Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

This post was first published by Suite101. 

In the preface of Breakfast of Champions Vonnegut states that he is writing the novel as a “fiftieth birthday present” to himself. “I think I am trying”, he says, “to make my head as empty as it was when I was born onto this damaged planet fifty years ago.” And while Breakfast of Champions exhibits the extraordinary imagination of Vonnegut’s previous books, there is a much greater sense throughout this novel of the author’s own voice, and of an effort to make his vision of the world and human nature clear – for himself as much as for his readers.

Breakfast of Champions follows the lives of two men: Kilgore Trout, a prolific but unknown science fiction writer whose work is published in pornographic magazines, and Dwayne Hoover, a wealthy Pontiac dealer who is slowly going insane. Dwayne lives in Midland City, where a Festival of the Arts is about to take place. Eliot Rosewater, a slightly eccentric millionaire and Kilgore Trout’s only fan, convinces the director of the festival to invite Trout. The reclusive author agrees to attend, planning to represent “all the thousands of artists who devoted their entire lives to a search for truth and beauty – and didn’t find doodley-squat!” Meanwhile, Dwayne Hoover is becoming more and more desperate to make sense of life, and heads to the festival in the hope of meeting an artist who will offer him an answer. The majority of the novel leads up to the eventual meeting of these two characters, and foreshadows a violent and absurd climax.

One of the most interesting stylistic aspects of Breakfast of Champions is the simplicity of the storytelling, as if the author is writing for a reader who has never been to Earth before. The narrator’s explanation of why people use drugs, for example, goes like this: “They lived in ugly places where there were only ugly things to do. They didn’t own doodley-squat, so they couldn’t improve their surroundings. So they did their best to make their insides beautiful instead.” These simplistic – and truthful – descriptions, coupled with Vonnegut’s childish sketches of everyday objects, reveal the absurdities that lie at the foundations of life. As Vonnegut notes in his preface, he has a desire to “perform childishly” in an effort to clear his head “of all the junk in there”. The result of this kind of writing is the revelation, close to the end of the novel, of the author’s beliefs about human nature. All of Vonnegut’s novels up to this point have presented characters that are lost in some way, whether physically, morally, or psychologically. The flaws and failings of these characters lend Vonnegut’s stories a black humour that is both entertaining and relatable. However, there is always an element of sympathy within the humour, as well; a sense that Vonnegut is never laughing at his characters, but rather with them. In Breakfast of Champions the author seems to have come to an understanding of the principles that lie behind his unique writing style. “As I approached my fiftieth birthday,” Vonnegut writes in Chapter 19 of Breakfast of Champions, “I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably . . . They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books.” Breakfast of Champions, however, is certainly not an average “story book”. While Kilgore Trout and Dwayne Hoover serve as focal points of the narrative, it is difficult to categorise the people in the novel as “major” or “minor” characters. Vonnegut does his best to give detailed descriptions of each and every character – often to the point of absurdity, describing the lengths of their penises and the kinds of Christmas cards they send. “Every person would be exactly as important as any other”, Vonnegut writes, “All facts would be given equal weightiness.” He is determined to write about real life. Vonnegut certainly proves, in Breakfast of Champions, that an interesting and entertaining story needn’t have a cast of clearly categorised characters and a traditional beginning, middle and end.

Breakfast of Champions is one of Kurt Vonnegut’s most successful and critically acclaimed novels. Other novels by the author include Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens of Titan and Galapagos. 

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