In writing Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut rejected the template of the typical novel. He rejected his role as author, and deemed himself the Creator. He rejected the concept of complex profundity,
and replaced it with simplistic two-dimensionality. He rejected the progression of active plot, and embraced the potential of active thought. In this his seventh novel, Vonnegut admits that he is "trying to clear [his] head of all the junk in there -- t
he assholes, the flags, the underpants" (Vonnegut, 5). Yes, Breakfast subsists as a tale of digressions. What plot actually exists does not manifest itself until the waning pages of the novel. Above all, omniscient Vonnegut directs his character
s, through their thoughts, to reveal his own innermost ideals. Whether addressing his personal opinions concerning the history of the washing machine or the history of Nazi Germany, Vonnegut utilizes these pages as a contemporary soapbox. And herein lie
s the conflict which many a critic has failed to resolve: why has Kurt Vonnegut chosen to write a fictional account which merely synthesizes years of thought without testing new waters of literature? The issue is one of intent. Breakfast opponents
must understand that the author did not write with intentions of developing a progressive, complex plot. As Vonnegut explains in the Preface, "this book is my fiftieth birthday present to myself. I feel as though I am crossing the spine of a roof -- ha
ving ascended one slope" (Vonnegut, 4). Indeed, his approach seems horizontal. On the heels of several wildly popular novels and at the peak of his career, Vonnegut presents Breakfast of Champions as an autobiographical means of therapeutic self-
cleansing -- nothing more, and nothing less.
The stylistic methods utilized by Vonnegut in this novel prove abnormal, deviating not only from that of the common novel, but from that of Vonnegut himself. The author alerts the reader to the story's climax and conclusion in the first paragraph of th
e novel, though this climax is not actively pursued until the final pages: "this is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast" (Vonnegut, 7). As the chapters progress, Vonnegut -- by way of his cha
racters --gradually divulges details of the climax, to the point where the reader knows exactly what shall happen by the time the action actually occurs. This blatant foreshadowing serves as but one example of the absolute lack of subtlety employed by Vo
nnegut. For, as he determines the futures of his creations/characters and ponders both related and wholly unrelated philosophical and social issues, Vonnegut allows his stream of consciousness to flow directly to the ink. The reader certainly does not e
xpect these oscillations from omniscient third person explanations of characters' thoughts to first person honesty, and back again. Furthermore, Vonnegut's creation of Kilgore Trout in his own image, and Vonnegut's eventual appearance in the storyline
as himself are anything but normal. Breakfast of Champions is more the revelation of Kurt Vonnegut than the revelation of protagonists Kilgore Trout and Dwayne Hoover.
The author's seemingly out-of-character forthrightness and simplicity are most apparent in the context of Vonnegut's sociopolitical opinions. In fact, it is in that context that the novel connects most directly to its time period and to contemporary i
ssues. Yet, while Vonnegut hastily moves from issue to issue, he does not express the desire to conflict or to teach; he merely desires to reflect upon American hypocrisy. Within the first chapter, his reflection manages to center upon the national anth
em (8), the idea that Columbus discovered America (10), the nobility of the founding fathers (11) and the cause of our conflicts in Vietnam (12). The honesty and objectiveness of Vonnegut's descriptions differ from the bleakly comic nature we expect fro
m the man. He seems humorless and obvious to the point where his methods appear manic. Does commentary on Americans' obsession with national norms really require Vonnegut to rattle off the penis size of each newly-introduced character? Quite possibly,
assuming that the reader comprehends the novel in the context of its prefaced horizontality. If the reader assumes that Vonnegut merely tests his suspicions and says what comes to mind, rather than assuming that his commentary clamors for change, the la
ck of plot direction may be excused. Vonnegut talks down to his audience, oversimplifies issues in a childlike manner and draws pictures of asterisks to represent rectums; yet, all is done in an attempt to clear his head. The reader holds a front-row ti
cket to Vonnegut's internal debate, however contrived and crude it may seem. If one is to accept this autobiographical debate as literature, these philosophies and ideals must be themselves accepted in a dramatic context. After all, these philosophies
prove responsible for directing the story itself.
Indeed, Vonnegut's personal interaction with his own characters, specifically through the assignment of ideals, proves most critical to the success of this story. The protagonists mirror the stick figures that line the leaves of the novel. Each has be
en programmed to think and act in a specific manner, thus everything that their Creator pulses through their bodies appears contrived. In truth, however, the protagonists do nothing for themselves. They exist as puppets, subject to Vonnegut's will. Th
e two central protagonists, Kilgore Trout and Dwayne Hoover, embody different aspects of Vonnegut's personality. As Robert Merrill explains, "Dwayne Hoover represents his Midwestern, middle class background, while Kilgore Trout is a comic embodiment of
his artistic career" (Merrill, 156). Ironically, Vonnegut originally thinks himself a puppet, as well: "I write what I am seemingly programmed to write" (Vonnegut, 4).
Trout's resemblance to Vonnegut operates on a number of different levels. Most blatantly, both men have with age developed into extreme pessimists, as Trout explains: "humanity deserved to die horribly, since it had behaved so cruelly and wastefully on
a planet so sweet" (Vonnegut, 18). Vonnegut brings Trout to Midland City to meet Hoover, but also to confront the Festival audience with the ugly truths of life in which this pessimism roots itself. Trout's anonymity, even in the largest of cities, mu
st draw parallels to Vonnegut's early career in which he struggled to obtain both publication and a significant audience. Most importantly, however, the reader must address the commonality of both Trout's and Vonnegut's obsession with ideas, and speci
fically ideals. Within Breakfast, Vonnegut addresses the ideals of communication (58), governmental failures (74), ecological disaster (58) and man's contempt for art (132). Trout appears, of course, in much the same light. He is a self-proclai
med, unappreciated genius, whose lack of popularity has driven him to a complete lack of faith in reform and in happiness. Trout has been resigned to express his despair to his pet parakeet. Yet, while both Vonnegut and Trout prove pessimistic in the co
ntext of reforming action, a faith in the power of ideas nonetheless unites them. From the shackles of pessimism, both men find a means of developing the conception that even if bad ideas can destroy, humane ideas may grant health. Trout's own epitaph,
the subject of one of Vonnegut's line drawings, expresses that faith: "we are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane" (Vonnegut, 16). Maybe there does exist a means of expressing conscience, if only the pessimism may be cured.
Dwayne Hoover's thematic position in the novel is to point out the fatal consequences of believing man to be nothing more than a robot. He is a man in search of a rebirth, as he hopes to meet artists at the Midland City Festival of the Arts in order to
"discover whether they had truths about life which he had never heard before" (Vonnegut, 200). Bordering on insanity and absolutely vulnerable, his dramatic function becomes to reveal those fatal consequences to Trout and Vonnegut. Trout's trip to Mid
land City rids him of the mechanistic view of mankind, rediscovering his hope for salvation in humanity. Dwayne Hoover's negative example thus rescues both Vonnegut and Trout from previous despondency. Hoover's rampage, along with a speech by painter
Rabo Karabekin, mark a dramatic reversal in Breakfast.
In the process of revealing his thoughts through his characters, Kurt Vonnegut finds himself affected by his creations. Although Trout's literature drives Hoover over the edge and into a raging fit, the real climax becomes that which Trout, and most imp
ortantly Vonnegut, experience within themselves. To this point, Vonnegut's dark suspicions about man's nature must parallel the bad ideas that Hoover learns from Trout's writing. Vonnegut had come to believe that "there was nothing sacred about [hims
elf] or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide" (Vonnegut, 224-225). Karabekin's speech saves the two men, as he suggests that men may "'adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos': by asserting o
ur uniquely human quality of awareness in the face of such chaos" (Merrill, 160). The process of writing this novel, of developing and speaking through these characters incites a change in Vonnegut, as he describes: "It is hard to adapt to chaos, but it
can be done. I am living proof of that: It can be done" (Vonnegut, 215).
Quite possibly, this change played a crucial role in drawing book buyers to the bookstore in 1973, as Breakfast of Champions assumed its position in the echelon of bestsellers. With six novels under his belt by the time of publication, Vonnegut's
pattern of writing himself into the plot was something with which readers were familiar. In this case especially, Vonnegut's personal development through the chapters supercedes the development of the plot itself. Not only were readers eager to follow
the progress of the many common characters that find a home in multiple Vonnegut novels, they were eager to follow the progress of the author. Futhermore, many such fictional lives achieve finality in Breakfast, any it is certain that many a read
er wished to be present in those final pages. Thus, Kurt Vonnegut's desire to openly share his most personal revelations, combined with the public's desire to listen to those revelations, may go a long way toward explaining the book's popularity.
Understandably, however, critics and reviewers were much slower to accept Breakfast into the ranks of literary greatness. Many critics were reluctant to realize the value maintained within such a stylistically and thematically unique work. If re
viewers are prone to analyze only that which the author prints within the binding, that tendency was surely manifested in this situation. Among the harshest of critics was Harlan Ellison of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, who dubbed t
he novel "merely an idle indulgence by a man who never really wanted to write this book" (Ellison, 36). Obviously irked by Vonnegut's brainflush method of writing, Ellison believes that the book expresses "the pain of a writer inundated by long deserved
and too frequent uncritical success, forced by circumstance, publisher pressure, the blood-lust of the mob or his own insecurities to complete a book he had long-before clearly decided he did not wish to write" (Ellison, 36). That Kurt Vonnegut appears
self-critical at the beginning of Breakfast the reader cannot deny: "What do I myself think of this particular book? I feel lousy about it, but I always feel lousy about my books" (Vonnegut, 4). The author merely manifests that which has already
been described as a purely pessimistic attitude toward to the world. Ellison, and logically the several other critics who called the book "annoying," "irritating," or the manufacturer of "indifference," failed to read the entire novel (Burns 609, Wood 25
, O'Hara 26). For it is not until the waning scenes that the true climax, the spiritual climax of Vonnegut and his protagonists' plight, is realized. Neither Kurt Vonnegut's self-deprecating words nor a plot that focuses upon mental instead of physic
al development can degrade the quality of Vonnegut's literature.
Indeed, the reader must appreciate the significance of Vonnegut's internal plight from pessimism to hope, from close-mindedness to vulnerability to change, if the reader is to comprehend Vonnegut's intent. Many reviewers moved quickly to praise Vonneg
ut's humor -- the 'typical' Vonnegut critique inherent in Nora Sayre's New York Times Book Review article: "he is still our funniest pessimist, a magician of misery and farce" (Sayre, 4). However, in relative Vonnegut terms, Breakfast p
roves relatively humorless. Whether his thoughts be humorous, grotesque or pessimistic, Kurt Vonnegut seeks centrally to clear his mind of ideals and characters past. One might view Breakfast as a rebirth of sorts for Vonnegut, a chance to move o
n with his career without a great deal in his rear view mirror, to cross the spine of the metaphorical roof. And, at the age of fifty with six novels to his credit, one must believe that Kurt Vonnegut has every right to write whatever he chooses. After
all, the public maintains the power to purchase that which it pleases. The author's only job is to write. At the zenith of his career, Vonnegut chose to take the opportunity to synthesize his internal emotions and social opinions, and to finalize sever
al of his longstanding themes. Complex and subtle plot lines did not interest him in 1973, thus he wrote simply and forthrightly. In Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut developed a unique story through a unique style. Whether it be for his nam
esake, his common characters, his internal debates, his sociopolitical commentary, or his line drawings of underwear, Kurt Vonnegut wrote a bestseller that continues to sell a quarter of a century later. In the end, the novel proves therapeutic. It has
made him free, it has made him better, and Vonnegut believes that, by resisting the seductions of the mechanistic life, all men may become better: "I am better now. Word of honor: I am better now" (Vonnegut, 199). More power to him.
Martin Burns, The Critic 32 (1973), 74-76 (reprinted in Contemporary Literary Criticism, 609-610).
Harlan Ellison, "Books," The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction 46 (1974), 34-41.
Robert Merrill, "Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions: The Conversion of Heliogabalus," Critique 18 (1977), 99-109 (reprinted in Critical Essays on Kurt Vonnegut, by Robert Merrill, Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1990).
J.D. O'Hara, "Instantly Digestable," The New Republic, May 12, 1973, 26-28.
Nora Sayre, "Breakfast of Champions," The New York Times Book Review, May 13, 1973, 3-4.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Breakfast of Champions (New York: Delacorte Press, 1973).
Michael Wood, "Dancing in the Dark," The New York Review of Books, May 31, 1973, 23-25.