Mr Thursday’s Book Shelf: Breakfast of Champions

It is a very minor coincidence that Kurt Vonnegut should die the same week I find myself in the midst of one of his novels for the first time. Of course, it would have been nice if that novel wasn’t Breakfast of Champions. According to the back cover, the novel is Vonnegut’s seventh, and it would seem that reading at least a few of the previous six would give me a better appreciation for this novel’s events. All the same, even with the dearth of experience in Vonnegut’s novels, there was plenty of meat here.

The story is the meeting of “two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.” These two men are Dwayne Hoover, a fabulously well-to-do Pontiac salesman in the fictional Midland City; and Kilgore Trout, a science-fiction writer from New York City. Trout, a recurring character throughout Vonnegut’s novels, is invited to be a speaker at an arts festival in Midland City. Meanwhile, Dwayne Hoover’s got “bad chemicals”, and appears to be going insane.

Vonnegut’s style of narration is unusual, and fairly complex. Like Dostoevsky, Vonnegut will readily address his audience whenever it suits him to do so; unlike Dostoevsky, Vonnegut readily admits that this is a work of fiction, its characters are his creations, and that he may manipulate them as he pleases. Several times during the book, a character will do something for, seemingly, no other reason than Vonnegut wanting him to. Vonnegut, as a character, gradually takes on more of a role than Vonnegut the narrator, culminating in his physical manifestation in the world he’s created, so he might watch the book’s climax and denouement.

Vonnegut also seems use Trout, as well as his own narrator-character-self, to make statements on war and politics and sex and anatomy and anything else throughout the book. At various points, the novel’s frequent non sequiturs will stay on subjects like a local attraction (the Secret Miracle Cave); the size of male genitals and females’ hips, waist, & bosom; the “soul” as a vertical beam of light, and dozens of others.

Also persisting throughout the book is a multitude of pictures, drawn by Vonnegut with felt-tip pen. I know this the same way I know most of the things I know about this book: Vonnegut told me. The spiritual and physical climaxes are pointed out by Vonnegut, when a friend stops by as he’s writing, Vonnegut lets us know. What will happen later in the book is also a frequent subject for Vonnegut to turn to. Vonnegut, in fact, reveals the entire climax of the story early on, including the futures of nearly every character, and yet the conclusion is both compelling and satisfying.

I think I’ll be well served to re-read this book after tackling much of Vonnegut’s earlier work. That said, an absolutely wonderful read from one of the world’s late, great authors.

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