Jul 15, 2010

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

How do I begin to describe Breakfast of Champions? It has, by far, one of the strangest plots I’ve ever come across – but then that’s Vonnegut for you. The protagonists are Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer who’s featured on several of Vonnegut’s novels, and Dwayne Hoover, a car dealer from the fictional Midland City who’s on the verge of losing his mind. It’s Hoover’s encounter with one of Trout’s novels that precipitates his final mental collapse: the novel he reads is about a man who discovers he’s the only real human being in a world populated by machines whose every action is done for his convenience. Unfortunately, Hoover comes to believe that this is true of himself, and this loss of his ability to acknowledge the humanity of those who surround him has disastrous consequences.

Breakfast of Champions traces Kilgore Trout and Dwayne Hoover’s paths until their doomed encounter. The results of Hoover’s breakdown are an illustration of the importance of remembering that every other person on the planet is every bit as real as you are; of the importance of empathy, that is to say, and of being kind. Along the way, Vonnegut also comments on the constructs of mental health and mental illness, on history and the environment, on art, and on all the creative ways human beings have of belittling, excluding, and murdering one another, not to mention of disregarding all other living creatures. All this is intermingled with humour, with the author’s very own illustrations, and with his inventive attempts to break the fourth wall.

I enjoyed Breakfast of Champions, but it’s probably my least favourite of all the Kurt Vonnegut novels I’ve read to date. There’s nothing wrong with it, really, and there isn’t even anything about it that’s all that different from Vonnegut’s other novels. But I guess I was in the mood for a gentler sort of read, and there’s a certain harshness to the novel’s tone that made me understand, for the first time, why other readers might feel alienated by Vonnegut’s writing. In the end, Breakfast of Champions won me over, but it did it mostly on credit – it won me over due to the influence of all the other Vonnegut books I’ve read and loved in the past.

Breakfast of Champions

But let me tell you what I did like: I liked that for all its harshness, there’s a lot of kindness behind the book, and there’s a sensibility at work here that I can really identify with. The narrator of Breakfast of Champions sounds like someone explaining all our human folly to an alien life form that came by a hundred years from now and found only the charred remains of our civilization and of everything we destroyed to support it. The explanations are made as simple as possible, in a way that makes all the ways in which humans have gone wrong acutely clear and embarrassing.

What keeps this from ever sounding superior or smug, though, is the fact that there’s so much tenderness behind it all. Breakfast of Champions has the same “I despair of you, my fellow humans, but I still love you” tone that I so love about Vonnegut’s other novels. He comes across as someone who could easily have become a misanthrope, and yet didn’t; as someone who saw his fellow humans at their very worst, and yet continued to love them and believe in them. And there’s something about this that really moves me.

I also loved all the things Breakfast of Champions had to say about individuality, art, and compassion. As I was saying earlier, Vonnegut keeps breaking the fourth wall, and he does so by inserting himself into the story as an observer who’s almost powerless to prevent the horrible situation he wrote his characters into; as someone who acutely feels the pain they’re about to experience. For example:
I had come to the Arts Festival incognito. I was there to watch a confrontation between two human beings I had created. Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout. I was not eager to be recognized. The waitress lit the hurricane lamp on my table. I pinched out the flame with my fingers. I had bought a pair of sunglasses at a Holiday Inn outside of Ashtabula, Ohio, where I spent the night before. I wore them in the darkness now.
This might sound gimmicky when taken out of context, or like he’s being meta merely for the sake of being meta, but the fact is that it absolutely works. All these interludes make the author’s sympathy for his characters almost palpable; and, more importantly, they make the humanising effect of art really stand out. Art teaches us empathy; it makes us see the “unwavering band of light” behind each human being. And that’s what I appreciate the most about it.

Breakfast of Champions

Final reason why I liked Breakfast of Champions: it reminded me of Douglas Coupland, which is actually true of several of Vonnegut’s novels. I suppose it’s the other way around, really, only I’ve been reading Coupland since I was a teenager, while Vonnegut was a more recent discovery. I can’t quite put my finger on what their novels have in common, but I know I love them for some of the same reasons.

I wish I’d read Breakfast of Champions when I was in a different sort of mood, as I’m sure I’d have appreciated the humour, the tragedy, and the narrative complexity even more then. But I can always revisit it some day in the future, right? Don’t be put off by my sounding appreciative but not truly enthusiastic: I think this is really a case of It’s Not You, It’s Me. I still love you, Mr Vonnegut. May our next meeting be more felicitous.

Interesting bits:
And here, according to Trout, was the reason why human beings could not reject ideas because they were bad: “Ideas on Earth were badges of friendship or enmity. Their content did not matter. Friends agreed with friends, in order to express friendliness. Enemies disagreed with enemies, in order to express enmity.
“The ideas Earthlings held didn’t matter for hundreds of thousands of years, since they couldn’t do much about them anyway. Ideas might as well be badges as anything.
“They even had a saying about the futility of ideas: ‘If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.’
“And then Earthlings discovered tools. Suddenly agreeing with friends could be a form of suicide or worse. But agreements went on, not for the sake of common-sense or decency or self-preservation, but for friendliness.
“Earthlings went on being friendly, when they should have been thinking instead. And even when they built computers to do their thinking for them, they designed them not so much for wisdom as for friendliness. So they were doomed. Homicidal beggars could ride.”

Bunny was sent away to military school, an institution devoted to homicide and absolute humourless obedience, when he was ten years old. Here’s why: He told Dwayne that he wished he were a woman instead of a man, because what men did was so often cruel and ugly.

His situation, insofar as he was a machine, was complex, tragic and laughable. But the sacred part of him, his awareness, remained an unwavering band of light.
And this book is being written by a meat machine in cooperation with a machine made of metal and plastic. The plastic, incidentally, is a close relative of the Gunk in Sugar Creek. And at the core of the writing meat machine is something scared, which is an unwavering band of light.
At the core of each person who reads this book is a band of unwavering light.
My doorbell has just rung in my New York apartment. And I know what I will find when I open my front door: an unwavering band of light.
Reviewed at:
Another Cookie Crumbles



  1. I was put off reading Vonnegut after reading Slauterhouse 5 (I know Im in the minority here) I keep meaning to try him again as his books are only short anyway, maybe not this one then?

  2. Fear ye not, Jessica- I hated Slaughterhouse-Five.

    I do find Vonnegut very harsh, but I plan on giving him another chance at some point. Which Vonnegut would you recommend for someone who doesn't dig Vonnegut, Nymeth?

    1. Try cats cradle the plots less complicated than slaughterhouse five but it still offers deep insight to modern day life in a way only Vonnegut can offer

  3. Sounds like an odd book. I've actually never read anything by the author.

  4. I read this and it isn't vonnegut at his best even worse is the film made from this book ,I think it is more a book of style over read ability of the book ,he is funny in places but has a very muddle plot from what I remember .all the bests stu

  5. I had never thought of Vonnegut as someone on the verge of misanthropy until you mentioned it, but I do think you're absolutely right. I've only read two of his novels to date, but they both have this apocalyptic element where humanity is kind of screwed. But for all that, there is humor and tenderness, which I think is critical. Otherwise it would just be too bleak and not at all clever. And well know that Vonnegut was very very clever!

  6. I think you hit on it exactly when you said you have to be in just the right mood to read Vonnegut.

  7. I have never read Vonnegut, but have heard that he is a great author, but sometimes a bit alienating. I think this book sounds really interesting for a lot of reasons, the main one being that he goes a little meta in the story. I have read very few books that do this, and am really intrigued whenever I hear that a book does this. I am sorry that you didn't love this one as much as some of his others, but I do feel that you were very fair in your review.

  8. We're thinking about reading Vonnegut in our book club next year and were debating which book to read. Someone mentioned this one, but if you think it might alienate readers from reading further Vonnegut, perhaps we should read something else...

  9. Have you read his collection of non fiction and shorts, Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons? It is my all time favorite and the only Vonnegut book that I've kept on my shelf.

    I've read quite a bit of Vonnegut "back in the day". Unfortunately what I have found is that Vonnegut's stories run together for me. None (with the exception of WFaG) have stayed with me. (Although I do remember the character of Kilgore Trout; how could one forget him, right?)

  10. Those paragraphs after the first illustration should go in a Vonnegut museum. I love the way you encapsulate the feeling of a writer, and often find myself wondering how long it takes you to write your reviews. Refining an idea like that would take me hours--and I still wouldn't quite manage it--but I know you must do it fairly quickly.

    Der Mann read this a couple of years ago. I got a kick out of asking him, "What's happening now?" He would bring me up to speed with these long, crazy, convoluted explanations with more and more characters in them.

  11. I thought I had read this but the plot doesn't sound at all familiar to me. I really should revisit Vonnegut; I think it was Cat's Cradle that was my favorite (25+ yrs ago!)

  12. I love Vonnegut but find that as I get older I'm more and more struck by that harsh element you mention, even if I'm just re-reading a book that had previously seemed straight-up funny and not at all harsh. Obviously, it's more down to my shifting perspective than Vonnegut's. I think that when I was younger, I felt less the weight of what he was saying - it seemed like he was just being a smartass, cynical for the sake of cool. Now I'm living more in the world and seeing the kind of cruelty & irresponsibility he's talking about on a micro and global scale, and he seems a lot more serious, not cynical at all but a humanist who sees little humanity in the humans around him. Which makes his analysis less funny, but still touching & valid. And somewhat funny, still. :-)

  13. Vonnegut is one of those authors who I have always loved the sound of but never tried. I may start with Slaughterhouse 5, however.

  14. I've read a good bit of Vonnegut and I agree you need to be in the right mood. His work would be horrible if it didn't have his distinct brand of humor infused into the stories. I have found that my favorite books by him are his nonfiction ones. I particularly loved A Man Without A Country. Great review!

  15. Maybe I wasn't in the right mood, for when I read this, I absolutely hated it. I actually wince at the review of it I have on my blog, but I just didn't get on with the book at all. :(

    It's put me off reading anymore Vonnegut for a bit, which is a shame as I really wanted to read Slaughterhouse Five.

  16. I just don't think Vonnegut and I are friends. I will probably read this one eventually, but only because I feel like I should!

  17. Mood is so important when reading a book. Sounds like a Persephone would´ve been the better choice. I´m reading Miss Buncle´s Book at the moment and it makes me wish it was always tea time :)

    I´ve only read Slaughterhouse 5 and Cat´s Cradle by Vonnegut. I loved cat´s Cradle and always wanted to read more by him, but perhaps I´ll try A Man Without a Country next, since Vishy was so enthusiastic about it.

  18. For all of it's harshness though, it sounds like something that I'd really like! Megan's been trying to get me to read this one for years. One of these days I actually will...

  19. I read this book WAY back in high school and don't seem to remember any of it. I want to reread Slaughterhouse Five, but in another way... I don't want to reread it. Vonnegut is an author I never really meshed with, but I feel like if I were to read him now, perhaps I would understand him better.

  20. After 29 years of not reading Vonnegut, I've read two this year, and I certainly plan on reading more. Perhaps I'll save this one for later in my Vonnegut reading.

  21. I tried to read Breakfast of Champions a few times but never got through it. I loved Slaughter House Five!

  22. This is one of the only things from Vonnegut that I haven't read, so I'm a little sad to hear that it's not him at his best.

    For someone who's looking for Vonnegut with a slightly lighter touch, I'd suggest his short story collection, Welcome to the Monkey House. Lots of variety (though, naturally, still overly pretty depressing!), and stunningly imaginative.

  23. Jessica and Clare: I hate to be a pessimist, especially when it comes to one of my favourite authors, but I suspect that if you hated Slaughterhouse-Five you might not get along with Vonnegut at all. Still, I'd suggest Cat's Cradle, as that was my own introduction to him.

    Amy: Do read him at some point! He's a bit of a love him or hate him sort of author, but so worth trying.

    Stu, I can't imagine a movie version of this ever being anything other than a train wreck!

    Steph: Apocalyptic but still tender and humorous is the perfect way to put it. And I think it's exactly that quality that reminds me of Coupland!

    Jill: I think you do, yes. Sadly that wasn't the case with me this time!

    Zibilee: I think he either alienates people or he doesn't. If you get on with his style in general, then you'll be fine. And yes, I love the meta element :D

    Amanda: I don't think it's this book in particular than can be seen as alienating - it's his tone in general, which is the same in all his books. So if people are going to hate him (and it seems that many do), they will regardless of which book you pick.

    Christina: I haven't, but I must! I hope to slowly but surely make my way through his whole catalogue.

    Trapunto: Thank you for the kind words! Hm, it's hard to say how long it takes me to write my posts, because my method is completely weird :P I scribble down ideas before I even finish the book, then develop those into paragraphs, then join the paragraphs into a (hopefully) coherent whole, then edit the final product. But this is done for 30 minutes here and 30 minutes here, so it's hard to tell how much time it took me in the end :P

    Care: Cat's Cradle was my first Vonnegut, so it'll always be special for me :)

    Emily: It's the exact same for me - I do notice the harshness a lot more as I get older, and I bet I'd have a similar experience if I were to revisit the books of his I read 4 or 5 years ago. I guess back then things didn't seem nearly as momentous as they do now (though if you were to tell my 21-year-old self that, she'd have denied it :P). I'd probably have called him cynical too then, but he really isn't. He keeps on hoping that humans will act human, and I find that very touching considering everything he saw and went through.

    Tea Lady: I think that would be a good starting place, yes. And it'll give you an idea of whether or not his style is for you.

    Avid Reader: Thank you! I really loved A Man Without a Country, but it's the only nonfiction one I've read so far. I need to read the rest!

    anothercookiecrumbles: Don't feel bad! I hope you don't mind that I added your link. I think it's a fair review despite being negative, and as Vonnegut is a love him or hate him sort of author, it's important to show the other kind of reaction people can have to his books :)

    reviewsbylola: Sorry to hear that! He's certainly not for everyone.

    writerspet: I don't think the book is not him at his best, necessarily. It was mostly my weird reading mood :P

  24. I absolutely love Mother Night by Vonnegut and haven't seen anyone mention it. If you're wary of Vonnegut, you might try that one.

    Cat's Cradle and Breakfast of Champions were only eh for me. Breakfast of Champions, the first time I read it, totally turned me off. I was really young, though. The second time I read it, it still wasn't a favorite, but I was able to see past the outrageousness to the main concepts. Great review, Nymeth.

  25. I haven't read any Vonnegut in years but have to agree with you - his plots are certainly bizarre.

  26. I've never read one single book by Vonnegut and that seems like something I need to rectify ... though maybe not with this book.

  27. I've never read anything by this author before. I don't think I'd start with this one though.

  28. pickygirl: I loved Cat's Cradle, but now I'm starting to wonder if there wasn't more to Breakfast of Vonnegut than just my mood. It seems that even though some appreciate it, nobody would exactly call it a favourite.

    Kathy: They definitely are.

    Jenners and Jen: Yeah, probably best not to start here. As pickygirl said above, Mother Night might make a good intro. That or Slaughterhouse-Five.

  29. Gosh, I haven't read or thought about Vonnegut is years. I remember really liking everything of his I read -- definitely different. I wonder what I'd think of him now -- not just because I'm older but because the times have changed.

  30. NOw that you mention it, I totally connect Vonnegut with Coupland too!

  31. Vonnegut is another writer I haven't tried before. I guess I should start with Slaughterhouse 5, right?

  32. Beth: They have, but he's still amazingly (and depressingly if you think about it) relevant!

    claire: Hooray - I'm glad I'm not the only one :P

    Sakura: I can see you really enjoying him. And yes, Slaughterhouse-Five would be a great intro.

  33. This was the first Vonnegut novel I read, and I actually just finished it. I was delighted with how original the style of writing was. There definitely is a kindness to it. I thought the ending was kind of sad. Why were Trout's last words: "Make me Young! Make me Young! Make me Young!"?


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