I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains

Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast of Champions
or Goodbye Blue Monday!
by Kurt Vonnegut Jr

When I read Slaughterhouse 5 a couple of years back, I completely loved it and was eager to read more Vonnegut. This was even more crazy and indefinable but, for me at least, not as good.

Where to begin describing this book? Perhaps I should quote from the preface:

“This book is my 50th birthday present to myself…I am programmed at 50 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…I’m throwing out characters from my other books, too. I’m not going to put on any more puppet shows…I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains. I can’t live without a culture anymore.”

Okay, maybe that doesn’t help, except to show that the narrator is a strong character in this book, and a pretty invasive one at that. So, essentially the story is about science-fiction author Kilgore Trout (reappearing from Slaughterhouse 5) and how one of his books sends a man called Dwayne Hoover mad, as in lunatic asylum, full-blown crazy. We’re told that this is the story in the preface but it doesn’t happen until near the end, so most of the book is back story to this incident, with plenty of foreshadowing and random asides and, yes, pictures that look like they were drawn with a felt-tipped pen.

“Trout was petrified there on 42nd Street. I had given him a life not worth living, but I had also given him an iron will to live. This was a common combination on the planet Earth.”

First thing to say is that this book is completely insane. Also, it really pushed my comfort zone. I’m generally pretty happy with meta weirdness (and this book is beyond meta, it breaks the fourth wall so thoroughly) but there seemed to be a deliberate edge to the book’s oddity, not to mention that it’s crude. I can see that Vonnegut is making a point by using the “ni**er” word repeatedly and then describing every character by the colour of their skin (just black or white, and one yellow) but it still made me uncomfortable to read “ni**er” over and over again in a relatively recent novel.

Drawings by the author
Click to enlarge.

“This book is made up, of course, but the story I had Bonnie tell actually happened in real life…As for Dwayne Hoover’s dog Sparky, who couldn’t wag his tail: Sparky is modelled after a dog my brother owns, who has to fight all the time, because he can’t wag his tail. There really is such a dog.”

(You could write a whole essay just on that extract, couldn’t you?!)

And yet I enjoyed the read. I enjoyed the brief synopses of Trout’s ridiculous novels; the way chapter breaks are completely random and often fall in the middle of one of said synopses; the way the whole story is told as if to an alien completely unfamiliar with our planet, let alone American culture. I also like that there are lots of overt and hidden references that I am sure I missed more than half of to Western culture. It’s not my favourite Vonnegut so far but I am still interested to read more.

First published 1973 by Delacorte Press (US) and Jonathan Cape (UK).

Source: I bought this secondhand from a stall at BristolCon 2011.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge.

8 thoughts on “I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains

  1. Marie June 5, 2013 at 6:41 pm

    Have you read Galapagos by Vonnegut? It’s really great, much less meta and easier to read than Breakfast Of Champions. I loved it.

  2. Nose in a book June 5, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    Marie No I haven’t but I definitely will.

  3. @dangusset June 5, 2013 at 8:47 pm

    Have you read Cat’s Cradle yet? That is right up there with Slaughterhouse Five. And Siren’s of Titan is close too.

    I agree about this not being the best, but it does still make you want to read more.

  4. Rob Brewer June 5, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    I thought Breakfast of Champions was very self-indulgent; kind of freewheeling and fun, but (as I recall) I was getting rather tired of it by the end.

    I enjoyed Galapagos too, but my Vonnegut recommendations would be Cat’s Cradle and Mother Night. Cat’s Cradle is set on a Caribbean island, dealing with its dictatorial politics, the idiosyncratic religion of Bokononism and the discovery of ice-nine, a crystal that threatens to destroy all life on earth by making water solid at room temperature; the tenets of Bokononism provide some of KV’s best bons mots. Mother Night takes the form of the memoirs of American-born Nazi propagandist and war criminal Howard W Campbell Jr (who has a cameo in Slaughterhouse-five), awaiting execution despite having secretly been a double agent for the U.S. all along.

    Kilgore Trout, the penurious SF author, makes regular appearances throughout the Vonnegut oeuvre, as a sort of self-parody.

  5. Nose in a book June 5, 2013 at 9:42 pm

    dan No, I haven’t read Cat’s Cradle yet, but I’m glad you agree Breakfast of Champions isn’t his best.

    Rob Those two books sound fascinating. This not entirely great book has really added a lot of titles to my TBR!

  6. Gary Jones June 7, 2013 at 7:31 pm

    I keep meaning to re-read some KV. After Slaughterhouse 5, the ones on my re-read list would be Mother Night, Jailbird and The Sirens of Titan.

  7. Nose in a book June 8, 2013 at 8:36 am

    Gary Ooh, I think Tim might already have a copy of Sirens of Titan.

  8. Dave June 10, 2013 at 8:07 pm

    God Bless You, Dr Kevorkian is a hilarious book full of short stories of the above giving Vonnegut a limited time to interview famous dead people.

    Brilliant.

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