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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut

Started 4/14, Finished 4/19

I'm not a Vonnegut scholar. If you had a look at my pitiful take on Cat's Cradle, you remember. I find him perplexing, because I don't want to take anything he says at face value, and because I am not a product of the times or political philosophies he lived in. That said, I find his work charming, occasionally transcendent, and almost always out of reach. That may be because it's so very within reach that I miss the trees trying to explain the forest.

Breakfast of Champions is "about" several characters' journey toward a science fiction convention, at which point the world is forever changed by a violent outburst, an unpublished novel, and Vonnegut's God narrator. I say "about", because what he's going for throughout much of the novel is an attempt to "call out" the novel form for its oversights, its shortcomings, and its inadequacies. I had just finished Michener's The Novel, so I was somewhat prepared for this kind of thinking: that the "novel" as it is is dead, that a new form must take its place, one where (for example) the point of view isn't just of one or three or ten characters, but where all characters have equal weight. The God-like narrator gets his share of potshots, as well as the particularities (and uselessness) of "description" (penis size is often listed when he describes a male characters, given as naturally as hair color). He plays with timelines, gives you hints that he's not being honest, and then tells you that none of it matters because he, Vonnegut, is just sitting in a bar making the whole thing up on his Big Chief tablet.

All that said, none of it occurred to me until just now, when I sat down to write this review. This book took its sweet time to get going, as did Cat's Cradle. The beginning sections didn't work for me, though I'm sure I'd find meaning in them if I reread them. Processing the myriad images, trying to dig meaning out of it, all of that was overwhelming. It's been only long after the fact that I could process them, make them coherent in my own memories. The statements, diatribes, and rage against all things establishment, they're all obvious, but they seem simplistic at first glance, like they don't fit in anywhere. Upon reflection, however, the images and characters and storyline don't make sense without the rage. It's as though his anger at the world has compelled him to create a world of such disorder that it both rejects and reflects the real one he sees when he looks up to sip his beer and have a toke.

There are a lot more people commenting a lot more intelligently about Vonnegut than I think I will ever be able to, but it's become apparent to me just what we've lost with his passing. I can't pretend to feel as much sentimentality as those who have been reading him for years, who grew up with him and let him help them define their generations (2 or 3 generations, probably), but I think his work will outlive me and my generation, that's for sure. I'm looking forward to reading his other works, and to possibly looking into some Real Literary Criticism of Vonnegut, to see how the experts break him down. It'll either be interesting or stupid, which is exactly how I believe Vonnegut saw the world entire.

Book #12 will be The Cement Garden, by Ian McEwan