Thursday, October 5, 2006

Breakfast Of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Breakfast Of Champions
Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Breakfast Of Champions is the third book I've read by Vonnegut, and it is much more like Timequake than it's like Cat's Cradle. In that regard it is disappointing, but the disappointment goes beyond just that similarity. Breakfast Of Champions just doesn't hold together all that well, and though it appears to be a commentary on American society at the time it was published (1973) it looks pretty lame (in my opinion) viewed from 2006.

Without including spoilers, I can say that the author is a character in this tome. That's an odd writing device but it leads to certain situations and events that are at least somewhat funny. But it is also a way of presenting a story that completely violates the willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. It's hard enough to follow any fanciful story - and become engrossed in it - in general, but it's really hard when the author himself makes several appearances as a character. Even the author "speaking out of the frame" (to borrow and probably butcher some movie terminology) is distracting, and that happens all over in this book.

Those looking for more about Kilgore Trout - Vonnegut's alter ego of a sort - will find plenty about him here. Trout is an amusing character, but still a cardboard cutout, like just about everyone else.

Of the actual plot, it's basically nothing. In fact, I delayed writing this review for about ten days while I did several other things and tried to figure out what I wanted to say. During that time, the few actual events of the plot all blurred together to the point where I cannot really tell you what the story is about anymore. Oh, I could name the major characters and hit a couple of highlights, but that wouldn't be important.

As a way of trying to explain that, let's envision a story about a couple of guys that go out for dinner, get into an argument about nothing in particular, then go home. That's it. No significant content (plot-wise) is present. It's mundane stuff that could (and probably should) be ignored. That's the kind of thing (but not specifically the actual plot of) Breakfast Of Champions is about. It just doesn't matter.

I guess what was supposed to matter was the social commentary, and this novel is loaded with social commentary. Just about every other paragraph is a comment about something. The problem is that all of those paragraphs are comments about different things. There is nothing that binds the paragraphs (or chapters) together, except the regular use of the n-word (for reasons that I still don't understand) and the occasional return to the nearly non-existent plot.

If Vonnegut had put together a social commentary on one or two (or even a handful of) themes, discussing them in depth and playing out what the implications of things are, it would be interesting. Here, however, he basically says: "X is bad. Blather. Y doesn't work. Yadda yadda yadda. Z is amusing but pointless. Ho hum." And so on. We learn nothing in depth about what he thinks or what points he is trying to make.

I found all of this very surprising. Breakfast Of Champions has been on my list of books to read for years. It's relatively well known and was a best seller at some point in its past. Now that I have read it, though, all I can do is wonder why it got the level of attention it did.

Given the choices I've had from Vonnegut I'd suggest skipping Breakfast Of Champions and reading Cat's Cradle instead.