Saturday, May 01, 2010

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is a classic novel, one of those books that one feels one should read but then doesn’t get around to reading.  Obviously, I have finally gotten around to reading it.

The quirky tone of the novel is established in the prologue.  If you do not like the narrator’s voice from the first few pages, you won’t fall in love by the end of the book.  The style, the voice, everything about this novel is incomparable and the best I can come up with is imagine what you would get if you merged a Tom Robbins tone with the offensive quality of South Park and then tossed in a few random illustrations ala The Little Prince and you might come close to what Vonnegut did in this novel.

But not really.  This is pure satire and when Vonnegut is being offensive, it is easy to want to read from a defensive stance which defeats the purpose.  It is not enough to be offended but question why—why are you, the reader, feeling offended and why is the author trying to be offensive?  And given that the narrator’s voice is so clearly a poster child for the unreliable narrator one has to question what the hell is really going on in this story?  And if everyone in the novel is either insane or going insane, is it sane to react to anything these characters say or do or think with offense? 

What is most remarkable is that the satire remains relevant.  There are no preachy solutions offered nor does the reader ever feel that the author is condescending. Satire too often can fall into a tone of “I am pointing out the obvious here and if you haven’t already seen it then you are a fool.”  Vonnegut, by cloaking the obvious is such a peculiar tone through a narrator who never misses a quirky beat, never seems to be suffering from a superiority complex.  (This is, in itself, ironic given that the last image in the novel is practically Messianic.)

The novel works on too many levels to concisely explain it.  The use of language is intended to offend the reader and does.  The images Vonnegut uses to illustrate the story are primitive and obviously intentionally so.  Some of the ideas sprinkled throughout come off as the kinds of insight one would garner while stoned surrounded by friends who are equally mellowed out.  There is a hero’s quest of sorts, the search for the father, etc.  The ending blew my mind.  I am still reeling from it.

And this is not a typical novel.  Vonnegut manages to break barriers in the writing of this book doing things that are not unique to this novel nor even new at the time that he wrote this but never once seem forces or superfluous.  Each technique used, especially the atypical ones, is used for effect.  In other words, nothing is gratuitous and after reading this novel for the first time one can’t help thinking that upon a second or third reading new layers of meaning will reveal themselves.

And let me reiterate . . . the ending . . . wow!  


I read this book as part of an online reading group.  What follows are my comments regarding this book.  

Posted Comment

I think that what I loved most about this book had to do with how Vonnegut used the traditional father quest, merged it into a satire, and just twisted the whole thing on its ear. But I seem to be the only one I can find who noticed the father quest thing. And the last image in the book reminded me immediately of John 11:35.

I also found the unreliable narrative voice used to such good effect that I have no doubt the next time I want to explain the concept to anyone I will refer them to this novel as a prime example of its use in fiction.

I'm glad I didn't read this when I was a child and first picked it up to read. I was too young and I wouldn't have appreciated any of it, albeit even now I'm not sure that penile measurements are ever going to be high on my list of "relevant" content for a novel. Then again, I didn't find Kevin Smith's references to his penis size in his memoir relevant either. Which probably says more about me than either of the writers and/or the quality of their writing. 

Another Posted Comment (in response to above, asking me to clarify the father quest theme.)

At some point in the book, I believe that the story about Telemachus and Odysseus is alluded to but I can't remember precisely where. If anyone can direct me to that, great. It's also possible I read it between the lines or in one of the images or perhaps saw it in a leak or something. In any event, my presumption that it is mentioned led to the following.

Throughout the novel, the narrator has said he is the creator of Kilgore Trout but in light of his also saying rather early on that he is insane (hence, unreliable) the reader isn't sure this is true. What's more, the narrator identifies himself with 1) Kilgore, 2) Dwayne (whom we know from the start will go insane by the novel's end) and 3) Bunny (Dwayne's son whose mother has committed suicide just like the narrator's mother had). Again, all of this reinforcing the unreliability of the author but also emphasizing the father/son/creator/creation relationship between the characters.

When Trout and the narrator finally meet, the narrator says that he is Trout's creator but what does Trout say when the narrator withdraws? "Make me young" something a creator could do, obviously.

And here is where I may be straining a bit and, if I were so inclined, would likely reread the entire book several times to further develop the argument because this is what English majors do with books . . . but I digress.

Back to my straining--It is often not until children are born or reach a certain age that the parent feels "of a certain age." In a way, children force parents to "grow up." Trout has a child, a son, mentioned earlier in the novel but the son never makes an entrance in the story line. At least not the way Bunny inevitably does.

Of course, the argument for the narrator being Kilgore Trout's son is obviously hammered home in this: Trout says his closing entreaty to his creator in the narrator's father's voice!

Aha! And in a way, children are the creator of their own parents. Without the child, the mother and father cannot exist--not as a mother or father anyway. So the creature (child) is in a manner of speaking also a creator (of the parents). On another level, the child also creates the parent emotionally, psychologically, etc., because the child's perception of who the parent is. In the case of the novel, Kilgore Trout is created by the child/narrator throughout this (and obviously other) novel(s).

The narrator is both Creator and Child and, as such, when the narrator finds Kilgore Trout after this long journey through the pages and images of the novel, he finds his father.

I think that I've explained it in a way that makes sense. Perhaps not. But if I have then the identifying that last image with that Bible verse adds a whole new layer of meaning to the novel's symbolism.

It's times like this I wish I were still in college because I know I could milk this novel for at least a five page paper if not longer. 

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