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.