Thursday, June 08, 2006

Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions

Narration provides the gateway to a fictional world; it gives sight and detail to a story’s reality. Narration can take many forms but there are two prevalent ones. There’s the first-person, where a narrative is communicated via a character ensconced within it. Then there’s the omniscient watcher of events; objectivity embodied in prose. Kurt Vonnegut offers an unusual synthesis of these two perspectives in his novel Breakfast of Champions.

Throughout the first half of the book the narrative is distinctly personalised, it has a relaxed, almost spoken, approach in the relaying of plot points. The comfortable flow of language gives off the vapour of conversation; an intimate dialogue. Towards the latter half the narrator materialises inside the story. This is not strange in itself; concealing narrator identity is a popular and proficient literary device.

What marks this instance out is that the narrator appears in the story as the writer. In an eruption of post-modern self-awareness, Vonnegut situates himself in his own constructed world, with full reference to the created nature of it all. He takes much pride in relating how so-and-so character he created did this and that because he created him to do that very task. Although there’s no overt depositing of Vonnegut in the plot, it’s quite clearly a deified narrator who’s skipping about amongst his fictional little humans. And with a confident and rambunctious smirk on his face.

You do get the impression there is an impish rapscallion Vonnegut audaciously pulling strings from his New York apartment, complete with typewriter and bench top conventions. The book is jammed full of his endearing little illustrations. Aesthetic merit is unlikely to stopover near him any time soon, but the images do add another layer to the highly personalised prosodic slipstream.

What occupies the majority of the writing here are many, many asides. These range from expansive delves into background-character story, to ecological trivia. The tangents that this man’s mind rambles off on – it’s the literary equivalent of a one-way ticket to Mongolia.

The actual story is draped over this mass of squirming digressions, filling the cracks and giving substance to the book. We have two main characters; one is named Kilgore Trout, the other Dwayne Hoover. They are two Americans of roughly similar age, living in different parts of the nation. Kilgore is an unknown science-fiction writer; Dwayne a small-town entrepreneur. Kilgore receives an invitation from an arts festival taking place in Dwayne’s middle-America town, to which he leaves to go to. Most of the story is a build-up to a meeting between these two characters, an event we’re lead to believe will be a boisterous fulmination of two hundred and fifty-odd pages.

The storyline is pretty slight, but, as I said before, it’s all in the asides, and the gleeful wordplay that frames it. Some nice use of repetitive prose techniques, such as the recurring numeration of penis sizes. It’s the type of style subsequently taken to nihilistic extremes with Chuck Palahniuk. The influence is here clear, just a little less visceral imagery in Vonnegut.

But the anthropological and cultural/consumer criticisms are present. The book is written almost as if it’s intended for a young child, or those famous literary aliens from Mars that are constantly cited; someone naïve to the bloodthirsty and corrupt ways of the planet we inhabit. Castigations of government penned in adorable flights of fancy. Lingual knives shot off into the hearts of profit-mongering execs without even the hint of venomous serration.

It makes it all very easily digested, and some of that wisdom can be overlooked in the process. The plot may be slender but the highlights come in the nuggets of brilliant farce slipped in-between, or the hilarious synopsises of Kilgore’s obscure novels that punctuate his hitchhiking across the continent. Let Kurt Vonnegut take you on an excursion into American culture on a torrent of riotous self-acknowledgement.


Blogger cookie wonton said...

The first time I read this was in high school and I loved it so much I stole it from the school's library.

12:48 am  

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