Saturday, July 6, 2013

Quick Hit: "Breakfast of Champions" by Kurt Vonnegut

At this point in the summer, it should be time for another "Sandman" review, but I'm out of town this weekend--as I was last weekend because I'm very popular and important--and there isn't time.

I'm going to do a very quick review of Kurt Vonnegut's "Breakfast of Champions," which I read in a single sitting on the Fourth of July, Independence Day, America's birthday, the best of all days etc.

This is the second Vonnegut book I've reviewed. The other one was "Slaughterhouse-Five" if you want to relive the magic. I thought it would be appropriate to read Vonnegut on Independence Day because he always has such cutting things to say about American society, and "Breakfast of Champions" is no different.

This is the first work of his I've read that deals explicitly with racism, and I was pleased to discover that he does it right, for lack of a better term. Not to be down on the genre, but scifi writers, especially male ones, tend to hold some troubling views about sex, gender, and racial politics ("John Carter of Mars"). It always bums me out to read something racist or sexist in a book I've been enjoying up to that point, because I'm not a person who can sweep aside the more problematic elements of a work and enjoy the rest of it at face value. Once the author has revealed himself as racist or sexist, the work loses credibility in my eyes.

But we're not talking about those authors, we're talking about Vonnegut, who I feel to be the greatest American satirist since Mark Twain. His books are basically, "This is bullshit, and this is bullshit, and this thing here that you've never thought that deeply about, it's bullshit too, and fuck the wealthy and the awful people with too much money and power, and fuck you for putting up with it, you poor doomed bastards."

But, you know--literary.

"Breakfast of Champions" is the least scifi book of his that I've read. There are no aliens, time travel, post-apocalyptic scenarios, or crazy inventions. A wealthy man in a Midwestern town is going mad; an aging and unsuccessful scifi author is hitchhiking to the Midwestern town to attend an arts festival there; they briefly collide; and eventually the scifi author is going to win the Nobel Prize in medicine for his theories on ideas as viruses.

There's also a few subplots about writers as the Creators of small universes, since the narrator of the story is the writer of the story. It gets a little meta in places, for example when the author explains that he gave this character's mother these traits because the writer's own mother had them, and it scarred the writer in the same way that it scarred the character. And yet, even though the book tells you several times that this is all made up and even pulls back the curtain to show you how its crafted, the story never stops feeling meaningful. It's an amazing thing that I don't feel I've described very well here. You just have to read it yourself and experience the genius that is Vonnegut.

Final grade: B. I always enjoy Vonnegut, but this isn't one of his stronger works. Recommended for fans of the author and those who like biting social commentary. Happy Independence Day!

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