Breakfast of Champions – A breakfast buffet of delights for notorious homosexual AndyMay 30, 2011
A book featuring the words “notorious homosexual” and a Texta drawing of the author’s asshole (or arsehole, as we’d call it in Australia) has to have a lot going against it to make it fail. Thankfully Kurt Vonnegut’s 50th birthday present to himself – as he describes Breakfast of Champions in the novel’s preface – has almost nothing going against it at all. It is one of the most spectacularly entertaining, witty, intelligent books I’ve ever read. I usually leave the “if you haven’t read this book read it now” line to the end. But. IF YOU HAVEN’T READ BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS READ IT NOW.
Here is a picture of Vonnegut’s asshole, as depicted by Vonnegut himself. If like me you are a notorious homosexual there is a pretty good chance that you’ve seen a number of assholes in your time (although I must admit I’ve never seen my own asshole – I was quite flexible in my 20s but even then some things were beyond me) and I think you’ll agree this looks nothing like an actual asshole. That, obviously, is not remotely the point.
There’s another picture of an asshole later on in the book. It’s a different asshole, and a different drawing. I’d show you that one too but I can’t find it on Google and my phone’s taking shit pictures.
A lot of Vonnegut’s pictures are shit. His asshole pictures are particularly shit. That, obviously, in not remotely the point. The point is that for the most part they’re meant to be shit. Or at least they’re supposed to be silly. I’ve read books that’ve used silliness for subversive purposes before, perhaps even sillier, more subversive books than this. But I can’t remember any of them off the top of my head. Vonnegut is silly, and subversive, and satirical. I don’t know that I have a complete handle on what he was trying to achieve with Breakfast of Champions but among other things he’s undermining some of the myths America has built around itself, and perhaps some of the myths 20th century humanity has built around itself. He’s especially riled by consumerism, which in the early 70s when he wrote this book was only just firing up; Christ knows what he thought about it by the time he died four years ago.
The story is not much to think about, really. An abysmally unsuccessful writer of pulp scifi is invited to a cultural festival in a town whose secondhand car salesman is on the verge of a nervous breakdown; upon arriving the writer of pulp scifi loans the secondhand car salesman a copy of one of his books, inadvertently triggering a total emotional meltdown and a number of very serious injuries to bystanders. That’s it, really.
It’s what Vonnegut builds into this initially banal storyline that makes it so special. Oh, and the pictures, of course. So the abysmally unsuccessful writer of pulp scifi gets most of his stories and novels published in titty magazines (hey, don’t laugh too hard, even Tim Winton’s had stories published in Playboy). The secondhand car salesman has a son who is – surprise! – a notorious homosexual, who plays piano in a bar. Actually it’s the bar of the motel owned by the secondhand car salesman in which the total emotional meltdown takes place. On his way to the festival the writer goes to New York, spends a few hours in a porn cinema (I haven’t seen the words “dirty movies” in print for a long time. Even when he’s out of date Vonnegut makes me smile) and is then beaten up and robbed. The secondhand car salesman employs a closet transvestite (not a notorious homosexual though – the closet transvestite is married and his wife knows all about it and they have a very active sex life).
Then there’s wide-open beavers and penis length and women who kill themselves by eating Drano, many, many references to “niggers”, made ironically by someone who is obviously not a racist, but even under those circumstances I wonder if he’d get away with it today. And Vonnegut obviously had rather more scientific knowledge than your average 70s American – his references to “bad chemicals” in relation to mental illness, and his concern for the environment and what appear to be references to global warming nearly two decades before the concept was widely understood are especially interesting.
There are one or two very, very, very minor weaknesses. I’m pretty sure the Germans were making the Veedub Beetle while they were still “sick” (you’ll have to read it to understand what the fuck I’m on about). But a small factual error is nothing, really, especially when it’s accompanied by a totally, awesomely crap Texta drawing of a Veedub Beetle. The whole postmodernist bollocks at the end – introducing himself as a character and then revealing himself to the abysmally unsuccessful writer of scifi as the Creator of the Universe – ho hum. Yes yes, it worked, kind of, I’ll give him that, but… Ho hum.
I enjoyed Slaughterhouse Five. I’m not sure I loved it. I loved Breakfast of Champions. It is going to burrow its way into my consciousness in the same way Carver’s short stories did. Breakfast of Champions is only the third Vonnegut book I’ve read. For all I know every one of his other books is going to leave me feeling this way. I look forward to finding out.
I was going to take a photo of my own asshole and stick it in down here, but then I thought that wouldn’t be in very good taste and also, probably, illegal.