Archive for the ‘Kurt Vonnegut’ Category

Breakfast of Champions

March 5, 2023

In an excellent article on Kurt Vonnegut last year, John Self described Breakfast of Champions as a transitional novel “where Vonnegut perfects his mid-to-late style of short paragraphs, avuncular wisdom and comical line drawings”. Rereading the novel (which I first read thirty years ago, twenty years after it was first published), I was astonished at how comforting that style was despite the fathomless despair which lies behind the humour. In his later novels, Vonnegut’s meandering style can give the impression he has lost control of the narrative, but here, despite numerous circumlocutions and interruptions, that is never the case. This is perhaps because the novel’s dynamics are outlined in its opening line:

“This is a tale of the meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.”

The two men are car dealer Dwayne Hoover and science fiction author Kilgore Trout. Trout, the author of over 117 novels and 2,000 short stories, most of which were published in pornographic magazines, makes an appearance in many of Vonnegut’s novels, albeit with a lack of consistency that would bemuse even a scholar of the Marvel universe. He is sometimes seen as Vonnegut’s fictional alter ego, but Vonnegut himself will appear before the novel is finished:

“I was there to watch a confrontation between two human beings I had created: Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout. I was not eager to be recognised.”

The story is not complicated. Dwayne, unbeknownst to those around him, is suffering from an unspecified mental illness:

“Dwayne Hoover’s body was manufacturing certain chemicals which unbalanced his mankind. But Dwayne, like all novice lunatics, needed some bad ideas too, so that his craziness could have shape and direction.”

These bad ideas will come unwittingly from Kilgore Trout in the form of his novel Now It Can Be Told which, in a letter written by the creator and addressed to the reader, will reveal that everyone else on Earth is a robot, built as part of an experiment to test the only creature with free will – taking this literally will lead Dwayne Hoover to believe he is the only real person and this realisation will cause Dwayne to commit a series of violent acts at the novel’s conclusion. Dwayne and Kilgore will meet because Trout has been invited to the inaugural Midland City Arts Festival at the request of another recurring Vonnegut character, Eliot Rosewater, who has loaned the festival a painting on the condition that his favourite author appear.

Before then, however, Vonnegut will delight in delivering his damning verdict on the United States of America, summing up its raison d’etre as follows:

“Everybody in America was supposed to grab whatever he could and hold onto it.”

It would be fair to say that Vonnegut has little time for the myths which support America’s sense of identity, beginning with its ‘discovery’:

“Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them.”

Its history is general is condemned as largely fictional, as exemplified in the novel by the ‘Sacred Miracle Cave’, discovered after an earthquake on Dwayne’s  father’s farm, and now a tourist attraction founded on the story that it had been used by escaped slaves which, Vonnegut tells us, is “as fake as the one about Jesse James.” It is also threatened by the other great pillar of American identity, business, as it fills with “some sort of industrial waste which formed bubbles as tough as ping-pong balls.” Later Trout will dangle his feet in the local river only to find them immediately coated in a film of impossible to remove plastic.

Beyond its central narrative, the novel is decorated with delightful diversions, all of which add to Vonnegut’s portrait of his country. The title, he begins by telling us, is the property of a breakfast cereal, and its alternative title (Goodbye Blue Monday!) originates from a washing machine advert. As Trout travels to the festival, Vonnegut interjects pictures of the trucks and vans emblazoned with meaningless words he passes. He also adds the character of Wayne Hoobler, a faint echo of Dwayne Hoover, but with a very different life, having spent most of it in jail. He now hopes Dwayne can give him the opportunity he needs to turn his life around. Each of these contributes to the novel’s success and to Vonnegut’s excoriating critique of the USA, which rings as true fifty years on as it did then.

Slapstick, or Lonesome No More

October 11, 2021

When Kurt Vonnegut graded his own novels in the essay ‘The Sexual Revolution’ (collected in Palm Sunday) he awarded his 1976 novel Slapstick, or Lonesome No More a ‘D’ (his play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, was the only other book to dip beneath a ‘C’). In the New York Times, Roger Sale dismissed it as “flashy, clever and empty.” Sale’s main complaint was that Vonnegut had become formulaic, giving as one example the repeated use of “Hi ho” in a similar vein to “So it goes” in Slaughterhouse Five and “And so on” in Breakfast of Champions, though perhaps Vonnegut can be said to have foreseen Sale’s irritation describing the exclamation as a “kind of senile hiccup” and having his narrator declare:

“If I live to complete this autobiography, I will go through it again and cross out all the ‘Hi ho’s.”

Vonnegut’s narrator is 100-year-old Dr Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, his unusual middle name a result of his time as President when he arranged for all Americans to be given a middle name which consisted of a noun and a number so they could be part of a (very) extended family, hence his campaign slogan (and the novel’s subtitle), ‘Lonesome No More’:

“An ideal extended family… should give proportional representation to all sorts of Americans, according to their numbers. The creation of tens of thousands of such families, say, would provide America with ten thousand parliaments, so to speak, which would discuss sincerely and expertly what only a few hypocrites now discuss with passion, which is the welfare of all mankind.”

The idea is not Wilbur’s alone, but a plan created with his twin sister, Eliza. When the children are born, they are “so ugly that our parents were ashamed” They are assumed to be lacking intelligence and so give this impression, while at the same time learning to read and write in a variety of languages, reading the thousands of books in their parents’ library “by candlelight, at naptime or after bedtime.” This lasts until they are fifteen when they overhear their mother (eavesdropping in secret passageways is another pastime) say, “I would give anything… for the faintest sign of intelligence,” and so decide to reveal themselves:

“Thus did Eliza and I destroy our Paradise – our nation of two.”

They quickly discover that their intelligence is conjoined: “As the distance between Eliza and me increased,” Wilbur tells us, “I felt as though my head were turning to wood.” As with the artificial middle names they suggest, Wilbur and Eliza’s relationship speaks to Vonnegut’s criticism of loneliness as the main threat to happiness, both for the individual and for society as a whole. It also resonates on a personal level (in a Prologue, Vonnegut tells us “This is the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography”) as Vonnegut regarded his own sister, Alice, who died in 1958, as the reader for whom he wrote. In the Playboy interview in Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons, Vonnegut states:

“This is a lonesome society that’s been fragmented by the factory system.”

In the same interview, he outlines the idea for giving everyone a new middle name by law and comments, “I’m writing a Kilgore Trout story about that right now,” which suggests that Slapstick only grew into a novel later, and this is perhaps why it feels, at times, as if his reflections on loneliness have been padded out with a seemingly random selection of ideas largely unrelated to its central theme, as if pulled blindly from a science fiction ragbag.

These include a dystopian landscape in which Wilbur lives all but alone in the Empire State Building on Manhattan island – now the ‘Island of Death’ thanks to a plague known as the ‘Green Death’. The rest of the USA, meanwhile, has been decimated by a different plague (the Albanian Flu) and is now divided into a series of “Dukedoms and Kingdoms and such garbage.” The Chinese are dominant in every field, having succeeded in miniaturising themselves and colonising Mars (Wilbur is at points visited by a tiny Chinaman called Fu Manchu). Gravity is unreliable with low and high gravity days – on low gravity days, as Vonnegut never tires of reminding us, all men have a permanent erection.

Erection or not, Vonnegut has a fertile imagination, but this background is only sketched in. Wilbur’s only neighbour, Vera Chipmunk-5 Zappa, is introduced as “a woman who loves life and is better at it than anyone” yet, almost 200 pages later, we know little more about her. This is true of all the characters Vonnegut dreams up bar Wilbur and, to a lesser extent, Eliza. Perhaps more disappointingly, it is also true of Vonnegut’s wilder ideas – the tiny Chinamen seem to belong to an entirely different satire.

This is a pity as the core of the novel is far from “empty”; Vonnegut’s diagnosis of loneliness as the root of America’s problems is a prescient as ever. It also seems a long way from “flashy” – the throwaway lines and exuberant notions more an attempt to be seen to be doing his best, a quality he shares with Slapstick’s heroes, Laurel and Hardy:

“The fundamental joke with Laurel and Hardy, it seems to me, was that they did their best with every test.”

Here the joke has Vonnegut veering towards parody (would he have cared?) and leaving us with an ending so abrupt it requires a Germanic ‘Das Ende’ as a full stop. Despite this, the adventures of the dizygotic duo at the centre, the story of Wilbur and Eliza, stands on its own as both touching and provoking. (A boring afterlife, another off-cut that feels like a story in itself, is included so that they can reunite after Eliza’s death). The rest is just for laughs.

God Bless You, Mr Rosewater

October 19, 2010

If any British writer is considering imitating Yann Martel’s campaign to get world leaders reading and is deliberating on a novel to break the ice with David Cameron, they could do worse than Kurt Vonnegut’s 1965 exploration of wealth and poverty, God Bless You, Mr Rosewater. Just like our present government, it seeks to examine issues of fairness (as they relate to money) and separate the deserving from the undeserving – though it perhaps goes a little further by facing up to the central question – “What are people for?”

I am sure Mr. Cameron would be gripped from the very first sentence, which is:

“A sum of money is a leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees.”

The income from this sum of money ($87,472,033.61), in an act of legal tax avoidance (little has changed), is placed at the disposal of a charity, the Rosewater Foundation, the presidency of which is to be inherited by the eldest male Rosewater, “free to compensate themselves for their services as lavishly as they pleased.” Unfortunately, the current President, Eliot Rosewater, has been taking the Big Society a little too seriously:

“Maybe I flatter myself when I think I have things in common with Hamlet, that I have an important mission, that I’m temporarily mixed up about how it should be done.”

After more than one breakdown, and many years of alcoholism, he eventually decides to return to the town where the family fortune began – Rosewater, Indiana – and to “care about” the people living there:

“I look at these people and I realise that they can’t even care about themselves anymore – because they have no use. The factory, the farms, the mines across the river – they’re almost completely automatic now….I’m going to love these discarded Americans even though they’re useless and unattractive.”

While this may not be exactly what William Hague has in mind when it comes to welfare reform, it is remarkably cost-effective as Eliot goes about this single-handedly by manning a phone line twenty four hours a day. (We’re later told, “Eliot’s Rosewater County operation had been cheaper than staying in a sanatorium.”) Of course, such philanthropy doesn’t go unnoticed – at least, not by Norman Mushari, a lawyer who knows a thing or two about wealth creation:

“In every big transaction…there is a magic moment during which a man has surrendered a treasure, and during which the man who is due to receive it has not yet done so. An alert lawyer will make that moment his own, possessing the treasure for a magic microsecond, taking a little of it, passing it on.”

If Mushari can prove Eliot insane then he can arrange for the Rosewater fortune to be inherited by a distant relative, after removing his share of course. As well as providing another commentary on avarice, this makes the reader question how sane Eliot is, or at least, how sane his actions appear to others.

Vonnegut’s novel is in a long line of literature dealing with this question of goodness and madness – Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot is another example; as is, presumably, The New Testament – but one that is particularly concerned with money. He is quite clear that inheriting wealth is just “dumb luck” (that may not go down well in Cameron household), and creates a back story for Eliot’s family that suggests he does not buy into the idea that the entrepreneur is the highest form of life. Their fortune is created (as so many are) during war – the American Civil War. While one brother goes to fight, the other hires the village idiot to fight in his place and profits by converting his saw factory to the production of swords and bayonets. And, naturally, proceeds to swindle his brother (who returns from the war blind!) out of his share.

However, the novel’s lack of subtlety (another reason to suggest politicians as a suitable readership) does not mean it lacks complexity or seriousness. The questions it raises about equality and fairness have clearly not gone away. It is unlikely that Vonnegut would see politicians as the answer – Eliot’s father is a congressman whose greatest achievement has been to define ‘obscenity’. Above all, he reminds us that it is not about money, but about people, and it all starts with that question – “What are people for?”