Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

Source of book: I own this. 


When a legal colleague downsized his library, he gave me a bunch of duplicate stuff, including pretty nearly the entire novels of Kurt Vonnegut. Last year, our book club read Slaughterhouse-Five, but apparently Breakfast of Champions was a prior selection, and led to some, let’s call it “drama.” I wasn’t a part of the club back then, and membership has changed over a lot as people have moved away. Now I am curious what it was about this particular book that gave rise to strong feelings. I decided to read it this year, and brought it with me (in small paperback form) on a recent backpacking trip. 


Vonnegut isn’t like any other author in style. I’m not sure he can even be imitated. Sure, some of the techniques such as inserting himself in the story, using autobiographical elements in characters, and breaking the fourth wall are common enough, but he is one of those authors that you can instantly tell is him from a short excerpt. 


Breakfast of Champions is somewhat different from Slaughterhouse-Five. Gone are the aliens and the time travel, and it is set in a Midwest “everytown” in the 1970s rather than in Germany in World War Two. There are some similarities, however. The book focuses on mental illness - “bad chemicals” as Vonnegut puts it - and the way those bad chemicals are often compounded by bad ideas. It also is a scathing satire of American consumer culture, a commentary on race relations, and a rebuke to the way our economic system treats humans as “meat robots” that can be discarded when they no longer bring profit to the wealthy. And, this being Vonnegut, it is a bit weird. 


Recurring character Kilgore Trout - the unsuccessful and eccentric science fiction novelist - is a central part of this book. Trout was patterned loosely on Theodore Sturgeon, Vonnegut’s friend and fellow author (although the homage isn’t exactly flattering.) The character varies a great deal from book to book: Vonnegut intentionally made no attempt at consistency. 


The basic plot of Breakfast of Champions is as follows. But the plot isn’t even the entire point, between all the digressions and the side characters and the philosophical asides. Anyway, Kilgore Trout, now an old man, is unexpectedly invited to be a featured guest at a literary festival in Midland City, a fairly typical middle America sort of place. Apparently, the mother of the wealthy guy dies and he decides to honor her by building a facility that will host the festival. They want to borrow a renowned work of art, so they appeal to the regional rich guy, who agrees to lend it only if Trout is invited. (Also, regional rich guy is possibly the only person who is a fan of Trout…) 


Trout decides to go, saying, “Maybe an unhappy failure is exactly what they need to see.” 


As we are told at the beginning of the book, at the festival, Trout will meet Dwayne Hoover, owner of the local Pontiac franchise, who is already slowly going insane. Hoover will speed-read one of Trout’s books, which is about a man who is the only being with free will in the world - everyone else is a robot - and decide it is true, going on a violent rampage against the robots. 


But that doesn’t actually happen until the end of the book. While the ending is telegraphed, the bulk of the book is filling in the back stories and the events of the week or so before the fateful meeting. 


So, Kilgore Trout travels to the festival via New York City, where he spends time in an adult theater, then gets mugged. He proceeds to hitchhike his way to Midland City, and has a series of philosophical conversations with the drivers. Dwayne Hoover gradually goes crazy in the aftermath of his wife’s suicide, and his interactions with other denizens of Midland City, and the unfolding of their own back stories takes up much of the rest of the book. 


Through all of it, Vonnegut himself watches in on the events, occasionally appearing in person (and at the end, freaking Kilgore Trout out.) Throughout, Vonnegut also explains how he came up with his characters, often from his own life. His mother, like Hoover’s wife, committed suicide, leaving Vonnegut with trauma and fears for his own sanity. Trout looks like Vonnegut’s father, and also gets some of the biographical details of that man, who withdrew into himself after the Depression destroyed the family finances. Various minor characters too are patterned after friends and family, and Vonnegut points out parallels as he tells the story. 


The writing style is deceptively simple - one of the hallmarks of Vonnegut’s writing. It seems simple, and it is. But it is also unexpectedly evocative and descriptive and emotionally powerful. As I said, it isn’t something that can really be imitated. It was Vonnegut’s genius, and it works because Vonnegut was a brilliant writer. 


There are so many amazing quotes in the book. In fact, I ended up with a bunch of them, despite not having anything to take notes on during the trip - I literally remembered the best ones and wrote them down when I got back, which is a testimony to how memorable the book was and to the way Vonnegut’s simplicity makes memory easier. 


Starting with the introduction, Vonnegut tries to explain himself, and, well, it goes about as well as usual. He admits that he feels lousy about this book, and feels lousy about all his books, and he doesn’t think they are any good. Furthermore, he feels he is all baggage and not much else, despite his efforts to clear his mind. And then, there is this line:


I think I am trying to make my head as empty as it was when I was born onto this damaged planet fifty years ago. I suspect that this is something most white Americans, and nonwhite Americans who imitate white Americans, should do. 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. 


The opening chapter starts off with a devastating critique of the mythology of America - and indeed of white people in general. While claiming freedom and goodness and light, they quietly (and not quietly) went about slaughtering and enslaving and exploiting and destroying. He calls the invaders of the Americas “Sea Pirates,” and explains why they were so successful. 


The chief weapon of the sea pirates, however, was their capacity to astonish. Nobody else could believe, until it was much too late, how heartless and greedy they were.


Indeed, it still never fails to astonish many of us. 


Vonnegut is an enigma in some ways, because at one level, he is very deterministic. He tends to see humans in a naturalistic light, with chemicals determining much about us - he even mentions that his tendency is to see people as robots. But he also is humanistic - a high degree of empathy and a belief that he at least has the power to make a better world in some small way. This can be seen in his “quote” from Trout’s last book, which became his epitaph:


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


In a way, Vonnegut explains the tension between determinism and free will best in his bit about Dwayne’s mental illness. 


Dwayne’s incipient insanity was mainly a matter of chemicals, of course. Dwayne Hoover’s body was manufacturing certain chemicals which unbalanced his mind. But Dwayne, like all novice lunatics, needed some bad ideas too, so that his craziness could have shape and direction. Bad chemicals and bad ideas were the Yin and Yang of madness. 


This line gave me a moment’s pause. After all, for my own parents, they had legitimate childhood trauma which has affected them significantly. But it was the combination of that trauma and some really bad ideas from Bill Gothard and other religious charlatans that led to the problems that eventually tore our family apart. The Yin and Yang. And, back to that quote above, Vonnegut ties together mental health and a humane outlook. I think he is right. When we lose our humanity, we lose our mental health - and vice versa. The collective insanity of Trump Worship is a great case in point. 


And speaking of that, Vonnegut nails it when it comes to the concept of “tribal epistemology.” The idea that something is true or false, not because of evidence, but because of what it means for one’s tribe. 


And here, according to Trout, was the reason human beings could not reject bad ideas because they were bad: “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.”


I can’t help but think of this in light of “own the libs!” and the way that Covid and vaccine denialism has become a means of expressing one’s political affiliation. Forget thinking, let alone evidence. It’s all about fitting in with the tribe. 


Trout is often given the best ideas. I liked this bit, where he sees graffiti in a bathroom, asking what the purpose of life is. His response, in poem form (only in his head, though, as he has nothing to write with…):


To be

the eyes

and ears

and conscience

of the Creator of the Universe,

you fool.


That whole “you fool” at the end is perfect. And very much the way Kilgore Trout would say it. 


Vonnegut had difficulties in his relationships, in part because of his wartime PTSD, and in part because of his pessimism and struggles with depression. He puts this into the character of Trout, including this bit directed toward Trout by his son. Whether it is accurate regarding Trout can be debated, but I think I know a few people like this. 


“I pity you. You’ve crawled up your own asshole and died.” 


I wonder if this is the fear that Vonnegut had about himself. Had he done this? In a later scene, Vonnegut is sitting in the bar, watching his characters, and has this conversation with himself.


“This is a very bad book you’re writing,” I said to myself behind my leaks. [mirrored sunglasses - this is a reference to a Kilgore Trout book]

“I know,” I said.

“You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,” I said.

“I know,” I said.


This fear, and the fraught relationship he had with his mother, are, in my opinion, at the heart of why he seems to back away whenever he gets close to female emotion, even in his characters. In this book, women are side characters, and they are always written in an emotionally distant manner. It isn’t the case, as in some other authors, that Vonnegut sees them as subhuman or uninteresting. Rather, it is as if whenever he comes close to writing about them, he triggers some deep-seated trauma in himself, and has to look away. I can’t really describe it. Despite this, he still manages some fascinating cultural observations. 


Patty Keene, a young waitress, gets a bit of a back story before she tries to hit on Dwayne Hoover in order to solve her financial difficulties. Take a look at how Vonnegut describes the effect culture has had on her. 


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. 


Ouch. And very much true for parts of our culture even today. Very much true for the Fundamentalist subculture - that was literally one of Gothard’s teachings, that god spoke to men, who then told women what to think. This was, shall we say, the source of some interesting frission for my wife in the cultic group she was in. As a thinking person, not an agreeing one, she fascinated a number of the men, young and old. (After all, an intelligent and attractive woman is fascinating to many of us men.) So they had the problem of what to do with her - she clearly was highly intelligent and an independent thinker, so she was simultaneously fascinating AND a threat to the ideology. And no, attempts to “reform” her into an agreeing machine never worked. 


Some of the asides are just straight-up funny. For example, this one. 


A real rattlesnake looked like this: [illustration] The Creator of the Universe had put a rattle on its tail. The Creator had also given it front teeth which were hypodermic syringes filled with deadly poison. 

Sometimes I wonder about the Creator of the Universe. 


Or this one on Schizophrenia:


The sound and appearance of the word had fascinated me for many years. It sounded and looked to me like a human being sneezing in a blizzard of soap flakes.


Sex pervades the book, although not at all in a sexy way. Pornography is treated as if it were an appliance, for example. Kilgore Trout’s writings can only be sold with pornographic covers which have nothing to do with the books. Vonnegut expresses his curiosity as to exactly the appeal of sex-for-sale, from the childhood ditty about girls’ underpants to the marketing of pictures of “wide open beavers.” Vonnegut also notes that this is connected to a general prudishness about sex. 


Children who wanted to know where babies came from were sometimes told that they were brought by the storks. People who told their children such a thing felt that their children were too young to think intelligently about wide-open beavers and all that. 


Vonnegut shows no such prudery, of course. One of the subplots is that Dwayne is estranged from his son, who is gay. As a child, Bunny (a nickname) expresses a wish that he were a woman instead of a man, because men were so cruel and ugly to each other. This results in Bunny being sent to a military reform school to “make a man of him.” As one did back in the day. (And still do in Fundie circles.)


Bunny Hoover went to Prairie Military Academy for eight years of uninterrupted sports, buggery, and Fascism. Buggery consisted of sticking one’s penis in somebody else’s asshole or mouth, or having it done to one by somebody else. Fascism was a fairly popular political philosophy which made sacred whatever nation and race the philosopher happened to belong to. It called for an autocratic, centralized government, headed up by a dictator. The dictator had to be obeyed, no matter what he told somebody to do. 


That’s a lot of great stuff in a simple paragraph. And, it a lot of ways, it explains why I have come to understand non-reproductive sex less as a threat and more of a normal part of human existence. Also, about as good of a succinct summary of Fascism as any. 


I should mention that midway through the book, Vonnegut goes off on a tangent about measurements. Specifically, penis measurements, as well as hip/waist/bust measurements. In other words, the quantification of porn. It is pretty funny, particularly when he subsequently drops a “his penis was x inches long and x inches in diameter” in descriptions of characters. This is part of his whole de-mystification of sex in general and porn in particular. Just another trait, like eye and hair color…


There is another aside regarding the Creator of the Universe that I thought I would mention. Accompanied by simplistic drawings by the author, he explains the mythology behind The Fall pretty well. 


What is time? It is a serpent which eats its tail, like this: [illustration]

This is the snake which uncoiled itself long enough to offer Eve the apple, which looked like this: [illustration]

What was the apple which Eve and Adam ate? It was the Creator of the Universe. 

And so on.

Symbols can be so beautiful, sometimes.


I suspect that Vonnegut didn’t like literary conventions any better than Kilgore Trout did, which is why his extended scene in this book of the discussion (and eventually bitter argument) between a pulp writer and a modern artist is so funny. What ends up triggering the blowup is the issue of the most famous citizen from Midland City, a young female swimmer. After the novelist explains that her father made her go out and swim for hours every day, the artist says loudly, “What kind of man would turn his daughter into an outboard motor?” Actually, that’s pretty funny. If not particularly nice. 


The last bit comes from the extended digression on the history of Fred T. Barry, the local rich guy who created the festival. His family made their fortunes initially building washing machines and other appliances - the Robo-Magic Corporation. (By the time the story takes place, they are working as a defense contractor.) The marketing back in the day for the company was based on saving labor. But Vonnegut hits it out of the park on what was really going on. 


Women have never loved doing household drudgery. And, for the most part, the white women of the past didn’t. That’s what black women - first as slaves, later as domestic servants - were for. As Barry’s highly offensive ads put it, his appliances would eventually do “all the Nigger work of the world.” 


Vonnegut takes his time here to explain that both his mother and sister flatly refused to do “Nigger work.” And then, he follows it up with this:


The white men wouldn’t do it either, of course. They called it women’s work, and the women called it Nigger work


This brings to mind a series of discussions I have had with Patriarchy sorts. They complain and moan that nobody values women these days - by which they mean, women work outside the home for actual money, rather than doing housework all day, and thus women are no longer on the Victorian pedestal as “homemakers.” This is bullshit on a stick. The reason housework isn’t “valued” is that it has been relegated to people lower on the social ladder. Namely, women, and minorities. You can see this in the fact that when people become wealthy enough, one of the first things they farm out are the “women’s work.” They employ (usually non-white) women to come in and clean the house, they send the laundry out, the get take-out food, and if wealthy enough, get a nanny to raise the kids. White men are the worst about doing “women’s work,” actually - particularly older white men. Times are changing. 


I mentioned the illustrations, which are fun for the same reason that James Thurber’s equally primitive drawings are fun. They are simple yet expressive, particularly in context. Here are a few to give the idea. I picked the naughty ones, naturally. 


Oh, and one final thing: “Breakfast of Champions” refers to the way the barmaid gives martinis to her customers, using the breakfast cereal slogan. Vonnegut also snarks about how he intends no denigration to that fine product.


I actually enjoyed this book more than Slaughterhouse-Five, perhaps because the horrors in that one were pretty dark. Not that this book is optimistic exactly, but it had more room for humor, and poking fun at humanity rather than just recoiling in horror at it. I don’t think I could handle Vonnegut’s pessimism as a steady diet, but his unique writing style and thoughtful observation of American culture are worth mixing in from time to time. Since I have a box of his books yet to read, I suspect I will be posting periodically about his books. 


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