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Book review: <i>Breakfast of Champions</i> by Kurt Vonnegut



If this was a sofa, it would be a sublimely comfortable, utterly kick-ass retro-style seventies design which will only get more expensive as the years progress, despite being upholstered in a scary orange and brown design.

Cover

Nothing special, just some orange and white writing on a day-glo yellow cover. Hey, it’s a 24-year-old paperback, what do you want.

Plot

The inhabitants of Midland city are putting on an Arts festival, and one of the invitees is otherwise-unknown author Kilgore Trout. Trout is a grumpy, unwashed old man who decides that he will accept this invitation in order to show up and present the unshaved, filthy face of unsuccessful creative endeavour. Because he’s that sort of guy.

What Trout and the residents of Midland city don’t realise, is that they are being watched over by an omnipotent being who sees their every thought and controls almost all their actions…Kurt Vonnegut. Kurt has an appointment with Trout, before whom he intends to manifest himself and make known the secrets of Trout’s existence.

The good

So this whole book is written in a paragraph-ish, point-based, nearly stream-of-consciousness form. It is an unusual style which uses small blocks of text with blank space in between. It jumps from thought to thought and provides bite-size bits of information, some of which are directly relevant to the plot and some of which are not. It sounds like somebody explaining Earthling behaviour to a Martian from the future sometimes. It is remarkably enjoyable to read, and flows about a thousand times better than you’d think. Sometimes there are even doodles, drawn by the author, inside the blank spaces, to illustrate, as it were, a point. It sounds a bit postmodern because it is. Like this:

Post-modernism was a term used by teachers on Earth. It didn’t really mean “post modern”. I am using it to mean self-referential, deconstructive, and definitely ahead of its time, and in order to make myself sound more intelligent. Much of the same applies to “deconstructive”, although post-modernism I have a tenuous feel for, whereas deconstructionism I really know nothing about at all, other than it sounds approximately correct in this context. Although Vonnegut uses shorter sentences.

OK, I’ll stop now. Vonnegut is a science fiction writer in the sense that he is more concerned with real ideas than space ships and explosions, and the truth that appears in strange situations, rather than trying to capture some tedious “reality”. What is most brilliantly explored in this book is the idea that all each of us really are is a machine for moving around and eating, connected to a perfect brilliant light of awareness. I wont extrapolate on this idea too much because I don’t want to ruin it by getting it wrong, but Vonnegut uses his own awareness like a small powerful torch in the big black dark, throwing its beam every which way, including back upon himself, in a manner that seems scatterbrained until you realise it’s exactly what he’s intending to do and in fact works on many levels, not least that of being deceptively short, light and fun to read.

This really feels far ahead of its time in structure, style, and in theme. If this isn’t postmodern I don’t know what is, which aint bad for something written in the early seventies. Vonnegut even mixes brand names symbols into the prose as a kind of schizophrenic lens to put over his torch when the occasion demands. How Gen X is that?

The bad

I must admit that I preferred Chris Bachelder’s Bear V Shark – it’s more contemporary, both in terms of setting and character, but also in terms of the places Bachelder takes the themes of this book, updating them to suit our times. That said, obviously, without this book there would be no Bear V Shark, full stop.

The ending is a bit sixties-ish, but only the very end, and it all holds water.

The channel-surfing ground-level p.o.v style has aged very well (ie not a jot) but ironically, this camera angle, as it were, gives us a more intense sense of the time and place in which the book was written. This is OK when it’s deliberate, ie the cod-anthropological stuff, but it is a bit of a pity in terms of degrading the fresh and zippy prose with a bunch of thirty year old hang-ups and lifestyle commentary – the stuff about racism and the environment, although not irrelevant, seem a bit hysterical now.

What I learnt

That Vonnegut saw first-hand the bombing of Dresden as a POW in WWII.

That Kilgore Trout is actually only really the author’s conscience and eyes and ears, not his avatar, as it were.

That the movie of this book wasn’t too bad, given the awkwardness and age of the source material for turning into a film thirty years after the book was published.

In short

Title: Breakfast of Champions
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Publisher: Dial Press Trade Paperback (reprint)
ISBN: 0385334206
Year published: 1999 (reprint in this edition)
Pages: 303

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here.

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