Thursday, November 22, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: "Breakfast of Champions" (1)

"I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains. I can't live without a culture anymore."

"Bad chemicals and bad ideas were the Yin and Yang of madness."

As I mentioned in my 2007 review Revisiting Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, I devoured Vonnegut as a teenager, but I ceased reading his novels after Breakfast of Champions (1973). I wasn't even aware of any subsequent novels for a couple decades afterwards. I am not certain why this is, but I think by the mid-'70s I absorbed everything I thought I had to learn from Vonnegut and moved on to other priorities.

But sometime in the '90s I began to rediscover music and literature of my youth I had assumed to have outgrown, and gained a new appreciation. I don't know when Vonnegut re-entered my consciousness, possibly with my renewed interest in the atheist/humanist movement, but I re-read Cat's Cradle in the month following Vonnegut's death. Then in June 2007 I read his novel Timequake (1997) and the 1999 nonfiction work Like Shaking Hands with God: A Conversation about Writing with Lee Stringer. I'm pretty sure I since read A Man Without a Country (2005), and I may have even given a brief scrute to Armageddon in Retrospect and Other New and Unpublished Writings on War and Peace (2008).  Vonnegut continues to pop up in unexpected places: Vonnegut in Hungary: postmodernism, hi-low genre hopping, & self-parody.

I decided some time ago that I wanted to re-read Breakfast of Champions. I remembered little of it: the childlike illustrations, recapitulating one's past, unvarnished bitterness, and something about the biochemistry of emotion, . . . and a piece of narrative on solipsism of vital interest to me today.

Because my local branch library rid itself of books upon installing more computers than books, I could not find Vonnegut on the shelves but had to download this novel as an e-book so I could re-read it after 39 years.

Re-reading the novel now, I am amazed to find that I had forgotten its most conspicuous themes. Does it say something about me that I remember only something about solipsism? (I'm still waiting to find what I think I'm looking for.) There is sharp criticism of the emptiness of American life, of ecological problems, of consumerism, of war. But the most persistent indictment of American society is of its racism and class inequality! I am struck by how heavy is the emphasis on race.

I note also the outrageousness of Vonnegut's science-fictional imagination. His anti-hero Kilgore Trout's garish si fi scenarios are all contained within the covers of pornographic books, per the publisher to which he sent his manuscripts. I love the combination of outlandish pulp sci fi ideas and philosophical-social content.  Vonnegut didn't need to write out Trout's novels, he had only to describe the scenarios and ideas within them. I wish I could learn to use this technique.

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