Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut Was the Kindle Daily Deal

Towards the end of Kurt Vonnegut's novel Breakfast of Champions, one of the main characters orders a martini.  As the waitress sets his drink down, she says, "Breakfast of champions."

If you are someone who orders drinks in cocktail bars, then you know that this sort of  remark either leads you to become something of a regular or to find a different cocktail bar.  It's a clever enough joke, if you've never heard it before, a meaningless comment that can produce a smile while doing no harm.  The sort of joke college students and clever high school kids might say.

And that's just who should be reading Breakfast of Champions, college students and clever high school kids.  I say this as a former clever high school kid.  I loved Kurt Vonnegut when I was in high school and college.  Passages like this one struck me as profound:

   "Americans are always afraid of coming home," said Karabekian, "with good reason, may I say."
   "They used to have good reason," said Beatrice, "but not anymore. The past has been rendered harmless.  I would tell any wandering American now, 'Of course you can go home again, and as often as you please.  It's just a motel."

Doesn't that seem deep?.  There was a time when I loved all of Kurt Vonnegut's books, even Breakfast of Champions.

That time has passed.

Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, even Kurt Vonnegut in his better work, can make flippant remarks pack a double punch because they can both mean it and not mean it at the same time.  Oscar Wilde always looks like he is being flippant, but upon further thought, it's clear that he's onto something.  Take "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about," for example.  

Breakfast of Champions is the story of Dwayne Hoover, a used car dealer who will have a violent breakdown by the novel's end, and Kilgore Trout, an obscure science fiction writer on his way to an arts festival who will cause Dwayne's breakdown.  It sounds more intriguing than it is.

Mr. Vonnegut is really more interested in his digressions than in his plot or his characters.  Hardly a single spread of pages goes by without some sort of digression into a subject not really related to the story, but one Mr. Vonnegut clearly has on had on his mind for some time.  This is the passage most often highlighted by Kindle readers:

"Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1942.  That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them."

This digression goes on for three Kindle pages, though it has nothing to do with the story of Dwayne Hooper and Kilgore Trout at all.  I'm not opposed to digressions, I loved the 80 page essay on the Battle of Waterloo that Victor Hugo dropped into the middle of Les Miserables for basically no reason that I could see and Lawrence Stern's Tristram Shandy, one of my all-time favorite books, is really just one long digression after another.  Mr. Vonnegut's just didn't do it for me this time.  The little pictures he included didn't help either.

They looked like this:

Can you guess what that is a drawing of?

Does have a drawing of it included in the text improve the book?  How about a drawing of a sheep?  of a bomb? of a Holiday Inn sign?  of a  the year 1492? of a Yin-Yang symbol?  of a beaver? of a "beaver"? of a revolver?  of a flamingo? And so on.

It seems clever at first; then it seems cute; then it seems tiresome.

In Mr. Vonneguts masterwork, Slaughterhouse Five, he uses the refrain "So it goes" as a kind of notifier that something significant has happened.  A character dies in an ironic fashion, "so it goes."  In Slaughterhouse Five this device works very well, three little words adding a dramatic punch that also dismisses the importance of what has just occurred, which only makes the dramatic punch even more powerful.  Mr. Vonnegut attempts the same thing in Breakfast of Champions with "And so on" but here it just serves to annoy.  Probably because the point (or points) Mr. Vonnegut is trying to make in Breakfast of Champions just isn't as interesting and fresh as the one he made in Slaughterhouse Five.

It's the third martini, and the waitress is still saying "Breakfast of champions."

Just bring me my drink.


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I didn't think this one would age too well. Cat's Cradle will do better, I expect.

I wonder if he really meant all that stuff about it being his last book, or if that was pure literature.

James Chester said...

It certainly wasn't his last book. I can see how we would feel that way, though, since he was turning 50. I'm turning 50 myself later this year.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I'm not sure I have much to add here, except that I was not one of those clever high school students. Not even sure if I read Slaughterhouse Five...I might have, but I was too focused on boys and Stephen King novels. But if I ever decide to take on the project of reading classics, I'll know to avoid this one. If I am on my third martini, I might find "breakfast of champions" hilarious, but otherwise not.

Bybee said...

I may have completely missed the boat on Kurt Vonnegut. Oh well.

Anonymous said...

I was one of those clever high school students too - it was the first Vonnegut I read - but I had to hide it from my parents who wouldn't have approved of the "beavers"! I don't think I want to read this one again now you've done it for me.