Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut

Delta, 1973 (1999 reprint), 302 pages, C$21.00 tpb, ISBN 0-385-33420-6

(Experienced as an audio book, as performed by Stanley Tucci) Caedmon, 2003 , 6.5 hours (unabridged): ISBN 0-06-056497-0

Meet Kilgore Trout, perhaps the worst SF writer in the known universe. Meet Kurt Vonnegut, creator of perhaps the worst SF writer in the known universe. Meet Dwayne Hoover, a man at the end of his sanity, uniquely predisposed to mistake Kilgore’s stories for the awful truth. Meet the town of Midland CIty, a city in the mid-west where the id of America is hideously exposed. Meet a bunch of characters without secrets to you, the reader, thanks to him, the writer.

By now, Breakfast of Champions is a minor classic of American literature, and Kurt Vonnegut one of its undisputed demigods. This novel shows why he’s held in such high esteem: Breaking every rule of conventional fiction, it still manages to entertain and remain relevant more than thirty years after publication. It helps that it’s often laugh-out-loud funny in a deadpan fashion.

In some ways, it’s the story of a successful middle-age man going mad. In others, it’s a road trip by a rotten SF author throughout the wasteland of twentieth-century America. It’s about Vonnegut, it’s about modern culture, it’s about life as lived by those strange human creatures. And so on.

While the comparison may send some Vonnegut fans into early graves, there’s some similitude between his stylistic quirks and the type of prose favoured by later writers such as Chuck Palahniuk. In Breakfast of Champions, three recurring motifs quickly become apparent.

The least significant of those is the recurring enumeration of items, habits, names, quickly followed by “…and so on.” Vonnegut himself explains the significance of that particular quirk in-text, but it does bring to mind similar prose tricks in other authors.

That Vonnegut would himself (as the author) comment on that recurring pattern of writing is in itself an example of a stylistic trick. Vonnegut sometimes (presumably) slips into autobiography with this novel, establishing parallels between his live and elements of his characters, but that’s not the least of the author/work transgressions in this book. Vonnegut tells the reader, in advance, what’s going to happen and why. He plays with the omniscience of the narrator if it was a toy, telling us things about his characters and their surroundings just for the heck of it. Near the end, he practically disengages from the story, allowing us to read about the author commenting his story rather than the story itself.

This, in turn, feeds into the constant sense of detachment exhibited in the novel. Cultural detachment, especially. He chooses to tell the story almost as if he was narrating to an alien in one of Trout’s stories. Facets of early-seventies pop-Americana are laboriously explained, with constant reminders that however weird it sounds, that’s the way things were there and then. Early readers of the novel must have felt the dissonance with pleasure. Thirty years later, it acquires another layer, as we readers born after the novel’s publication date have become, in a sense, aliens to the period thus described. Those laboriously explained cultural markers become historic footnotes required to understand the universe being described.

It all amounts to, well, a lot of fun. Deliciously weird, and not without its dark sarcastic laugh-aloud moments, Breakfast of Champions demands a certain energy from its readers, but rewards them richly. I have often been bemused by Vonnegut’s work, but seldom less than satisfied. The pattern holds true here. Plus, any novel starring a science-fiction writer (even if he’s the worst one in the universe) gets mad props in my ratings.

I experienced the novel as an unabridged audio-book as performed by character actor Stanley Tucci. I didn’t do so by choice (I was suffering from the after-effect of eye laser surgery, hence being unable to read “real” books), but it was certainly an occasion to experience Vonnegut’s prose and not rush through the book. As a result, several of Vonnegut’s recurring motifs became clearer, and the steady ploughing ahead of the “story” was most clearly felt. I also loved Tucci’s voice performance as Kilgore Trout, as he infuses the character’s speaking cadence with an oddly likable mischeviousness. A perfect reflection of Vonnegut’s own text.

[December 2005: …but not a perfect reflection of Vonnegut’s book, which includes a number of naive illustrations that add another layer to the narrative.]

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