Breakfast of Champions is the quintessential Vonnegut piece: the book is punctuated with pithy phrases, short, staccato sentences that underpin profound social commentary, hilarious anecdotes, and irrelevant trivia.
The story consists of two main characters, Kilgore Trout and Dwayne Hoover. Kilgore Trout is a relatively unsuccessful science fiction writer. Dwayne Hoover is an incredibly rich entrepreneur who owns much of Midland City. Kilgore Trout writes a book which possesses Dwayne Hoover with the belief that he is the only person in the world who has free will. Violence commences. Other things happen. These things include pornography, assholes, and extensive discussion about penis length. I find penis talk funny.
The story is, however, rather irrelevant—it functions largely as a vehicle for social commentary in which Vonnegut disguises a scathing rebuke of topics such as patriotism, capitalism, free will and anti-environmentalism with crude sketches and a Byzantine plot. The value of the book, however, lies in its side stories.
In these asides, Vonnegut unpacks and reduces behaviors, routines, and symbols into their bare constituents, in the process exposing the often hideous reality that underpins them. Referring to Columbus and the ‘discovery’ of America, Vonnegut opines “the sea pirates were white. The people who were already on the continent when the pirates arrived were copper-colored. When slavery was introduced onto the continent, the slaves were black. Color was everything.” And in a single paragraph, Vonnegut lays bare the uncomfortable, colored reality upon which our country is founded. The absurdity of this reality, that history is shaped by something as childish as differences of color, is consummately exposed through the a rather sterile, clinical writing style which enables Vonnegut to dissect the underlying content behind the metaphor that cloaks thought and language.
It is an incredibly powerful rhetorical device to describe reality as if you were explaining it to a child. Explorers and navigators are stripped of their titles, and relegated to ‘sea pirates’; race is reduced to ‘color’; Liberty’s torch on the preceding page becomes ‘an ice-cream cone on fire’; and so on. When you constrain yourself to a fifth grade vocabulary, forced to construct meaning through the most naked and axiomatic of structures, you render some very tortuous concepts—patriotism, colonization, exploration— laughable and tragic.
Consider his depiction of chicken consumption: “The idea was to kill it and pull out all its feathers, and cut off its head and feet and scoop out its internal organs—and then chop it into pieces and fry the pieces, and put the pieces in a waxed paper bucket with a lid on it…” The process sounds, and is, barbaric. Yet people rarely interrogate their own behavior. Instead, they insulate their perspective through sophistry and rhetoric, and go on living a rather unexamined life.
Humans are interesting because a large part of their experience involves the rather tedious process of convincing themselves and everyone around them that what they’re doing is okay. And they do this by inventing a network of symbols, and words, and meanings that are just convoluted enough to deceive themselves and suspend the part of the brain that affords introspection. Every living thing is made of meat, and most meat is tasty. Don’t tell me how my meat is made, or what it actually is, or where it’s from, and I can delude myself for just long enough to stuff my mouth hole with this delicious, hickory smoked pig flesh we call bacon. And so on. Vonnegut’s power lies in vitiating this labyrinthine constellation of symbols long enough to force the reader to examine reality in the absence of delusion.
My favorite passage, and this is where I’ll start and end my rambling, occurs when Kilgore Trout is communicating with his pet parrot, Bill. He decides to grant Bill three wishes. For his first wish, Trout opens the door of the cage, “something Bill couldn’t have done in a thousand years.” For his second wish, Trout opens the window, giving Bill a passage to freedom. As Trout opens the window, however, the bird is frightened and hurriedly returns to the cage. Trout observes, “That’s the most intelligent use of three wishes I ever heard of….You made sure you’d still have something worth wishing for—to get out of the cage.”
When I read this line, I closed the book, turned the lights off, and just thought. I thought… god dammit Bill, you could have it all. It was your dream to get out of that cage. You hungered, begged for your freedom… You thought about it every day, envisioning escape routes, plotting the overthrow of Kilgore, planning summer vacations with sexy female parakeets.
And the first time you got close to succeeding, you caved in. You know why, Bill? Because you didn’t really want it. You just liked having something to think about, to complain about, to worry about. Your entire life was defined by your weakness and your vulnerability and your disingenuous motivation to overcome them. Freedom is terrifying… it means not having something to blame, it means taking responsibility. And you chickened out. Specifically, you parakeeted out. You stared into the abyss, and it showed you just how frightening and chaotic and mean the outside world can be. So you resigned to a life of comfort and convenience; a life mediated by routines and predictability; a life where you still had something you could hope for. You might hate Kilgore for confining your sensibilities and ambitions to a gilded prison, but at least he saved you from yourself.
I don’t blame you. I’ve been a student my whole life; this university is my birdcage. I have no idea what I’m going to do on the outside. Maybe I’ll fly back for a Masters, a Ph.D., a post doc, a professorship, a post-professorship, a postcard, a postage stamp… and so on. Maybe I’ll collect all the degrees, major in subjects that haven’t yet been invented, and become a Renaissance man.
Maybe I’m just hoping to rearrange the deck chairs long enough to forget the ship’s sinking.
So I ask you, and by proxy myself, are we Bill the Parakeet, choosing incarceration over freedom — too afraid of the prospect that we might be responsible to our own choices? How many of us are like dogs chasing cars, satisfied with a goal, but petrified of what’d we do if we ever achieved it? How many of us demand a taste, but only pretend to hunger?
I’m convinced most people are like Bill. Trapped inside the cage of our egos and insecurities; afraid of life as much as death. We simulate everything that can go wrong, we fear the potential: the awkward interaction that might happen if you worked up the courage to say ‘hi’; the embarrassment that might come from rejection; the sadness that might come from loss. The second we get close to success, we freak out, too afraid that somewhere down the line we’re going to realize that we’re not as smart, not as strong, not as confident as we thought we were. And so we tell other people about the books we want to write and the books we want to read, but we never start. We profess our love of music, but never practice an instrument. We proselytize our ambitions, but handicap our possibilities.
So we’re preoccupied with fear, the uncertainty that lies beyond the cage, and we convince ourselves that incarceration isn’t so bad. Free crackers, after all.