Breakfast Of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
|To be the eyes and ears and |
conscience of the Creator of
the Universe, you fool.
I first read it in University, and it has, to some degree, influenced how I think and feel about a lot of things. Strikingly, I've never wanted to re-read it. Perhaps I was afraid I'd find fault the second time around and wanted to uphold it as a paragon of meta-fiction. Perhaps, but then I'm a relentless consumer of fiction and was always on to the next consumable work, never having time or inclination to go back.
So in the spirit of a more considered and thoughtful phase of my life I decided I wanted to read something that once made me feel good.
I'd clearly not remembered it very well.
But before that, I'm amazed I've gone *mumbles* years without once mentioning Kilgore Trout in my reviews, even in passing. The same goes for The Simpsons, the repeated watching of which provided my frame of reference throughout a number of my formative years. I'm amazed because they have been prevalent throughout my life, and that they are connected.
In an episode of The Simpsons, Homer meant to be stealing Moe Szyslak's car so he can claim the insurance, but is instead at a drive-in movie watching a film called 'Hail To The Chimp.' Observe:
Hail To The Chimp is a nod by the writers to one of the many Kilgore Trout précises* liberally littering the pages of BOC, thusly:
Trout couldn't tell one politician from another one. They were all formlessly enthusiastic chimpanzees to him. He wrote a story one time about an optimistic chimpanzee who became President of the United States. He called it "Hail to the Chief." The chimpanzee wore a little blue blazer with brass buttons, and with the seal of the President of the United States sewed to the breast pocket... Everywhere he went, bands would play "Hail to the Chief." The chimpanzee loved it. He would bounce up and down.I'd entirely forgotten this connection. It came as a surprise like a smack in the mouth. I'd also forgotten how black, bleak and acerbic Vonnegut could be, odd since I'd not long re-read Mother Night for similar reasons** and I ended up, as is often the case, mildly depressed. But at least I wasn't Dwayne Hoover.
Hoover, owner of a car showroom and a serial entrepreneur, is experiencing upset due to the imbalance of bad chemicals in his brain. He is considering suicide, constantly searching for a sense of meaning, and finally snaps after reading a copy of a Trout story called Now It Can Be Told, an epistolary novel wherein the Creator of the Universe informs his own Adam, The Man, that he is the only truly autonomous being on the planet, and that all others are automatons, simply programmed to do just what they do, in a great big experiment exploring free will. Dwayne reads this rather too literally, finding in it answers to questions like why his son Bunny was gay. It was because he was programmed to be gay. And so on.
Parallel to Dwayne's story is that of Trout himself, invited to the very same city by his biggest fan, a man whom Trout travels to confront because of the affront of his having invited Trout there in the first place. In the end, Trout is the one to give his novel to Dwayne, watched sadly by the author, Kurt Vonnegut himself, safely hidden behind mirrored glasses and nursing a cocktail in the bar where the two protagonists collide.
Anyone who has read a draft of my own abortive novel would immediately see how this metafiction trope, the author appearing in his own novel (and his own drawings illustrating the action and descriptions throughout), would tickle me, or maybe how I was desperately failing to pay homage to Vonnegut by shamelessly and unsuccessfully copying him.
Throughout, Vonnegut never fails to remind the reader the book is an artifice. He constantly offers his own, Creator-of-the-Universe-like commentary on America and its virtues and vices. He mentions his life outside the novel. He explains his mother had a surfeit of bad chemicals too and drank Drano until she died. It is a smorgasbord of blackly comic observational humour and satire, deeply upsetting if you're easily bruised, but something that represents the cognitive dissonance of the human experience–that deep down you know something is wrong, but you do it anyway, for whatever reason. On the road, Trout interrogates an ex-miner.
Trout asked him what it had felt like to work for an industry whose business was to destroy the countryside, and the old man said he was usually too tired to care.In short, it is a cautionary tale. With brilliantly wild asides, slapstick and deadpan delivery in spades, it lampoons humanity, expressing Vonnegut's own impotent fury at man's idiocy. But he does offer a smidgen of hope in the form of a clear directive, an instruction on what it is we're here for after all, straight from the author to his creation and into the cosmos, a way to reflect his often expressed notions of what it means to be human***. In response to the question, scrawled on the wall of the toilet in a New York theatre showing smutty movies, "What is the purpose of life?", Trout would have responded "To be the eyes and ears and conscience of the Creator of the Universe, you fool."
It's as good a reason as any.
***As follows, expressed in God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine (1965):
Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies–God damn it, you've got to be kind.