Friday, December 08, 2006

Book: Breakfast of champions

Long time no see, eh? Well, I’ve been busy and all. Busy like hell.
Well, here’s a book I’ve read recently, Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of champions”. I discovered this fella back in high school when I was an SF fan and thought that his “Cat’s cradle” was one of a kind. Amazing thing was, it was a book at the same time apocalyptic and cheerful. That combination was hard to get a hold of back then, later I saw that Vonnegut’s general attitude is that of pessimism, but that he stopped caring about bad things bound to happen, and allowed himself to be cheerful about it.
The same tone was felt in “Hocus Pocus”, his later book, which was the second I’ve read – and probably the best so far: a mosaic of anecdotes told without of chronology, that were masterfully merged into one picture, one life, with only one sentence on the last page: a calculation of random figures from his life that equated the number of people he killed and women he slept with. Life ending with even score.
I found the same kind of mosaic structure in “Slaughterhouse 5” only here, chronology was not interrupted by memory, but by SF element. This book was a sort of let down for me, much darker in tone and reassembling his memories from WWII, it had little of the tone that attracter me to Vonnegut.
And now there’s also “Breakfast of champions”.

“Breakfast...” starts very slow, with a few chapters of author’s observations about modern life, America, politics and history, and gets us slowly used to a direct, childish tone, which allows him to phrase things in such way that we’re allowed to see them in completely different, Vonnegut would say “disrespectful” light. So, in one place, he refers to Thomas Jefferson as “one of the greatest theoreticians on the subject of human rights, who was also a slave owner.” Sentence would sound like preaching if it was said in different tone, but overall style of the book makes it sounds like simple stating of the face.
It was a bit boring part, criticizing American hypocrisy is nothing new or interesting anymore, but I suspect it was much more of walking on the edge back then. And for that matter, “Stroszek” was probably an effective critique of capitalism when it was made, but nowadays it seems like you’ve heard it all before.
Anyways, soon Vonnegut changes the pacing and eventually turns to a completely different subject that is far from daily politics. He starts the parallel stories, one about Dwayne Hoover, local wealthy men and billboard face from some town in middle America, and the other about Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s reoccurring character, unsuccessful SF writer who only gets published in porn magazines. Dwayne is rich, loved and popular, and he is going mad slowly but gradually, and Kilgore is bitter, old and disillusioned. These two men are drawn to each other, and when they meet, Vonnegut announces from afar, there’ll be a catastrophe. He tells that all through the novel, he telegraphs the ending, and yet it only makes us wait for the ending more and be more affected when it comes.
Trout, by pure set of circumstances, gets invited to speak on an art festival in Dwayne’s city, and as he hitchhikes toward the city, Dwayne is seen struggling with the daily neuroses, trying to find some sense in the world and failing, until he is finally obsessively convinced that someone in that art festival will tell him something that will answer all his questions. Vonnegut also tells us in advance what it is, but as said, that doesn’t make book less surprising. Kilgore is a very bitter man, we see. He hails the earth polluters, concluding that we have deserved the earth like this. He goes to an arts festival not to speak or to feel the fame, but to ruin it. We feel uncomfortable, because we can’t escape the thought that he has a point.
Meanwhile, Vonnegut takes time to portray middle America with all it’s bad, de-humanizing sides (local factory polluting river) and it’s stereotypical characters, dumb and reckless as they are.
So, now we’re at the club where “it” should happen. Everyone’s there, every character is either in the club or around it, and we’re expecting the final meeting and the announced cataclysm. But then Vonnegut introduces in the book – himself. Called the creator, he talks about how he wrote the book and how he pulls all the strings and how cynical he is for doing that. He observes the fight between one painter and locals and, reportedly, has a spiritual experience which is a peak of the book (you’ll notice, before the event that is announced as catharsis occurs) when the painter speaks of humans (or beings in general) as “the orange streak of light”, the essence, the life, the important part among everything else that can be omitted – simplified, but it’s the humanizing element of earth, without which is may as well not exist. Vonnegut, “the creator”, seems to have been lost in mocking them, analyzing them, judging them, and at this moment he actually resumes his social conscience. And evidently loses his nihilism. I am ready to believe that reading the book was the real brain-cleaning experience for Vonnegut and that he really came from it with a sort of conclusions he didn’t have before, and a brighter outlook of the world. Writer, writing fictional story about himself, that turns out to be not entirely fictional, how’s that for postmodern?
But all things move towards their end so Dwayne Hoover finally enters the club and spots Trout in there. He grabs the book Trout brought and unfortunately, the book happens to be a solipsistic fantasy about the only man with free will, in a world surrounded by robots, meant to test his reactions. Hoover reads it like a message from above, and in a moment starts believing that he is the only man on the planet, surrounded by robots. This sudden loss of humane triggers him to start mayhem, beating and hurting many of characters of the book, including biting part of Trout’s finger off. This event is also announced in previous chapter. Just like everything, but the event is so anticlimactic, it’s like a finale of “Straw dogs”, something that must happen, so we can relax after it has happened. In the end, Dwayne is captured and taken to hospital.
But that’s not the end. It’s meant for Trout to, stumbling around, meet Vonnegut, “the creator” himself. “The creator” explains him that he is just a fictional character in the book that “the creator” is omnipotently writing, and then leaves with Trout yelling “Make me young” after him.

Isn’t that a mess? It’s such a mess of characters, ideas, levels of narration that you have a problem struggling through it. The story seemed linear, but with such unconventional and seemingly inappropriate solutions such is introducing himself, Vonnegut turns the tables around, making, at first sight, no sense.
Much of it can be explained by something I read on internet about the book (haven’t come to it myself) and that is that it’s basic idea is that “catastrophe comes whenever ideas of humanity are compromised”.
Catastrophe indeed comes when Dwayne finds a release for his mental illness in one very dehumanizing idea. This idea is the product of Kilgore’s nihilism caused by disappointment in his own writing career, and probably also his natural bitterness. At the end, Dwayne is confined and eventually loses all his wealth. Kilgore, on the other hand, has learned the lesson of the book, and his scream “make me young again” is for all the time he has lost living with that dehumanizing mindset. His fingertip is bitten off during the attempt to protect someone from Dwayne, a first selfless act in the book. Wasn’t he right in his earlier, nihilistic attitudes about earth and humans? I guess he was. But he learns that that’s not the most important, that what he complained about was the in-human part of us, the same one that he cherished over the years.
Then there is the other person that is enlightened, and that is, of course, “the creator”. The orange stripe of light, the term he picked from the painter a bit before the mayhem, is the very metaphor of that ideal, of the idea that there is something more important in humans than flesh and bones, and social and physical contacts.
That’s where the opening tractates about America come in, they are also illustrations of some dehumanization mechanisms, of some absurd in society, they are, after all, an appropriate intro into a story about the world that is slowly losing some important things out of sight.

I really like the idea of a book that changes it’s creator while he’s writing it, so that he finishes it a different man than the one that started it, and I’m ready to believe that’s what really happened. That’s another level of the book, self-reflexive story about the returning influence that writing and characters have on writer.
The most noticeable thing about the book is that it’s scattered with simple Vonnegat’s drawings of things that get mentioned during the book. These almost childish drawings increase the tone of childish, naïve narration, as Vonnegut’s announces: “This is an electric chair” and follows with the drawing of the same.
Yet, I don’t see many functions of the drawings. The pattern is, he draws things that belong to pop-culture, sometimes intentionally digressing to them, so he could draw them. He illustrates the times, the consumerist world that he portrays in the book, but do the drawings fit into some sort of big image, something like irrelevant numerical data that fits into the final equation at the end of “Hocus pocus”? I don’t know.
But there is homage to another great book that is known to be scattered with author’s drawings, “The little prince”. Yes, in one place, Vonneguts draws a very recognizable image of the sheep.

Oh, and I’ll give a bonus film review with this: After reading a book, I was curious to watch a film of the same name. Bruce Willis as Dwayne Hoover, supported by Nick Nolte, directed by Alan Rudolph.
Well, first of all, I nearly fell asleep watching it. Second, it’s a tripper film, which means you’re expected to feel the film like a bad trip, and I don’t understand whose brilliant idea was to turn such complex and multilayered film into one dumb trip concept. All depth, everything I was talking about, all it lost. In the end, Dwayne finds comfort back in his family and Kilgore Trout finds some kind of magic happy land, all in vain attempts to mirror the humanistic idea of the book, but guideless, choosing solutions that are most obvious(ly taken from Hollywood repertoire).
Yet it’s a very literal rewrite. Lots of original situations are taken from the book, then put into a completely different context, equally guideless, as if director just wanted to squeeze them in somewhere. Sentences are also rewritten from the book, often taken from one character and given to the other, very inappropriately, more often taken from narrator and given to the character; As we know, narrator’s tone is very different than those of characters, so actors are here forced to struggle with such sentences as “You have a face like rattlesnake”, trying to say things noone would really say, and making it sound natural. It’s all very awkward, really.