Breakfast of Champions (1973), Kurt Vonnegut, 303 pp.
I have to start with 2 quotes:
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.
I … scrawled the symbols for the interrelationship between matter and energy as it was understood in my day: E + Mc². ¶It was a flawed equation, as far as I was concerned. There should have been an “A” in there somewhere for Awareness — without which the “E” and the “M” and the “c,” which was a mathematical constant, could not exist.
The first speaker is the painter, Rabo Karabekian, talking about the piece for which someone in the town of Midland City, Ohio, paid $50,000. The second is the narrator, essentially Kurt Vonnegut, trying to be inconspicuous in a bar in Midland City because he knows what’s going to happen next (because he wrote it).
Kilgore Trout (you might know him from many of KV’s other books) shows up, along with Karabekian, a poet, and Dwayne Hoover (used to be Hoobler), who speed-reads one of Trout’s novels and then shoots up the place.
We learn about a few of Trout’s stories and novels — about a conversation between two yeast germs, for instance, or “a novel … which he called How You Doin’? and it was about national averages for this and that.”
We also learn a whole lot of other things, all seemingly random and peripheral. KV explains: writing this book was a 50th birthday present to himself, and for it he emptied his brain. I can happily say it was a brain full of book-worthy stuff, although hard to parse. Every passing character, whether secondary or tertiary, gets attention — we’re made aware of these people — and random events, both good and bad, are witnessed with little emotion. The build up to Dwayne Hoover’s shooting spree is so un-climactic, you’d hardly notice it. Nothing stands out as important if everything gets our attention.
Here’s what KV has to say about this:
As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.
… Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I 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. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.
Chaotic, yes. Occasionally incomprehensible (see above title). But absolutely KV-ish, from start to end. Also, such a great point about the unwavering bands of light. I hope mine is sky blue against a lemon yellow ground.
This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.
I’ve a healthy regard for the power of narrative in shaping the way we script and live our lives. I would be sad to think, however, that this trope was one that dominated American thinking, as Vonnegut seems to imply. If the narrator is indeed expressing the writer’s belief.
It’s difficult to say, with Vonnegut. He was just an all-around crank (very much like H L Menckin) — humor so bitter it sometimes makes your stomach shrivel. But also mostly exactly right. Perhaps not in this case — so many other reasons behind our violent natures.
I somehow can’t imagine you violent, Lizzie.
This is where I should insert a smiley winking emoticon — but I have a pathological hatred of them. Though I will on occasion make an exception for straightforward smileys. 🙂
Re my violent nature: it’s at its worst when I’m cycling home from work after a day of faculty meetings. On those days, watch out, NYC!
Re emoticons: I, too, eschew them. Except on my phone, when I’m texting my daughter. Then I tend to go overboard with 3-5 in a row.