Breakfast of Champions
Kurt Vonnegut, 1973
by Scott McNee
There comes a moment late in Breakfast of Champions where Kurt Vonnegut decides that the only possible ending for any story about people can be a simple abbreviation: ‘etc.’. Throughout the entire book, Vonnegut echoes this sentiment peppering each story of absurdity and stupidity with a resigned ‘and so on’.
Despite such cynicism, Breakfast of Champions, like the vast majority of Vonnegut’s work, contains no villains other than the chance combination of bad ideas and bad chemicals. First published in 1973, Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday has established itself as a cult classic not only for the prestige, controversial reputation of the author, but also due to the angry injustice of its satire. The book is a hilarious and depressing snapshot of contemporary American life, full of slogans, racism, pornography and madness, and revolves entirely around the chance meeting of two characters.
Returning from Vonnegut’s impressive cast of characters is Kilgore Trout (God Bless You, Mr Rosewater; Slaughterhouse 5’, chronically awful science fiction writer and unlikely prophet. Generally the voice of Vonnegut’s politics and self-deprecation, Trout’s blend of world-weariness and hopeful futurism provides an endearing character, even though most of Trout’s life amounts to tragi-comic failure. The other half of the book, the ‘bad chemicals’ to Trout’s ‘bad ideas’ is Dwight Hoover, a car salesman destined to lose his mind. Hoover’s illness, spurred on by his wife’s suicide, is a sobering disaster that Vonnegut frequently undermines in amusing ways – in one scene, Hoover believes himself to be cured, only to walk outside and discover that he has begun to perceive the pavement as a gigantic trampoline.
True to form, Vonnegut does not conceal the events of the novel, or even adhere strictly to a linear narrative – in the introduction he outlines exactly what will happen to both characters, and how Kilgore Trout’s bad ideas will catalyse Hoover’s bad chemicals into dangerous insanity. The effect on the reader is one of inevitable helplessness – witnessing the insanity of American society conspire to throw these two men together, like so many others throughout the country.
Vonnegut’s humour ranges from biting satire to childish absurdity, with each one expertly hitting the mark, from the vicious history of America outlined in the beginning of the book to Kilgore Trout’s irreverent tale of a farting alien who communicates in interpretive dance. As the novel progresses however, Vonnegut begins to develop a meta-commentary on the nature of fiction and the role it plays in society, memorably coming the conclusion that people see themselves as fictional: ‘This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books’. Vonnegut’s approach to his characters under this philosophy carries a humorous guilt – he comments that one character Eliot Rosewater, an alcoholic in a former book, is now sober and well, for no other reason than because Vonnegut decides it should be so.
In one famous interview, Vonnegut remarked that: ‘Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning to do afterward.’ It’s a motto that resonates through the heart of Breakfast of Champions.
And so on.}