annotation by Tina Rubin
Between laughing out loud at Vonnegut’s sarcastic wit and agreeing with his philosophy, I appreciated the techniques that made this novel such a hit. Despite using deceptively simple language and a straightforward plot, Vonnegut pulled off some huge themes while maintaining dramatic structure and character arcs. While he “cleaned out the junk” that was in his head after fifty years on the planet, I gladly picked it up.
Vonnegut uses a closed narrative structure in this book, telling the reader in the first chapter what’s going to happen (Dwayne Hoover will go insane after reading a science fiction novel by Kilgore Trout)—so the question is how the events will unfold. I mention this first because it resonated with me for my own novel. Letting readers know up front what’s coming would, I think, add interest and irony and solve the problem I’ve had foreshadowing the dark turn the story is going to take (this worked really well for Daphne du Maurier in Rebecca, too).
Of course, what sets Breakfast of Champions apart from many novels, other than that it’s Vonnegut, is that it’s metafiction. Vonnegut steps into the story about two-thirds of the way through and takes an active role in the plot. This is where the story came alive for me—suddenly it was more than a brilliant parody of twentieth-century American life, it was an interdimensional entity (or the illusion of such) that kicked me awake and got me engaged. The technique is being used frequently these days, it seems, but it called to mind Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Orhan Pamuk’s The White Castle, neither of which worked as well for me as Breakfast. Vonnegut’s simplicity is the key here, as opposed to Pamuk’s massive confusion of the reader of that particular novel and Kundera’s ponderousness.
The main characters are interesting and fairly complex. Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout grow and change, but not the author—as the author, Vonnegut’s just stepping in to fulfill his fictional mission, I suppose, which is to free Kilgore Trout from his control. Hoover and Trout, meanwhile, are opposite in every way. (The way they talk to their pets reflects it: Hoover talks to his dog of love; Trout talks with his parakeet about the end of the world). It’s fun to observe the way Vonnegut brings them closer and closer until they finally cross paths at the Midland City Arts Festival. And then Vonnegut reverses their fortunes, so that Trout, who’s been through hell getting to this point, has a meaningful life as a Nobel Prize winner helping humanity, and Hoover, who had the best of everything, is a blabbering wanderer who’s seriously hurt many people. Their journey looks like this:
and so on.
I want to mention one part that inspired me: After Hoover and Francine Plefco make love in the afternoon, when Hoover’s “bad chemicals” have begun taking effect, the two talk about electrocution (there’s a prison behind the motel) and opening a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. This was so funny and seemed so random at first. But when I thought about it, the scene is about the body, human and chicken, and what we do to it. This section made me realize that planning a scene is essential—I can’t just write spontaneously and expect it to work. On second thought, though, that might be exactly what Vonnegut did. The best stuff comes from the subconscious.