Breakfast of Champions is Kurt Vonnegut’s ninth novel, written around the same time as his 50th birthday. He states in the opening chapter that the book his a birthday present to himself. He states that he is intending to “clear my head of all the junk in there” (Vonnegut 5). With this in mind, it surely must be interesting to note that this book of “junk” turned out to be one of his most successful novels. The novel chronicles the demise of a used Pontiac car salesman, Dwayne Hoover, at the hands of the mildly irrelevant pulp science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout. Hoover has come to the conclusion that he is the only living thing on the planet and everyone else is a robot merely designed to interact with him. Hoover comes to this conclusion in a book written by Trout; a book that more than likely has only been read by one person, Dwayne Hoover. The story centers on the destined meeting between Trout and Hoover and Hoover’s subsequent free fall into insanity as he terrorizes Midland City. This book has been widely regarded as one of Vonnegut’s best works, because of its impeccable relevance in the vein of Post-Modernism in a way that only Vonnegut could execute. Vonnegut’s Post-Modern style is engrained in the rejection of the idea of finding meaning in life and its surrounding questions. No other writer can grapple with this rejection like Vonnegut can. Vonnegut expertly exonerates all forms of meaning in its own rejection through his use of a flat, linear plot line as well as themes of alienation, and chaotic representations of otherwise meaningless episodes. It’s Vonnegut’s incredible ability to write in this style that solidifies him in the genre of Post-Modernism as well as the American Canon.
A staple of Vonnegut’s writing is his innate ability to tie a story together with fragmented episodes thrown together in no particular order. In Breakfast of Champions, not only does he do this, but he also gives away the ending in a nonchalant fashion in the very beginning of the book. With the ending already spoiled, Vonnegut then revisits the episodes leading up to the final scene where Hoover and Trout finally meet. This plot line is both linear and very flat as well. Visiting the scenes in order with no emphasis on one scene or another gives the story a very flat, uneventful overtone. This steady flow of events lacking any importance provides readers with a sense of meaninglessness in lives everyday episodes. The only significant area where the story has a chance to spike a little bit is the ending, which Vonnegut has so cleverly disclosed in the first chapter of the book. In Vonnegut’s case he leads the reader to search for meaning in an otherwise meaningless situation. Furthermore this flat, linear plot line with no event being anymore significant than another creates a repetitious, monotonous flavor that seems to mirror real life in that it tends to repeat its self, never with a significant ending. In fact, in NOVEL: The Forum on Fiction, Robert W. Uphaus details a quote from Vonnegut himself in his article titled, “Expected Meaning in Vonnegut’s Dead-End Fiction.” Vonnegut states that, “it strikes me as gruesome and comical that in our culture we have an expectation that a man can always solve his problems” (Uphaus 165). Uphaus goes on to explore in the article the question of “what are people for?” He states that, “individuals are free to ‘do their own thing’—that people can have at least the illusion of growth imaginatively and sometimes practically—but at the same time their ‘own thing’ is continually set against a resistant pattern which we call human history” (Uphaus 166). Vonnegut gives his characters certain freedom, he even states at one point in the novel that at times he loses control of his characters. But in this idea, Vonnegut doesn’t have to put any more emphasis on the significance of the idea of ‘free will’ because our reality tends to repeat itself anyhow, hence the frequent usage of “etc.” throughout the novel.
Vonnegut also makes good use of alienating his characters within the story. This alienation further defines the Post-Modern idea that man is left alone to search for meaning on his own and within himself. As Vonnegut points out, Dwayne Hoover is gradually going more and more insane. On the other side of the path, Kilgore Trout is the unsuccessful science fiction writer contemplating suicide because of his lack of connection with the world around him. Vonnegut even goes as far as revealing to Dwayne the he is actually the only human being and that everyone else is just a robot. This alienation causes a disconnection with the basis of existing. In a world lacking connection with any other living thing, one must argue if anything exists at all including one’s self. This aspect further evaluates the element of a split mind consciousness as the chains of communication break down and further isolation ensues. Vonnegut introduces the idea of schizophrenia in the novel while sitting in a café. He also takes note that his current setting is one of his own creations. This aspect brings to focus the possibility that Vonnegut is both in his own world as well as the actual world. But this possibility of being in another world implies the possibility of not being in the other. Robert T. Tally claims in his book, Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel, that this concept induces a breakdown in communication, an idea so pleasantly chronicled in Kilgore Trout’s story about the alien that is beaten to death for a failure to communicate his peaceful intentions. Tally states that, “Schizophrenia involves a dissociation between words and their meanings (Tally 87). Tally goes on to say that, “ this characterization of schizophrenia, the gap between signs and their meanings, is established as the theme of the novel (Tally 87). Tally certainly has a point. In fact, it’s the very same idea of alienation through fragmentation that identifies so many of the Post-Modern ideas about the loss or absence of meaning.
One of the staples of Vonnegut’s writing is his ability to create chaotic episodes and thought processes out of meaningless, minute episodes. This method further enhances the idea that life is a chaotic existence full of meaningless episodes that hold no real significance in the bigger picture. Vonnegut tends to this idea by establishing himself as a character in a story, writing a story about two other men. As he states earlier that the intent of the book to rid his mind of ‘junk.’ One could surmise that the ultimate priority is destruction and then subsequently, regeneration through destruction. Uphaus comments on this aspect stating that, “before Vonnegut will be able to regenerate his fiction, to his own satisfaction, it appears that he will have to sort out his own past. In a sense then, this book does not simply frustrate the reader’s customary pursuit of meaning: it records Vonnegut’s own frustrated pursuit of meaning in his own fiction” (Uphaus 172). This chaos in the pursuit of meaning is prevalent in reducing the actual existence of meaning itself. Furthermore, this insight into Vonnegut’s thought process allows reader’s a look into his conscious to reveal the chaotic process prevalent in someone as not just the writer of the story, but also as the ‘puppeteer’ for the characters within the actual story; a sort of deity, or lack there of.
Vonnegut’s portrayal of the American Culture as a main figure in the loss or absence of effective connections should be enough as is to earn Vonnegut a place in the American Canon among other Post-Modernists and 60’s counterculture figures. His recurrent themes of alienation and meaning in chaos as well as his lack of emphasis on sequence and events place him among the elite in terms of conveying meaning or lack thereof. It isn’t what Vonnegut says about the meaning of life, but it’s the portrayal of the meaningless search for meaning that makes this author so special.