So, I began writing this just as I finished the last word of The Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut, and then sat for about five minutes just at a bit of a loss. I’d certainly say that I can’t remember the last book that left me with such a feeling of being unsettled. That’s not to say I feel disturbed by the book, or shaken up, I simply feel a bit bothered, or perturbed. Here is how I read most books: I devour them. Once I start the first word I can’t put the book down until I’ve read the last, unless I absolutely must stop to eat, or sleep. And to be clear that doesn’t just apply to incredibly well written books, but truly any book, even one that I can’t really connect with or don’t particularly enjoy the plot line, I always need to get to the end. That end, in these books, is typically immensely satisfying (be it because I feel some closure in the plot, or because I’m just glad to be done with it, or anywhere between). Here is how I read this book: with many pauses, as if my brain was coming up for air, punctuated with the emotional equivalent of a shrug alongside the last word. In a bit of a daze, would be an apt description for how I feel.
The best way I can summarize the plot line of this book is to say that it is a story about two old men and their journeys until their meeting. The first man, Kilgore Trout, is a pulp science fiction author, and has “doodley-squat” to his name. The second, Dwayne Hoover, is full of “bad chemicals” and yet “fabulously well-to-do.” When they eventually meet, Dwayne is deranged enough to believe that one of Kilgore’s books contains the secrets of life. This book happens to be written as a letter from the Creator of the Universe to the only non-machine free willed person in the Universe. Dwayne then processes this information by attacking many people who he believes to be robots. To be clear, the meeting of the two men occurs roughly 80% of the way into the book. The rest of the novel describes the two men’s lives thus far, as well as a whole bunch of everything else. From very in depth descriptions of characters who play extremely minimal roles to seemingly random asides defining and illustrating terms like apple, and infinity, Vonnegut spares no detail (including many about his own life, going so far as to insert himself into his own book as an omniscient character rather than narrator).
Now, to be candid, I admit that I haven’t read a single other Vonnegut book, which likely contributed to my confusion during the reading of The Breakfast of Champions, which contains references to characters from Vonnegut’s previous books. I’ll also say, if you haven’t quite picked up on it, that I tend on the less favorable side of the like/dislike divide when it comes to how I feel about this as a fictional piece. I found the most engaging character to be the author, and I felt like I couldn’t relax into a story line because there were too many things happening at once, going back and forth and sideways. It simply isn’t my style. However, and this is a big however, I can see how this book can be ranked in the top 500 of the millions of existing books which are up for consideration as being the greatest books ever written. I didn’t like the book as a story; I respect the book and the author for being able to impart some wisdom nonetheless.
I think that the main plot of this novel, of the two men meeting and the chaos that follows, is simply a vessel for a greater message. Before I go on, I’d like to recognize that yes, this is technically true of all novels, but I ask that you bear with me. What I mean to say is that the journey these characters embarked on to get to the climax of the novel was no odyssey. Further, I think there is little to no significance in the fact that these two characters in particular met, or that they met the way they did, or in what occurred after they met. I would argue that it has as much or as little significance as any of the countless summaries of Kilgore’s books strewn throughout the novel. I mean to say that the shape of the story did not have a critical impact on the message being delivered. As I type those words I can hear dozens of English teachers in my past shouting “everything the author writes has significance!” This is true, Vonnegut chose his words and his vessel very carefully, I’m sure. But I think he wrote his book in such a way that everything has simultaneously both infinite and negligible significance. After all, he said as much himself.
Vonnegut, or Philboyd Studge, as he refers to himself in the preface, claims that he sets out with the goal of “[clearing his] head of all the junk in there” for his 50th birthday, as if this will be the last novel he writes (though it wasn’t), and so he wants to get every accumulated bit of writing out of himself. Essentially, this book is a comparable to someone going up into the attic and dredging up some old boxes of stuff with the intent of finding something, though they might only have a vague idea of what, and as a result sitting for hours exclaiming at every tidbit which appears as if it is of great importance. If that comparison didn’t strike your fancy, another would be that this book is like someone shopping at their own garage sale of ideas. And yet, we see Vonnegut, or Studge, say that his own life has been changed by one of his minor characters, who likens every human’s awareness to an unwavering band of light (rather than to some meat machine conglomerate of rubber bits and chemicals, as Vonnegut had thus far been taken to doing).
This is what I do appreciate about the way in which the novel is written: it is true to the idea that each and every thing in it has significance to it. A band of unwavering light, perhaps. I struggle to think of a character that was only mentioned once, without being later reconnected to another through some bizarre relation, or without a thorough description of some seemingly random feature of that person’s existence. At one point in this novel, Vonnegut says that he “[resolves] to shun storytelling. [He] 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” in an effort to allow others, the readers, to make sense of it all. To go back to some earlier points I made, this is why I think the actual main plot line is somewhat meaningless, and why I was left with a dislike of a story that wasn’t at all the main feature of the book.
So, what are the ideas that do hold meaning in this novel? The idea that at the end of the day we are all equal as random compositions of chemicals (or metal), that the black robots were exactly alike the white ones, that everyone is subject to life as determined by chemicals outside of their control (and as such are equally susceptible to the bad chemicals taking over). We as readers are led to question free will and its frailty in the face of these bad chemicals, or the creator of the universe, or the author, or even other characters. And Vonnegut even manages to criticize the socioeconomic cruelties he observes in the American world, as well as the environmental ones. So really, The Breakfast of Champions is full of social criticisms and commentary, sprinkled throughout pages filled with seemingly random asides, strange science fiction stories housed in porn magazines, and the occasional illustration of an asshole.
Having written all of this and spent a few days and reflected a bit more on the novel, here’s the valuable lesson I learned from Vonnegut: I shouldn’t expect the plot line to deliver the “so what” of the story to me. The author has no obligation towards his reader to find a greater meaning in the world and then mold it into an easily digestible quaint little story. Rather, Vonnegut took the opinions he accumulated over the years and presented the reader his own perspective on the world. As he embedded himself in his own novel, we were shown the characters and the world through the eyes of the creator of this particular universe. He pointed us towards the things which stood out to him, and doesn’t try to force feed us some moral to accept. It is my responsibility as the reader to take these facts and the perspective they were presented through, and decide for myself what I think it all means. Not at all a bad lesson to take with me as I continue on this book reading journey of mine. So what is it that Vonnegut has led me to believe that Knowers know?
Knowers know that we must take care to remember that the world exists not only as we see it, but as others do as well, and that it is up to us to bring order to the chaos.