Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

Breakfast of Champions is not the first of Kurt Vonnegut's books I've read. I suspect if it had been the first book of his I encountered, I would have been rather put off. I should also mention that I listened to the audiobook of this novel and apparently the print edition includes sketches by the author, which, of course, I missed. I imagine they would have improved matters. I also find audiobooks a little tricky to properly pay attention to and I did listen to the start of this on a plane, waxing and waning in and out of consciousness... As far as the audio experience goes, I don't think I lost much, but literarily, eh, probably.

The blurb I found on Goodreads follows.
In Breakfast of Champions, one of Kurt Vonnegut’s most beloved characters, the ageing writer Kilgore Trout, finds to his horror that a Midwest car dealer is taking his fiction as truth. What follows is murderously funny satire, as Vonnegut looks at war, sex, racism, success, politics, and pollution in America and reminds us how to see the truth.
I've enjoyed Vonnegut's books in the past, particularly Cat's Cradle, Mother Night (a favourite), Galapagos, Player Piano and Slaughterhouse Five. A key character in Breakfast of Champions, Kilgore Trout, also appears in Slaughterhouse Five and Galapagos (and several other books I think) so I had a bit of a reference point coming into Breakfast. Which was a good thing because Breakfast of Champions was more self-referential and full of wank than any of his other books I've read.

In true Vonnegut style, there's a lot of philosophising about everything. He often writes in the style of describing everyday artefacts to aliens or people from the distant future. This can be surprisingly helpful on occasion to a reader born more than a decade after the book's publication. He also gives us extraneous information on many of the characters and bit players, focussing particularly on penis sizes and female measurements (as in bust, waist, hips), including the author's own penis, having written himself into the book. Yeah. Did I mention wank?

Speaking of featuring in his own book, I didn't entirely mind that section. The meta idea of author talking to his own characters and interacting with them in his book — both in the sense of "I forced him to do blah" as well as being injured in the fictional bar fight — was amusing.

The blurb claims that Breakfast of Champions is satire dealing with sex(-ism) and racism, among other things, but I disagree. While it's clearly a satire, and I suspect Vonnegut thought he was being the opposite of racist I'm not sure it stands up to time. Of course it could be worse, but readers sensitive to race issues, specifically black American issues, may wish to skip this one. (And to be fair, there are plenty of non -ist reasons to skip it as well.) Pointing out that society is racist is all well and good but then going on to unironically perpetrate some is murky at best. And I'm not sure what he was trying to do with the female characters.

All in all, this isn't the worst book I've ever read, but I don't particularly recommend it. If you're new to Vonnegut, definitely don't start here. If you're a completionist, sure go for it. Otherwise, meh. Personally, I plan to read Sirens of Titan (because I haven't yet and own a paper copy) but after that I'm not sure how much effort I'll bother making to track down more of Vonnegut's works.

3 / 5 stars

First published: 1973
Series: Not as such
Format read: Audiobook
Source: Purchased several years ago via an Audible subscription

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