Breakfast of Champions

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

1973

(Little do a frustrated writer and a troubled car dealer realize, that their impolite author is using their journey to meet each other as an excuse to mastermind a deconstruction of modern values!)

RaboKarabekianTheTemptationOfSaintAnthonySort of The Temptation of St. Anthony, sort of by Rabo Karabekian, 1950. Sort of Sateen Dura-Luxe acrylic wall paint and day-glo tape. 20 x 16 feet. This can sort of be seen in the Midland City Art Gallery, to which it was sort of sold by the artist for $50,000.

 

A Vonnegut novel grows on you… like an exquisite acquired taste... or else a nagging corn on the foot. All three experiences are underestimated at first, and with time a realization dawns that there is something here that cannot be ignored. Some deride Breakfast of Champions as one of his "lesser", although more popular, novels. For my part, I think that here we have a wine that is initially very peculiar on the palate, and its apparent confusion will conceal the vibrant undertones if one is not careful to taste it slowly and carefully. Or else, here we have a blasted gadfly of a corn that starts insidiously in a part of the foot's ball that is unlikely to feel it until the thing has incubated for a mighty long time, insinuating deeply into one's tissues. And when finally noticed, ouch does that root go deep!

BreakfastOfChampions_1stedWhat happens is this: The frustrated author Kilgore Trout makes a journey to Midland City for an arts festival, simply to represent the thousands of artists who have spent their lives searching for meaning and haven't found "doodley-squat". Meanwhile, the wealthy Pontiac dealer Dwayne Hoover, who is bordering on insanity, also decides to go to the festival as a last ditch effort at gaining some new perspective on his life. The book's author himself is involved in this story as well, not only because he is using the book as a way to clean out the junk that has been building up in his head for the last fifty years, but also because he places himself in the novel towards the end and interacts with his own characters. Amidst a smattering of adventures and dry commentary on the ills of society, the two main characters find themselves finally together in a cocktail lounge, where speedreading one of Trout's novels brings Dwayne Hoover over the brink of lunacy. The novel tells him he is the only creature in the universe with free will, and that all others are machines. This frees Dwayne to go on a violent rampage that eventually ruins him. Our author, meanwhile, has been "reborn" by listening to one of his characters, the modern painter Rabo Karabekian, talk of the sacred core of human life, each individual's "awareness". The author then kindly liberates all of the characters from his control, and personally inducts Trout into the world of freedom. The author recedes from the novel into a void, and Trout, thrust into reality for the first time, cries out to be made young again.

One of the things that conceals or delays the impact of this novel on the reader is its apparent childishness or innocence. The author words descriptions of events and various aspects of modern society as if to a seven-year-old from another planet. He accompanies them with simple and ridiculous line drawings. But then, with a gasp, look at the subject matter! Racism, pornography, beating of women, environmental destruction, suicide, sodomy, and despair.  They are discussed in this foolish format, as if nothing is amiss in the world, as if the description were of a dog chasing a ball! Vonnegut's flair for jarring juxtaposition helps pack power into the incongruity. The account of Dwayne beating his girlfriend is surrounded by inane description of the advertisement on a matchbook (ch.18). Equal reference is made to blood and milk as two fluids resulting from an observed crash of a dairy truck (ch.18). I must admit, these cavalier treatments and irreverence do not endear the book to me, although I do recognize that this incongruity is not gratuitous. A lesser author than Vonnegut might use this strategy simply to elicit shock or a puerile laugh. This author, however, gives us ample hints that his incongruous pairings are getting right at the heart of the novel. Consider some of them: The author is conscious of hitting that big mid-century mark of his life, and in light of that is tempted to be childish in this novel. He is writing to relieve his mind of the junk that has grown in it since his childhood. An escaped parrot, initially eager for independence and to change his surroundings, just as soon as the window is reopened rushes back to the protection of the cage. Wayne Hoobler dreams of Fairy Land. Kilgore Trout, the emancipated character at the end, calls (in the last line of the book) for the author to use his power one last time to make him young. Meanwhile the author himself, somersaulting into a void after leaving the novel, hears his parents' voices. Poor Trout understands now, we can expect, why the symbol of his freedom was an apple-- the fabled forbidden fruit, a bite of which would bring more curses than blessings; the fruit that started a war when Eris, goddess of discord, rolled it into a party of the gods. The author is using uncomfortable juxtapositions to communicate a discomfort with the ambiguity of the human condition, much as William Blake did when he bound together poems of innocence and experience.

Ideas throughout the novel are presented in three ways, usually in close conjunction: (1) within the story line or dialogue among characters, (2) in (seemingly irrelevant) asides by the author, and (3) in the Trout novels and stories. The messages delivered to us in all of these fashions, by the end of the book, will have drilled into our subconscious the sad fact that there is something wrong with adulthood today; that the things modern America puts into our mind are dragging us further from where we ought to be. We wish we could get back to innocence, but the things in our minds are disharmonious with that objective. A different novel, where the horrors of life are described with comforting values attached (for instance, where an author is careful and condemning when racism is brought up), in a way tends to set the issues aside and reduce their impact. We would be permitted, in a novel like that, to believe we still had a square inch of order and purity in our lives.

But Vonnegut is not an assuager of consciences, nor a preserver of sanity. His goal is like the initial one of Descartes’ Discourse on Method: to dismantle our views of the world and of ourselves, to the bare bottom. Of course, Vonnegut does it with less decorum. What is sacred? Humanity? The American flag? The national anthem? God? Democracy? Breakfast of Champions will kick dust in all of it. We are just machines. We are test tubes filled with chemicals. Everything we value is useless. Nobody is capable of thought. Ideas are just for procuring agreement, for influencing people to like us (ch.2, 19). We are stupid on purpose so we won't make enemies (ch.15). We are ridiculously obsessed with sexual and social competition, with penis size and women's measurements and the gathering of wealth. We cannot really communicate, and we use language merely to sound good. We are incapable of rejecting bad ideas. Our nation is corrupt, our planet is being destroyed, and we are mentally sick to the point of decay. Nothing is valuable, everything is meaningless. All of this takes up a good 90% of the book, and it is a devastating dose of nihilistic anti-self-help. Dwayne Hoover swallows this philosophy whole, and look what it drives him to do. Infected with "solipsistic whimsey", he goes berserk. (ch.22) Why shouldn't he? It seems that Vonnegut might bring us all to that point if we let him.

Vonnegut does not really want us to go there, or at least not to stay there.  This is not an empty celebration of nihilism, but a lesson in it.  Dwayne isn't a hero-- he is a warning sign. Did Descartes find a way out of total skepticism? Yes, and it was in his own thought where he found reality, something upon which to rest his philosophy. Similarly, the author here is pleasantly surprised (the author himself surprised in his own book! always the humorist!) when he hears an explanation of a modern painting by Rabo Karabekian. Speaking as a reader, he really got me there. It is a tremendous passage. To explain a ridiculous green background with a vertical strip of tape on it, such that we can see with Karabekian that it represents everything that is most important in human life, was a feat worthy of an authorial Atlas. But a changed view of modern art was not the author's response as a character in the novel. His response was complete rebirth-- he had found something to value! Everything was not as good (or as useless) as everything else anymore! We humans are not just machines or test tubes of chemicals. Each of us is also "an unwavering band of light" (ch.19), and that is the sacred thing which Vonnegut promises us in the Preface that he will not kick out of his mind with all the junk. Despite his mission, stated just a few pages before, to bring chaos to order, and to deconstruct everything, he has raised a bright phoenix from the ashes. Order comes from chaos after all... even though he had just said that this is what only bad novelists do.

What Vonnegut hates about the usual run of literature, as well as religion, is that it is high falutin’, distant, and dwarfed by the experiences of real life. The girl Patty Keane is a case study of this in ch.15. Novelists like the character Beatrice Keedsler are trying to get people to believe the lie that things are already ordered and explicable-- that there is nothing to break down before you can build up something useful and harmonious. Vonnegut will urge us to remember that picture of our corrupt society and inability to really communicate. For Vonnegut, that is not just a literary device, but is to some extent a picture of reality; and it prevents us from getting very far in construction until we take out the wrecking ball for a while (18 and a half chapters, to be precise). It is by tearing apart our entrenched and diseased value systems that we may eventually see what values we sorely need and then set them up aright. (For Vonnegut this value was the center of awareness in each of us.) If instead we are content to be touchup artists with our lives, and try just to fix things up a little here and there, there's a good chance that our attempt will be futile. "You can't just sew a new piece of cloth on an old jacket, or the patch will come away and create a worse tear." Vonnegut will have to excuse this quote from "the Creator of the Universe", a minor character in his novel.
 
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GLEANINGS:

  • The author admits to "impoliteness" in his work, and explains his inspiration for it-- a woman he once knew was impolite with an aim of a future American paradise. (Preface)
  • He is tempted to view men as machines, and as test tubes full of reactions. (Preface)
  • The author's intent in this book, as a 50th birthday present to himself, is to get rid of all the old junk in his head which is disharmonious-- he'll keep what is sacred. (Preface)
  • He feels programmed for selfishness in this book. (Preface).
  • Cynical comments on American history and politics, etc. (ch.1)
  • Bad ideas give shape to madness, as Trout’s ideas do to Dwayne's madness; there is mental as well as physical health and disease, and mental health can be judged by the quality of one's ideas; Trout's ideas are disguised as science fiction (ch.1)
  • The message of Trout's Delmore Skag novel is that our society is backwards in only addressing sexual morality and not genuine problems like overpopulation.
  • Lust for money and sex is a ridiculous monster that seizes our heads (ch.2)
  • Trout's Plague on Wheels novel, which was Trout's most popular, highlights our foolishness in blaming objects (cars) for our environmental problems (ch.2)
  • Earthlings have no immunity to bad ideas-- they can't reject them.
  • Three wishes of a parrot [and people?] are (1) to get out of its cage, (2) to open the window-- here the parrot suddenly gets frightened at the prospect of liberty, so therefore-- (3) to get back to the safety of the cage. The parrot is like Trout, who disguises all of his ideas and shuns open society (and eventually will be presented with scary liberty by the author). (ch.3)
  • Dwayne criticizes his salesman Henry, and almost commits suicide; he is going insane (ch.4)
  • All of Trout's books are published in pornographic magazines, despite the incongruity. (ch.5)
  • The message of Trout's "Dancing Fool" story is that an inability to communicate on crucial issues prevents progress. (ch.5)
  • A new novel of Trout's describes as "dirty" (i.e., immoral), things that one can no longer do (such as eating, on a planet with no plants and animals). (ch.5)
  • An acquaintance of Dwayne's dies, an event that leads him to question his life. (ch.6)
  • Trout sees his purpose in life is to be the eyes, ears, and conscience of the Creator of the Universe (ch.7).
  • Trout at the porno movie house (ch.7).
  • Trout's "This Means You" story highlights how the extremely uneven distribution of land means that some (such as blacks) have nowhere to go. (ch.8)
  • Trout gets beaten up, and a ludicrous comment by him is taken seriously by the police, whose new mission to root out the nonexistent "Pluto gang" becomes self-fulfilling. (ch.8)
  • Dwayne Hoover at the Holiday Inn (ch.9)
  • Trout has environmental conversation with a truck driver. His "Gilgongo" story tells of a place where everyone tries to drive everything extinct because there's too much creation going on. (ch.10)
  • Dwayne is comfortable in his familiar surroundings, until the bad chemicals get to him (ch.11).
  • A black jailbird named Wayne Hoobler is engaged in a futile search for a job (ch.11).
  • The closet transvestite Henry is humiliated by Dwayne (ch.11).
  • Trout harbors no values anymore, but decides that the only way things can be is the way they are. (ch.12)
  • Trout and the driver engage in a lot of useless talk. A story highlights this by telling of a place where language turned into music-- it had no meaning, but this didn't matter. (ch.12).
  • Pollution is damaging an ecotourist trap "Sacred Miracle Cave" (ch.13).
  • Trout and a truck driver discuss the use of natural resources and the unbalanced distribution of wealth. Trout's Barringaffner novel, where art is judged arbitrarily and certain painters get billions, suggests that the uneven distribution of wealth is not based on merit as it should be. (ch.14).
  • Dwayne Hoover decides to go to the arts festival to find new inspiration for his life (ch.15).
  • By far the longest chapter is devoted to social relations, competition, and inequalities; subjects in focus are sex, race, prison, penis size, language, monuments, and money. Trout's Son of Jimmy Valentine novel is about sexual competition, which is ridiculous but does get you places. His How You Doin? novel is on social competition, in which we set ourselves up to be exploited. (ch.15).
  • Antimilitary sentiment (ch.15).
  • Argument that God is terrible to the environment (ch.10). The author "wonders about him" since he made the snake with deadly fangs (ch.15).
  • Trout asks about "Excelsior" as he had earlier asked about "Pyramid", two brand names. This emphasizes the disuse of meaning in language; all we are concerned about is sound! (ch.16).
  • Now It Can Be Told is Trout's novel that will drive Dwayne crazy. It is on the creation of a new kind of creature-- one with free will. "Maybe the man was a better universe in its infancy" (ch.16).
  • A funny take on free will ("Not even the Creator of the universe knew what the man was going to say next"), ch.16.
  • Bunny Hoover is Dwayne's estranged homosexual son, a social outcast and misfit. Skid Row has other kinds of misfits as well. (ch.17).
  • Wayne Hoobler's frustrated goal was "to be a useful machine"-- all humans want to be useful machines (ch.18).
  • The author enters the story, and comes to the bar. (ch.18)
  • A few symbols are explored, and the author's entrance into the story is discussed-- particularly his omnipotence and the use of his creations. (ch.19)
  • Trout's "yeast" story has to do with our poisoning of ourselves with our own excrement (actions). The hope is that, like yeast, something better is born in the process (as the dedicatee, Phoebe Hurty, believed of humanity). (ch.19)
  • Life is like a polymer, its chain never ends. All stories should end with "ETC." to exhibit reality's continuity. (ch.20).
  • Trout comes to Midland City and is accosted by his one fan, who demands that Trout say something to inspire him, when in fact Trout is there for the opposite reason. (ch.20)
  • Trout's "Smart Bunny" story has a rabbit feeling like an outcast, and being treated as one by others, simply because he is intelligent. (ch.20)
  • The importance of "awareness", the core of human life, is suggested to be so important that there ought to be an "A" in the formula E=mc2. (ch.21).
  • "Goodbye Blue Monday" is a motto of a washing machine-- it was supposed to herald the end of drudgery for women, who supposedly did their laundry on Mondays (also here is a connection to the slavery issue again, and thus to freedom, like that which Trout will "enjoy" at the end of the book). (ch.21) [The complete title of this book is actually Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday]
  • Dwayne tries to hit Wayne Hoobler during his rampage, but fails (ch.23)
  • The injured ride in the "superambulance"; Dwayne's carnage is surveyed, and his doom explained (ch.24).

 
Back to Section Head

TIDBITS OF SIGNIFICANCE:

I tend to think of human beings as huge, rubbery test tubes, too, with chemical reactions seething inside.

-Preface

 

The things other people have put into my head, at any rate, do not fit together nicely, are often useless and ugly, are out of proportion with one another, are out of proportion with life as it really is outside my head.

-Preface

 

Bad chemicals and bad ideas were the Yin and Yang of madness.

-ch.1.

 

"We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane."

-on Kilgore Trout's epitaph, ch.1.

 

"So now we can build an unselfish society by devoting to unselfishness the frenzy we once devoted to gold and to underpants."

-from Kilgore Trout's Nobel Prize address, ch.2.

 

"Ideas on Earth were badges of friendship or enmity. Their content did not matter. Friends agreed with friends, in order to express friendliness. Enemies disagreed with enemies, in order to express enmity."

-from Kilgore Trout's Nobel Prize address, ch.2.

 

"Earthlings went on being friendly, when they should have been thinking instead."

-from Kilgore Trout's Nobel Prize address, ch.2.

 

"I'm leaving the cage, but I'm coming back. I'm going out there to show them what nobody has ever seen at an arts festival before: a representative of all the thousands of artists who devoted their entire lives to a search for truth and beauty-- and didn't find doodley-squat!"

-Kilgore Trout, to his parakeet.

 

"To be
the eyes
and ears
and conscience
of the Creator of the Universe,
you fool."

-Trout's answer to a graffiti question: "What is the purpose of life?", ch.7.

 

I had given him a life not worth living, but I had also given him an iron will to live. This was a common combination on the planet Earth.

-the author, on Trout, ch.8.

 

Kilgore Trout once wrote a story called "This Means You". It was set in the Hawaiian Islands.... Every bit of land on the islands was owned by only about forty people, and, in the story, Trout had those people decide to exercise their property rights to the full. They put up no trespassing signs on everything.

This created terrible problems for the million other people on the islands. The law of gravity required that they stick somewhere on the surface. Either that, or they could go out into the water and bob offshore.

But then the Federal Government came through with an emergency program. It gave a big balloon full of helium to every man, woman and child who didn't own property.

-ch.8.

 

"Seems like the only kind of job an American can get these days is committing suicide in some way."

-truck driver to Trout, ch.10.

 

After Trout became famous, of course, one of the biggest mysteries about him was whether he was kidding or not.

-ch.10.

 

Patty Keene was stupid on purpose, which was the case with most women in Midland City. The women all had big minds because they were big animals, but they did not use them much for this reason: unusual ideas could make enemies, and the women, if they were going to achieve any sort of comfort and safety, needed all the friends they could get.

So, in the interests of survival, they trained themselves to be agreeing machines instead of thinking machines. All their minds had to do was to discover what other people were thinking, and then they thought that, too.

-ch.15.

 

"Perhaps the man was a better universe in its infancy."

-on the tombstone of The Man, the eponymous character of a Kilgore Trout novel who was an experimental creature with the brand new quality of free will.

 

Here is what he hoped new truths might do for him: enable him to laugh at his troubles, to go on living, and to keep out of the North Wing of the Midland County General Hospital, which was for lunatics.

-of Dwayne Hoover, ch.18.

 

"You know what truth is?" said Karabekian. "It's some crazy thing my neighbor believes. If I want to make friends with him, I ask him what he believes. He tells me, and I say, 'Yeah, yeah-- ain't it the truth?'"

-ch.19.

 

I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.

If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead.

-ch.20.

 

His situation, insofar as he was a machine, was complex, tragic, and laughable. But the sacred part of him, his awareness, remained an unwavering band of light.

And this book is being written by a meat machine in cooperation with a machine made of metal and plastic… And at the core of the writing meat machine is something sacred, which is an unwavering band of light.

At the core of each person who reads this book is a band of unwavering light.

My doorbell has just rung in my New York apartment. And I know what I will find when I open my front door: an unwavering band of light.

God bless Rabo Karabekian!

-ch.20.

 

…life is now a polymer in which the Earth is wrapped so tightly.

-ch.20.

 

"Of course it is exhausting, having to reason all the time in a universe which wasn't meant to be reasonable."

-Dwayne Hoover, ch.22.

 

He gets a realistic novel out of the branch library in his neighborhood. He reads about sixty pages of it, and then he takes it back.

The librarian asks him why he doesn't like it, and he says to her, "I already know about human beings."

-of the hero of Trout's novel The Pan-Galactic Memory Bank, ch.24.

 
Back to Section Head

READ THIS WHEN…

…you're bold enough and have your novel-reading sleeves rolled up, to take the wrecking ball to some of our most cherished values and institutions, to shine the bare and uncomfortable light on the dust, and by so doing help an author to clear fifty years of rubbish from his mind-- and maybe some from your own. 

 

IF YOU LIKE THIS, YOU'D ALSO LIKE:

(for the fantastical satirist:)

  • Aristophanes, The Birds (414 BC)
  • Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-1553).
  • Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels (1726).
  • Samuel Butler, Erewhon (1872). 

(for the doubtful, provoking, impolite and whimsical Vonnegutian:)

  • Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Player Piano (1952).
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Cat's Cradle (1963).
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965).
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Slapstick (1976).

FIND THIS BOOK:

Hardcover

Apparently the single-volume hardcover book is no longer in print.  Anyway I do like these multi-novel volumes in the Library of America series.

 

Paperback

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