Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast of Champions Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read everything Vonnegut had written when I first got into him in high school more than 30 years ago. A lot of it was still fairly new then, and I felt pretty good about myself for reading stuff that felt like the sign of a serious collegiate thinker. I’ve made it a kind of project to revisit it over the last few years to see if it holds up, and the verdict has been, for the most part, yes. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Cat’s Cradle are still really satisfying. They’re novels that raise some heavy ideas in the guise of light comedy, and they tell stories that become compelling the longer they go.

If those other, more polished novels didn’t exist, I’d give Breakfast of Champions a higher rating. As it is, though, a lot of what makes this one memorable comes to us more skillfully in those others. This has some intriguing and memorable sections. “What kind of a man turns his daughter into an outboard motor” is still funny, still as outrageous as when I first got it as a youth swimmer myself.

But large portions of this seem mannered, seem almost as if they are Vonnegut trying to imitate Vonnegut.

Kilgore Trout may be a striking figure in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, but here he is largely a projection of Vonnegut feeling sorry for himself. At his best, he brings a Bukowski seediness, but by the end, he runs out of gas. At the risk of spoiling something, he winds up in conversation with Vonnegut himself, part of the novel as a character, in an exchange that seems almost an admission that Vonnegut has written himself into a corner.

Some of the tropes get old as well. I get the insight that humans as “meat machines” is sardonic and cynical, but the ninth or tenth time we get the size of someone’s penis or a woman’s bust/waist/hip measurements, the joke gets old. Too much of this is recycled, too much Vonnegut trying to recapture something he’s dealt with earlier.

All that said, there are still many joys here. This novel comes at the end of Vonnegut’s best run, and there’s a boldness to it – especially at the beginning – that you can’t ignore. Even if it reassembles earlier successful characters, it announces itself as a radical experiment in cynicism and despair. It’s dark in an earned way, an effort to figure out what’s left when you’ve decided there’s nothing left to say. Still, bottom line, I can’t help feeling this is likely where Vonnegut ‘jumped the shark,’ where he went from being one of the real voices of his generation to a man who could no longer quite find the form for his idealistic pessimism, for his sense that we human beings are squandering the remarkable existence we’ve been granted.

View all my reviews

No comments:

Post a Comment