Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday is a pivotal book in Vonnegut’s career as an author. It’s his 7th novel, and the one published after his masterwork Slaughterhouse-Five. Published when he was 53, it took him years to write, with a lengthy pause due to chronic depression. In a way, it is his farewell to fiction, intending to abandon the fictional form and the novel as ways to change the world or get to the truth. He returned to novels quickly however, publishing seven more.
I think the book was difficult to write because Slaughterhouse-Five was so good, and Vonnegut knew it would be hard to top. Despite the long gestation period, he wasn’t happy with the result and “gave it a C grade on a report card of his published work.” The critics were critical too, yet it remains one of his best known works – maybe in the wake of SH5‘s success?
Every artist has to deal with repetition, and Vonnegut tried to tackle it in this book by trying out two new things, but it are not much more than formal attempts, hardly changing the tone and the voice of his writing. The result is that Breakfast of Champions never rises above being generic Vonnegut. A quick dissection after the jump.
Those two new things are the included drawings, and the meta-fictional insertion of himself as a character & plot device. Sadly, the drawings don’t add anything but the fact that this book isn’t fully serious in tone and form – something anyone familiar with Vonnegut already knew. As such, the informational value of the drawings nears zero, and the same goes for their artistic and entertainment value. The other element – his presence as both a narrator and a character – doesn’t add a lot either. There is a similar effect: don’t take this novel too serious as a construction, as Vonnegut explicitly pokes a hole in its logic himself. Again, we already know he is a literary maverick. As for its emotional results or possible awe at a clever construction, the rewards are practically non-existent.
On the other hand, both literary tactics are in sync with one of the book’s main messages: life is not a neat, orderly narrative, and maybe our belief in such narratives blinds us from the truth. “I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.” Sadly, Breakfast of Champions remains a novel, even if it tries halfheartedly not to be. Vonnegut’s formal attempts simply aren’t powerful enough to really evoke chaos, his signature short vignette style notwithstanding.
Some of its themes are more outspoken than in his previous works, and especially racism, US slavery, mental health, free will and sex jump to the forefront. His analysis is well worded at times, but then again, it’s not exactly rocket science: slavery was bad, etc. Maybe some of these problems don’t need deep thought, and spelling things out in simple words can help to open eyes indeed. As such, this book has merit, and it even must have had more merit in the seventies. Maybe it still has merit if you’re American, could be.
But as a contemporary reader, familiar with similar social criticism for decades, this book was a bore, even though it is a quick read, and even though it tries to be funny. The science fictional ideas spelled out in Kilgore Trout’s novels would not make good science fiction novels, so there’s nothing to be had on that front either.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy Vonnegut’s style: Slaughterhouse Five is one of my favorite books, and I liked The Sirens of Titan, Cat’s Cradle and Armageddon in Retrospect. I guess the main issue is that Breakfast for Champions lacks internal urgency. Vonnegut’s own heart wasn’t in this attempt to let go of the novel, and that somehow shows. As he says himself, he tried “to clear my head of all the junk in there”, but the result is just that: unrelated debris, junk, more of the same.
I have copies of 1979’s Jailbird and 1985’s Galápagos on my pile. It will be interesting to see if he truly overcame this creative slump.