of Vonnegut’s ‘truths.’ On the average, I said it every seven to nine pages.

6.)    Humor is simply another way of seeing things, which makes Vonnegut’s truths, unreliable. During the reading, I could not help but be the empirical reader, the reader who forgot to look at the structure of the novel and how it was crafted by the author. I related to the incredible amount of cynicism hence my proposal to regard Vonnegut’s insights as ‘truths.’

7.)    The novel is also an exhibition of Kurt Vonnegut’s infinite imagination as the narration goes through Kilogore Trout’s pantheon of work. Here are some of the stories which really stuck out for me:

a.       The story concerning a dialogue between two pieces of yeast, as they discussed “the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement.” (214)

b.      The story concerning the civilization who acknowledged the simple pleasures and convenience of mankind as pornography. Told from the point-of-view of a human astronaut, the story follows the protagonist as he observes the culture of the strange civilization and watches with them one of the films conveyed to be pornographic (58-9).

c.       “The Barring-Gaffner of Bagnialto or This Year’s Masterpiece,” which revolves around a planet wherein works of art attain masterpiece status through a wheel spun around by the Barring-Gaffner. All the pieces that were not chosen, on the other hand, were burned in a huge bonfire. The story concludes when the Barring-Gaffner found out that the wheel was actually rigged. This led him to commit suicide (132).

d.      The Smart Bunny, about a female bunny who was as intelligent as William Shakespeare and Albert Einstein, an animal who was discarded and thrown away by the hunter who had shot her after finding out that she has an abnormally large brain (236).

e.       Finally, “Plague on Wheels,” which is about God’s great design that every single organism on Earth is a robot (26).

8.)    Vonnegut may lack Updike’s language, Roth’s grit and clarity, Pynchon’s playfulness and utterly complex linguistic puzzles or de Lillo’s terrifying social-realistic stance on the 20th century and all its advancements, but he has his humor, his memorable stories, his uncanny way of looking at the world and his pantheon of unforgettable, likeable and sympathetic characters. This is enough to make him one of the greatest American novelists of the last fifty years.

9.)     To end this post, here is a picture of an asshole, illustrated by Kurt Vonnegut: