Going from Cats Cradle onto Breakfast of Champions this is a book that quickly reminds you of Slaughterhouse 5 in a much more direct than Cradle. The science fiction writer Kilgore Trout is back in the spotlight but Vonnegut is having fun with the writing process here spinning the relationship between author and his creations.
The phrase Breakfast of Champions is an advertising slogan for a cereal and one of the main themes of the book is around consumerism. This is an America that has grown fat on its own economic success. The main setting Midland City, is a town shaped by the money of car dealer and hotel owner Dwayne Hoover, who is slowly but surely having a breakdown as the story unfolds. He becomes increasingly unstable as his life of luxury and boredom unravels. The final push into insanity comes when Hoover meets Trout at an artistic convention and reads some of the sci-fi author’s work.
As Hoover loses it and some of the other characters are dragged into his destructive breakdown Trout heads off for a meeting with his creator – the author. As Vonnegut flips the conventions of a normal book to challenge the perception of what is reality you have to ask if you are also facing a Hoover moment. After he reads a message from the creator telling him to shake off the shackles of being a robot and show free will are we also trapped in the same way?
Vonnegut is encouraging you to ask what really constitutes happiness. What is success? If you are so tied into a system that prevents you from expressing your true feelings then are you in fact not much better than a robot being controlled by society. Of course that message, which is enough to start a spiral of self introspection, is wrapped up in great humour and imagination. It is impossible not to review the book without making a mention of the illustrations that Vonnegut litters the text with. They are not only funny but help immerse the reader into some of the signs, shared language and consumerism of mid-town USA.
The more you read Vonnegut the more you get to his motivation. If Dostoevsky was determined to spread the message of brotherhood then here is an author equally passionate challenging you to think about what is real. As the money flows and the neon signs get brighter and those with wealth become more removed from reality it becomes frightening. Overlay that with nuclear weapons, a race on the scientific front to produce ever more deadly and mysterious weapons and you have plenty of material. The way Vonnegut can weave it all in and leave you not only wiser but wanting more is the sign of a great writer.
This book is going to rank as one of my favourites of the year; it is certainly one of the best of the first six months.
The reason why is because of the clever mix of satire, wit and science-fiction that are weaved together by Kurt Vonnegut. He manages to describe the end of the world in a way that both horrifies and amuses which is no mean feat. The way he does so is to describe and develop a select cast of odd balls that have the power to destroy the world left to them by a man who almost did just that.
The idea of a writer following through what happened to the fictional co-creator of the atom bomb Felix Hoenikker on the day the bomb was dropped on Japan is where the book starts. But quickly the narrator moves away from his original purpose and starts to follow the threads of Hoenikker’s dysfunctional family. The scientists three children are all damaged by an upbringing starved of love and normality. One has become a dictator’s aide on a remote island in the Caribbean, another a strict repressed clarinet playing housewife and the last is a dwarf who has a history with the circus and an equally small Russian spy.
What ties them together is their father’s last deadly discovery, Ice-9, which has the power to turn water instantly to ice. The impact of using it would be to freeze the oceans and rivers and bring about an environmental catasprohe not too far removed from nuclear war.
And that is the point because this is set against a backdrop of the cold war and the horror that a bunch of idiots in positions of power could, as easily as mistakenly dropping a chunk of ice-9 into the sea, press the button and end the world.
What keeps you reading is the humour and the various sub-plots with a primitive religion holding sway on the island making the remote Caribbean world seem like a million miles away from civilisation.
Underneath the occasional oddity and incredibly imaginative story lies a biting commentary on the era. Even down to the cycle factory owner who is relocating from Chicago to the Caribbean to exploit cheap labour this book is picking big targets including consumerism, nuclear war, and the shallowness of power and the dangers of science.
Just because it is possible to invent something in a lab that can destroy the world is not necessarily a reason to unleash it on the world. The lethal mix of science, politics and war which became so visible with the mushroom clouds is a fear that might have been acutely heightened in the 1963, when Vonnegut published this book, but they still speak to us now.
The Breakfast of Champions introduces a technique that other authors hint at but never go the whole hog with. Occasionally you are reading about a main character and an author will slip in some sort of preview about what is going to happen next.
You always suspect it is aimed at preventing boredom or convincing you that a main character is going to be alright in the end. Vonnegut keeps telling you that Dywane Hoover is going to go mad and that Kilgore Trout is instrumental in it. But the reason he keeps telling you that is because he is showing just how much he is in control of the story. Because he suddenly has the creator of the fictional world sitting in the middle of the action wearing a pair of sunglasses in a dark bar.
he takes fiction to somewhere that it rarely goes and it leaves you asking just who is in control of our lives and just why are the limitations on our horizons accepted as if they were established background to introduce a chapter sketching out the landscape?
The world that Trout and Hoover inhabit is sick and dying and despite the attempts of major corporations to pump some positivity into it through marketing messages “the breakfast of champions” it just makes the unreal nature of our existence all the more obvious to Vonnegut.
This is a bit like watching a flim with the last third ending up with you sitting with the cast and crew and the film happening all around you. The power with that is that after you get used to the idea you start asking why the film is being made in the way it is, why the characters are acting in such a way and wonder just why the world they inhabit is so bleak and artificial. If nothing else Vonnegut gets you thinking.
A review will come soon…
As Trout gets closer to meeting Hoover the sense of impending doom is stoked up by Vonnegut. The stupidity of truck companies named after immovable objects like pyramids and the yearning that those he hitchhikes with have for some knowledge that somewhere someone is happy is pitiful.
What makes something bad almost inevitable is the state that Hoover starts to get himself into finding the ‘bad chemicals’ in his brain make him lose his grip on reality.
There is a great line in a discussion between Dwayne Hoover and his mistress Francine that shows just how difficult it must have been for someone who feels that the consumerism and hollow society around them is killing them:
“We could go to some other city,” said Francine.
“”They’re all like here. They’re all the same,” said Dwayne.
She then suggests he meets someone different, someone like Trout, without of course understanding that the consequences could be quite serious for someone on the edge of their sanity.
More next week…
It took me a criminally long time, well after Slaughterhouse 5 and the Jail Bird, to finally ‘get’ Vonnegut and now having understood it, then it is simply a race against time to read as much of his work as I can afford to acquire.
The combination of humour, sci-fi but also a very strong but subtle commentary on world affairs is done in such a way that it feels as if once you appreciate it you have somehow landed membership of one of the coolest clubs around.
What adds to the experience here are the author illustrations. Little line sketches in pen that actually connect with the text in a way illustrations often fail to do. They add to the sense of disconnection between ordinary things and completely strange reactions they cause.
At the centre this is a story of two men who are travelling to meet each other and have an impact on each other’s lives. One is a lonely science fiction writer Kilgore Trout and the other is millionaire businessman Wayne Hoobler. The influence of Trout on Hoobler is going to come at a time when the businessman has already lost his grip on reality.
But of course the point here is a wider one about what is reality anyway in a country where odd things seem to be hard wired into the norm.
That is the gift of Vonnegut because he gets you to see things with a different eye. As you laugh you also start to think.
The feared end of the world comes in the most comical way imaginable with an ice-nine victim sliding down a broken castle parapet into the ocean. But that is the power of Vonnegut because the point he is making is that the end of the world could come as a result of idiocy. In fact it is almost inevitable if you give power hungry amateurs the power to destroy the world then they will potentially do so without even thinking about the consequences.
Although this would have no doubt have been read differently at the height of the cold war when not only was the end of the world possible but also seems likely with Cuba, Kennedy being shot and the Russians up to all sorts. But there is also a flip here about the fact that this is science fiction with the made up religion and the island republic in the Caribbean but at the same time it is satire. What makes it so readable is the humour. Despite the doom and even the death this is all done with a wicked smile. I guess you have that choice of either laughing or smiling and maybe doing the latter is the best thing to do, even in the face of total destruction.
A review will follow soon…
Vonnegut starts to leave the original idea of a writer putting together a book about the normal things that were happening on the day the atom bomb was dropped in the second world war and instead starts to weave together a story around ice-nine, the invention of the late Dr felix Hoenikker, one of the founding fathers’ of the atom bomb.
As Vonnegut starts to chase up the leads of the Hoenikker family and starts to pull together the story of the invention of ice-nine there is a distinct gap between the care-free and laid back characters of the 1960s and the sheer horror or the potential invention that could freeze the water on the planet and make the atom bomb look like an very isolated incident. Vonnegut’s narrator remains slightly cool with the knowledge and allows coincidences and plot developments to happen around him without too much comment or involvement but you sense that the show down is coming with the Hoenikker children, who each have a chunk of the deadly ice-nine.