A Series of Accidents #9: Breakfast of Champions

A Series of Accidents is a chronological read-through of the books of Kurt Vonnegut. You can check out earlier articles in the series here.

Breakfast of Champions - Wikipedia

Breakfast of Champions is the first novel Vonnegut wrote after the unexpected commercial and critical success of Slaughterhouse-Five. It took five years to write, with Vonnegut constantly rewriting it to try to find a version he was happy with, and the finished version still feels anguished and messy. Vonnegut took advantage of every inch of latitude his success gave him to create a self-reflexive, rambling, ambitious and personal book. It’s one of the most depressed novels I’ve ever read, and there’s a lot of competition.

The plot, loosely defined, concerns a small-time arts festival in Midland City, one of Vonnegut’s stand-ins for his Indianapolis birthplace. At the festival Dwayne Hoover, a car dealer on the brink of schizophrenia, encounters Kilgore Trout, the gutter science-fiction writer who has served in previous novels as a kind of muse for Vonnegut. Trout is there to do what Vonnegut attempted to do during his time at Iowa: to be “a representative of all the thousands of artists who devoted their entire lives to a search for truth and beauty – and didn’t find doodley-squat!” Hoover reads one of Trout’s books and interprets it literally, as a message that he is the only human on Earth and that everyone else is a robot designed for his purpose. This causes him to go on a rampage of non-lethal violence.

In practice, however, the story is of the shaggy-dog variety. There are frequent digressions into American history, Vonnegut’s own past, the lives of minor characters, and genital sizes. The story is punctuated by several of Vonnegut’s illustrations, childishly-drawn images of various items and concepts, including a star-shaped asshole.

Meta-Fiction in Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions | The Artifice

Throughout these digressions Vonnegut establishes a bleak, pessimistic perspective, skewering everything from consumer culture to American foreign policy to race relations to the sadness of contemporary sexuality. For me, years of being on left-wing Twitter and web forms have perhaps numbed me to the blunt critiques Vonnegut uses with plain understatement – today, it probably shocks few to hear someone describe the American national anthem as “gibbersish sprinkled with question marks”, although it may anger the right people. But perhaps, in 1973, such material seemed genuinely subversive and disruptive – certainly to members of the anti-war, anti-capitalist counterculture who had embraced Slaughterhouse-Five.

While all of Vonnegut’s novels have been postmodern to one degree or another, this is his deepest dive yet into metafiction. The artifice of the story, and what it has to say about fiction in general. Vonnegut is also a character in the book, attending the conference and frequently commenting on the characters he has created and what he has made them do. He comes off as an author profoundly suspicious of authorship, of the damage that fiction can do. Vonnegut’s cynicism at his newfound canonization is best expressed in the name of the hardcore pornography company that publishes Trout’s fiction: World Classic Library.

Such concerns were undoubtedly on Vonnegut’s mind. After the success of Slaughterhouse-Five, and the public rediscovery of his earlier work, many saw the author as a sage, a modern Mark Twain or perhaps a hippie out of time. Pilgrims made their way to his house on Cape Cod to ask a baffled Vonnegut for his wisdom. Meanwhile, he looked at himself and saw a man who couldn’t finish his next book or even keep his family together.

If Slaughterhouse-Five was Vonnegut’s way of working through the trauma of his experience in war, Breakfast of Champions has three traumas at its core. The first was his son Mark’s struggle with mental health, which involved hospitalization after a schizophrenic breakdown. Mark had struggled to find a place in the world through his early adulthood, spending time at a back-to-the-land commune but ultimately not finding this a solution to his issues. Mark wrote his own book about both his struggle with schizophrenia and growing up in the unusual Vonnegut household, called The Eden Express, which many people have said was better than his father’s attempt to understand the same events (I haven’t read it.)

Breakfast of Champions is then, an attempt to understand a schizophrenic mindset and perhaps treat it in some way. The most obvious representation of this is through the insanity of Dwayne Hoover, a man who comes to believe that he is the only autonomous person in the universe. This is not that different from the delusions some real people with mental illness suffer, coming to believe that the people around them have been replaced with soulless doubles.

But, in a broader sense, the novel presents a society possessed by the same delusions. Whether it be characters like Harry LeSabre or modern artist Karabekian who see the people around them as uncultured rubes, or the broader American society which views people of different races, nations or classes as unimportant and sacrificable for material gain of the people that matter.

Of course, drawing comparisons between mental illness and societal callousness is treacherous territory, and Vonnegut seems aware of this. Throughout the narrative, he interrupts to describe himself as a man with depression in the most banal, biological terms, as a man whose brain produces an insufficient quality of serotonin requiring him to take pills. Vonnegut writes that he “had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about myself or any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide.” At the physical level, Vonnegut tells us continuously, Dwayne Hoover’s breakdown is entirely a case of misfiring brain chemicals – and yet this explanation seems as flat as the one that sees it as entirely representative of social conditions. As someone who has dealt with depression for decades, in a way this mirrors my own attempts to understand the brain, of being unsatisfied by explanations of biology, individual character and social factors in equal measure.

The second trauma is Vonnegut’s mother’s likely suicide during the Great Depression. This is represented in the book by the death of Dwayne Hoover’s wife from drinking Dran-O – literally killing herself with a consumer product. Vonnegut outright draws the comparison in the text between his creation and his mother, unwilling to hide behind the ruse of fictionalization. He consciously and explicitly is writing against the history of English literature as a Bloomian agonistic relationship between fathers and sons, explaining that “It seems to me that really truthful American novels would have the heroes and heroines alike looking for mothers instead.” No doubt this death, decades ago, weighed on his mind as he considered his own disintegrating life and his son’s breath with insanity. Suicide loomed as a possible fate, a generational curse which he had already passed on and one which Vonnegut admits to fearing.

In the far-future of the novel, only occasionally referenced, Kilgore Trout has become a univerally acknowledged author. He receives a Nobel Prize not in Literature but in Medicine, with his works credited with healing the world. Perhaps Vonnegut was aiming to write fiction that could heal, could help to resolve in some way the mental anguish that affected him and his family. (Mark Vonnegut, incidentally, ended up becoming a pediatrician.)

This fantasy could only happen because of the third trauma, Vonnegut’s unexpected rise to fame. Following the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut had become a middle-aged idol to the counterculture youth. He suddenly had the money and reputation that had always seemed impossible to him, and the freedom to write whatever he want. Vonnegut enjoyed being part of the literati, finding himself inexorably drawn to the New York scene, but he seems to have also found the transformation bracing and a little frightening.

Hoover’s rampage is a nightmare scenario for an author: having one’s work misinterpreted to encourage violence and selfishness. (Just ask the Wachowskis or Matt Furie how that feels.) If he could influence people, Vonnegut worried that he could influence people the wrong way. At the same time, he sought to avoid becoming Karabekian, an out-of-touch elite that looked down upon the uncreative simpletons of what would later become “flyover country.” Vonnegut’s project with Breakfast of Champions, and so many of his other work, was in part to try to retain a sense of compassion even with a postmodern perspective, to hear the waitress telling the same joke every day – the titular “breakfast of champions” – and laugh anyway.

With all of these traumas and ambitions going into Breakfast of Champions’ difficult conception, it’s not a surprise that the resulting novel is a bit of a mess. The pain and anger roils together, erupting in Hoover’s spree of violence, but there’s no real resolution, no clear way to healing. Instead, there is only a bleak vision of eternal misunderstanding.

Breakfast of Champions was, rather improbably, adapted into a film in 1999. The film starred Bruce Willis as Hoover, Nick Nolte as Harry LeSabre, and Albert Finney as Kilgore Trout. It was filmed the same year as Willis starred in Armageddon, and Willis brought many members of that cast and crew to Breakfast of Champions. One of these movies was a little more successful than the other.

Audiences and critics alike rejected Alan Rudolph’s adaptation of Breakfast of Champions. Rudolph, a disciple of Robert Altman who directed over a dozen movies that I had never heard of, perhaps saw himself as an ignored genius in the vein of Trout or the early Vonnegut. Rather than streamlining the unwieldy postmodern novel to reach a mainstream audience, Rudolph actually adds weirdness, sometimes unsubtly, as in the ghostly vision of Dwayne Hoover’s wife and an even harder to grasp timeline. The camera constantly hovers uncomfortably close to the characters, making it seem as if they are yelling at us for the better part of two hours.

All of the actors seem to have applied this gonzo, over-the-top spirit to their performances. As played by Willis, Hoover is not so much a man who goes crazy as a man who was pretty much crazy to begin with, and Nolte (in the expanded role of LeSabre) is similarly intense. Finney is also chewing his fair share of scenery, but is at least charming. There are some fun smaller performances, like Vicki Lewis as Harry’s sex-drenched wife Grace, or Ken Campbell as an egg-headed Eliot Rosewater but on the whole the energy seems more manic than Vonnegut’s depressive novel.

There are some interesting aspects of Randolph’s film, like the use of devices like channel-flicking and advertisements to transfer Vonnegut’s stream-of-consciousness narration and critique of consumerism to film. On the whole, however, it’s a fascinating, wildly over-ambitious failure. There are enough unexplained references to phrases or quotations from the book that I can’t imagine this making sense to someone who hadn’t read it, and the tone is different enough that Vonnegut devotees probably won’t like it either.

Perhaps most notably, the movie features an entirely different conclusion. Kilgore Trout manages to break through to Hoover, telling him “Until you’re dead, it’s all life”, a rather banal-sounding aphorism which he repeats as he symbolically reunites with the memory of his wife. Trout enters into a mirror – referred to as “leaks” in Breakfast of Champions, as in leaks to another world, where a young girl fulfills his wish to “make me young.” It’s an odd conclusion, but given that the novel allows these plot threads to mostly trickle out instead of climaxing, perhaps they had to come up with something. After all, as Vonnegut himself warns, “this isn’t the type of book where people get what is coming to them at the end.”

The ending of the book Breakfast of Champions sees Vonnegut, who has been observing this whole time from inside the story, finally confront his most prolific creation, Kilgore Trout. Vonnegut is explicitly framed as an Abrahamic God, echoing the Bible by telling Trout “I bring you tidings of great joy.” It is not a pleasant encounter, with Vonnegut taunting Trout and Trout begging, as in the film, to be made young again. Unlike Rudolph, Vonnegut is not kind enough to grant his wish.

The scenario, a character growing angry at their author, is fairly standard metafictional stuff, but as Vonnegut writes it there’s a dead-of-night sorrow to the scene, the final confirmation of a mechanistic universe ruled by an unloving god. It also feels like Vonnegut’s farewell to the Trout persona, at least as something that could represent him. He was no longer, like Trout, an obscure author whose science-fictional works were considered as detritus but contained hidden insight. He was a successful, even somewhat famous, American author.

True to form, Breakfast of Champions spent a year on the bestseller list, despite somewhat baffled reviews. By scaring the hell out of Trout, Vonnegut was bidding a sorrowful farewell to the romance of the starving artist. He notes to Trout that he is almost fifty, and that he is “cleansing and renewing myself for the very different sort of years to come.”

After reading Breakfast of Champions, I found it great on a line-by-line basis but somewhat tedious and overbearing as a novel. After writing this article, I find myself liking it a little more. It’s a messy, overambitious book, one that tries to solve all of the author and the world’s problems in one fell swoop, and indulges Vonnegut’s sense of humour and capacity for one-liners to the breaking point. But it’s also a heartbreaking, earnest story about trying to find a way to live in a world which vacillates between the insane and the banal – the “sameness without end” represented by the etcetera.

Oh, and here’s Kurt Vonnegut’s drawing of a vagina. (NSFW, if for some reason you’re in an office or something.)

Next time out, we look at some of Vonnegut’s nonfiction writing with Wampeters,Foma and Granfalloons.