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.

Class commentary

The Pursuit of Love
by Nancy Mitford

The cover of this book is disturbingly pink and in her introduction Zoë Heller describes it as an “unassuming bit of mid-century ‘chick-lit’” but then she also calls it “spiky and intelligent” and that, I think, comes closer to my experience. Do not be fooled by the bright pink – here be politics, acute observation of human life and some tragic events.

The infamous Mitford sisters had never really been on my radar until last year when a friend mentioned reading a volume of their letters to each other and I became instantly fascinated. That letters compilation is still on my wishlist but in the meantime this loosely disguised autobiography has provided my first insight into the Mitfords’ colourful world.

Colourful is certainly the word. A quick search on Wikipedia reveals that if anything this novel tones down the reality somewhat, but the fictional Radlett family are engrossingly colourful. Narrated by cousin and confidante Fanny, the novel follows the lives of the many Radlett children, particularly the irrepressible Linda. From teenage crushes to marriage, divorce, infidelity and loss, the pursuit of love is ever central to Linda, but gradually less so to the novel. Like everyone living through such times, the Radletts’ world becomes increasingly preoccupied by politics and the outbreak of the Second World War.

The Radletts are thoroughly upper class, with an estate in Gloucestershire, a seat in the House of Lords and a love of hunting. As such it is good that Mitford does not make much effort to endear them to us, but instead lovingly picks apart their language, ideals and ideas. Linda has some fantastically flippant lines comparing the parties of Conservatives to those of Communists and insists on classing everyone as Hons or counter-Hons. In many ways I really wanted to dislike her but she was just so funny…

This small book packs a lot of historical and social observation between the comic lines and yet is still an easy, fun read. I look forward to delving further into the Mitford world.

First published in 1945

The one that made me cry

One Day
by David Nicholls

This is very much a book that’s of its genre. I could reel off half a dozen successful authors of similar style. It’s engaging, gently but intelligently funny, easy to read, unchallenging. I almost feel guilty for having enjoyed it so much.

Which is silly because this is a book I bought having read a review that described a book I knew immediately that I would enjoy. It’s a love story told over 20 years, from 1988 to 2008; a wry observation of modern life and romance. I suppose I shrink from admitting it because it sounds mawkish, cheesy, but this book made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me think a lot about where I am in life and whether I’m happy.

The story is that of Emma and Dexter who shared one perfect night together after their graduation day, St Swithins Day, 15 July 1988. Each successive St Swithins Day in their lives is described up to 2008, with only passing reference to what has happened inbetween. It’s an effective format for covering a large timespan and avoids the obvious tendency to describe major events and skip the subtler ones. They’re believably fallible characters, likeable for the most part, and while the storyline is largely predictable it’s done well.

I picked this up to give myself a break between more challenging books and it was just right. It’s not at all frivolous or throwaway but it is a light, honest novel that touched me.

Published 2009 by Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN: 978-0-3408-9698-3

UPDATE: See also this review by Jackie of Farm Lane Books.