Breakfast of Champions: Unsanitary ideas.

As I’ve explained already, over the last few years I’ve been systematically making my way through the books I own that, for one reason or another, I’d never gotten around to reading. It’s taken longer than it might have because simultaneously, but less systematically, I’ve been revisiting some of the books I loved as a teenager, trying to decide whether they’re worth re-reading – or whether they were worth reading the first time around.

A few days ago I came to Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, which was among the first “grown-up” novels I ever read – if it is a grown-up novel – aged twelve or thereabouts. [1]

If you’ve read Vonnegut at all, you probably encountered him, like me, pretty young, when his idealism, irreverence, and offhand eschatology seemed deep, and the Duplo-brick clarity of his prose made him a welcome alternative to Camus or Dostoyevsky or whatever woolly tome your older sister was lugging around in her backpack. As you aged up a bit maybe you spotted a Vonnegut paperback poking out of the rear pocket of your little brother’s low-hanging jeans and thought, gosh, well, maybe I’m too grown-up for that now. And maybe you’ve at last reached the age where you can un-self-consciously revisit the pleasures of your youth, but you’re not sure you’re capable of hearing Vonnegut’s voice over the stirrings of half-buried adolescent angst.

Or maybe that’s just me. I’ve now re-read Vonnegut’s novels in chronological order from Player Piano through Breakfast of Champions­ – roughly the first half of his career, when his most famous stuff was done – and, to my surprise, a couple of them I had trouble even finishing. But I’m not sure whether my impatience is with Vonnegut’s writing, or with extraneous factors.

Here’s how Martin Amis, in a generally sympathetic appraisal of Vonnegut’s career through the early eighties, summarized his subject’s reputation in highbrow circles:

[H]is work has remarkably little currency among the card-carrying literati; his pacifistic, faux-naïf “philosophy” is regarded as hippyish and nugatory; he is the sort of writer, nowadays, whom Serious People are ashamed of ever having liked. Cute, coy, tricksy, mawkish – gee-whiz writing, comic-book stuff. [2]

Why, then, might adult-me be resistant to Vonnegut?

Hypothesis One: The Serious People are right, and he’s not very good.

Hypothesis Two: The Serious People are wrong, but I’ve internalized their disdain, via sources like Martin Amis, and whenever I start to get caught up in Vonnegut I’m distracted by a tiny, haughty “pff” from my subconscious.

That was as far as my hypothesizing had taken me, until the other day, when I got started on Breakfast of Champions – which, to summarize, is about a successful Midwestern auto dealer who, under the influence of severe mental illness and a satirical science-fiction novel he unluckily reads, decides that he’s the only person in the universe with free will, all others being soulless robots placed on earth to test him.

Breakfast of Champions is probably best-known for the juvenile doodles that litter its pages:

breakfast of champions doodles

Some of them serve as punchlines for jokes, but the rest have no apparent purpose except as large-scale punctuation marks, places for the eye to rest. (I’m sure the doodles were a big part of what made the novel so inviting to twelve-year-old me.) Vonnegut explains in the preface:

I am programmed at fifty to perform childishly – to insult “The Star-Spangled Banner”, to scrawl pictures of a Nazi flag and an asshole and a lot of other things with a felt-tipped pen….I think I am trying to clear my head of all the junk in there – the assholes, the flags, the underpants. Yes, there is a picture in this book of underpants.

At several points, Vonnegut suggests that Breakfast of Champions is the record of some real-life spiritual crisis he has survived:

I was making myself hideously uncomfortable by not narrowing my attention to details of life which were immediately important, and by refusing to believe what my neighbors believed.

He writes an avatar of himself into his novel, lurking in the bar of a Holiday Inn where his characters have assembled, watching them through mirrored glasses (leaks – don’t ask):

“This is a very bad book you’re writing,” I said to myself behind my leaks.

“I know,” I said.

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

“I know,” I said.

(In the Amis profile, Vonnegut discusses the “legacy” of his mother’s suicide:

“As a problem-solving device, it’s in the forefront of my mind all the time. It’s like walking along the edge of a cliff. I’m in the country and the pump stops. What’ll I do? I know: I’ll kill myself. The roof is leaking. What’ll I do? I know: I’ll blow my brains out.”)

In his previous novel, the fabulously successful Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut had outlined a philosophy of perfect resignation, as expressed by his alien Tralfamadorians, who could see all points in time simultaneously:

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”

“You sound to me as though you don’t believe in free will,” said Billy Pilgrim.

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will’. I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

Kilgore Trout, co-hero of Breakfast of Champions, writer of the sci-fi novel that will tip the mentally-ill auto dealer into violence, has arrived at a Tralfamadorian perspective on the misery and banality of modern American life:

But his head no longer sheltered ideas of how things could be and should be on the planet, as opposed to how they really were. There was only one way for the Earth to be, he thought: the way it was.

…While the Vonnegut avatar, watching his creations go about their mundane business in the bar of the Holiday Inn, follows the same logic to its pitiless nadir:

I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about myself or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide.

But by the end of the novel, the words of one of his characters have convinced the author that he’s wrong – that human life, all life, has value; while Kilgore Trout has learned from the auto dealer’s rampage that the ideas in his books, good or bad, have consequences in the real world. Trout becomes a crusader for mental health, “a fanatic on the importance of ideas as causes and cures for diseases”, is awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine, and dies a revered humanitarian.

Here’s the speech that jolts the Vonnegut avatar from his nihilistic despair. It’s delivered to the denizens of the Holiday Inn by a self-promoting abstract-expressionist painter in defense of his work The Temptation of Saint Anthony, a narrow day-glo orange stripe on a vast canvas of avocado green:

“It is a picture of the awareness of every animal. It is the immaterial core of every animal – the ‘I am’ to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of us – in a mouse, in a deer, in a cocktail waitress. It is unwavering and pure, no matter what preposterous adventure may befall us. A sacred picture of Saint Anthony alone is one vertical, unwavering band of light. If a cockroach were near him, or a cocktail waitress, the picture would show two such bands of light. Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery.”

So the ego, soul, self-awareness, whatever you want to call it, of every human, along with every other living creature on down to the cockroach, may be sacred – according to this fictional character who his creator admits is pretty much a baloney artist. You’d have to be awfully deep in the cosmic weeds for this insight to count as optimistic, but if it really did the trick for Vonnegut, good for him.

That’s about as uplifting as Vonnegut’s oeuvre gets. But I’m at least as big a sourpuss, so that can’t be my complaint about him.

***

Vonnegut dedicated Breakfast of Champions to an old mentor in the ad copywriting business:

She was funny. She was liberating. She taught us to be impolite in conversation not only about sexual matters, but about American history and famous heroes, about the distribution of wealth, about school, about everything.

I now make my living by being impolite. I am clumsy at it. I keep trying to imitate the impoliteness which was so graceful in Phoebe Hurty.

Here are a few of the things Breakfast of Champions is impolite about:

  • 1492: “the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill [Native Americans].”
  • “The Star-Spangled Banner”: “pure balderdash.”
  • Thomas Jefferson: “a slave owner who was also one of the world’s greatest theoreticians on the subject of human liberty.”
  • West Point: “a military academy which turned young men into homicidal maniacs for use in war.”

I doubt if even in the early 1970s there was any penalty attached to being impolite about these subjects. The New York Times review quoted on the back cover of the paperback – “He wheels out all the complaints about America and makes them seem fresh, funny, outrageous, hateful, and lovable, all at the same time” – suggests not. By the time I encountered it a decade and a half later, it never occurred to my baby boomer father that his twelve-year-old son should be protected from a book filled with drawings of assholes and “wide-open beavers”, let alone from rude comments about American heroes and institutions.

As for 2017…well, here’s a screencap from a recent Google News search for “star-spangled banner”:

The Star-Spangled Banner actually is racist so here are some (Ebony.com) ... Americans like me are programmed to respect the national anthem (The Independent)

Here’s what came up for “christopher columbus”:

Woman arrested in vandalism of Christopher Columbus statue (Los Angeles Times) ... Another Christopher Columbus statue gets vandalized in NYC (New York Post)

Which leads me to:

Hypothesis Three: Whatever the Serious People may feel about his writing style, Vonnegut’s philosophy, politics, and humour are so mainstream nowadays that he has lost whatever ability he once had to surprise us.

***

I share, or rather sometimes I share, Kilgore Trout’s belief that bad ideas are a kind of sickness. For every essay I post on this blog there are four or five I discard, often after many long hours of work, because I worry that the arguments I’ve made are untrue, or, even if true, unhelpful.

Here’s a premise for an essay I’d hesitate to upload, for fear it might infect some innocent bystander: that writers should be held responsible when their ideas are misinterpreted by weak-minded readers who go on to commit destructive acts.

Here’s another idea I’d be reluctant to disseminate: that even a fuzzy, apparently harmless platitude like “be kind” can lead to disaster, as people may choose to interpret “be kind” in crazy and unsustainable ways; and that therefore writers should just shut their traps altogether.

I’m uncomfortable with another idea, yet it’s one that Kurt Vonnegut was unafraid to promulgate in many famous and profitable novels: that the heroes, institutions, and symbols our culture holds most sacred should be mercilessly razzed, noogied, and farted upon.

Vonnegut, who despite the reservations expressed in Breakfast of Champions was apparently much more cavalier with his ideas than I am, didn’t worry that this one might backfire terribly. He seemed to think that once those old symbols were thoroughly trampled down and covered with profane graffiti, our culture would somehow end up wiser, saner, and more peaceful. I believed it myself for many years – because I had been exposed to the idea, by Vonnegut, at a very young age, when my immunity was low.

Over the years I noticed that while we were ever more free to ever more viciously ridicule the same old symbols Vonnegut had taken aim at – the national anthem, the Founding Fathers, the Bible – a new set of symbols had arisen which, for some reason, were exempt from ridicule. Try farting on the rainbow flag, or Anne Frank, or the Prophet Muhammad, and see how far it gets you.

I’m torn between two ideas: that we should feel free to fart on every symbol, no matter whom it might offend; and that we should be respectful of symbols, because people’s feelings can be hurt when we fart on them, and agreeing not to deliberately hurt each other’s feelings is one of the ways we make living together bearable.

I definitely don’t like the idea that we should consult the latest list, which can be updated by any maniac at any time, specifying which symbols are currently to be farted on, and which ones are exempt. I think that’s a terrible way to run a culture.

I’m not sure how Kurt Vonnegut or Kilgore Trout would have felt about it. I suspect they would’ve thought it was hilarious, and pretty much what us boobs deserved.

***

Getting back to Hypothesis Three: I shouldn’t claim that Vonnegut has lost his power to surprise “us”. As far as I know, his books are still pretty popular. The fact that he aims mainly at safe targets is hardly likely to limit his potential audience. And there’ll always be his unchallenging prose style and funny pictures to draw new readers in.

So let me move on to:

Hypothesis Four: Whatever I may feel about his writing style, my own viewpoint was so shaped by Vonnegut from an early age, that I have lost the ability to be surprised by him.

But that’s not quite right either. This essay proves that Breakfast of Champions still gives me lots to think about, and might do so again, in ten or twenty years, when I get around to reading it again.

M.

1. I’d probably read some science-fiction already – H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Robert Heinlein – and maybe Gulliver’s Travels and The Princess Bride, before arriving at Breakfast of Champions.

2. The Vonnegut profile is included in Amis’s 1986 collection The Moronic Inferno.

I previously found Catch-22 to be less great than I’d remembered and posted an unflattering picture of myself revisiting Catcher in the Rye.

Advertisements

0 Responses to “<i>Breakfast of Champions:</i> Unsanitary ideas.”



  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s