God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

Listen: while Kilgore Trout is writing about Bagnialto, Kurt Vonnegut is writing about Kilgore Trout and I’m writing about Kurt Vonnegut. We all have different levels of awareness, but we are all characters in the same plot.

Each time I read a book by Vonnegut I am surprised at just how mind-blowing it is. I don’t know why I never learn to see it coming. But I don’t. This time it’s Breakfast of Champions and I truly am overwhelmed by its abundance of brilliant ideas. It has Vonnegut’s usual tropes, including the one-liners on the beauty of simplicity (“every so often, somebody

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (picture from http://www.vonnegut.com)

would stop to put up a monument” ch.15), the major depressive episode bits, the social criticism and so on. The book also has, as usual, many insightful moments. Here they are mostly about people being machines and the only thing making them human is out awareness, that “unwavering band of light” (ch. 19).

But I want to talk about the narration instead. How quietly Vonnegut inserts references to the narrator since the very beginning, without explaining who he is. And all those ‘spoilers’, clues to how the story is going to end. (This reminded me a lot of Slaughterhouse-Five, and of how there is no time, all of history and all of the future is happening at once and always). So is the narrator God? If so, why is he watching television and how come he can mention his parents? About halfway through the book he mentions, quite casually, that “Jimmy Valentine was a famous made-up person in another writer’s books, just as Kilgore Trout was a famous made-up person in my books” (ch. 15).

Listen: the realization that the narrator is the writer was mind-blowing, and what made it even more so was that it shouldn’t have been. What is more natural than writing yourself, writing what you know? It’s the most truthful thing a writer can do. And yet it’s so uniquely Vonnegut. (Maybe that’s not exactly accurate: I was reminded of Muriel Spark’s novel, The Comforters, in which the main character, Caroline Rose, starts hearing typewriter noises and realizes that she is a character in a novel. It’s all very clever, and very funny too.)

Some of his drawings from "Breakfast of Champions"

The self-narration idea returns again and again throughout the book and is used to explore reality and our grasp of it. It’s funny that I happened to read this just now because that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: what happens when I ‘read’ at life as literature. I don’t believe in fate but I find it hard not to go in that direction when I think of life as a plot. I suddenly get a strong feeling that everything that I’ve done so far is preparation for what will happen next. It’s a weird thought (not a psychotic one, I promise) but it’s entertaining. The thing about book plots – good ones at least – is that they convey a message. Recurring themes are supposed to be reflected in them… They are meant to have some point which the text is trying to make. Then I wonder what the themes of my plot are. There are certainly events that repeat themselves – similar reactions in different situations. But maybe that fits in better with a psychology theory or another than in a literary one. I pay also close attention to names: sometimes I hear someone’s name and think that had he been a character in a book, I would have really appreciated the writer’s brilliant naming. I once dated someone whose name was an almost-perfect (one letter away) anagram to Harry Houdini. It was very brief thing so I can’t say I know too much  about the guy; but had I written him into a story, he would probably be a character that had trouble committing to things, and keeps escaping at the moment of truth. Or something like that.

Anyway, Vonnegut. Or maybe: Anyway, life as a plot. Or possibly both. What does it mean, in a the text that is my life, that I’m reading Breakfast of Champions just now? I’ve had the option to do so before. I was close to reading it before, even. Something always got in the way. I was going to buy it but then decided on buying something else, etc. But this time I was reminded of the book – can’t even remember why – and I went to the library and picked it up.  So why now? Are any of the ideas in the book meant to relate to something that is happening (or about to happen)? Is the writer of my book trying to tell me something? This line of thought gets creepy after a while so I had better stop. Here’s a clever quote, so that you may have something to keep thinking about: “This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books” (ch. 19).

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2 comments on “God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

  1. Great piece. Brought back many Vonnegut memories. Thank you.

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