Breakfast of Champions is the quintessential Vonnegut piece: the book is punctuated with pithy phrases, short, staccato sentences that underpin profound social commentary, hilarious anecdotes, and irrelevant trivia.
The story consists of two main characters, Kilgore Trout and Dwayne Hoover. Kilgore Trout is a relatively unsuccessful science fiction writer. Dwayne Hoover is an incredibly rich entrepreneur who owns much of Midland City. Kilgore Trout writes a book which possesses Dwayne Hoover with the belief that he is the only person in the world who has free will. Violence commences. Other things happen. These things include pornography, assholes, and extensive discussion about penis length. I find penis talk funny.
The story is, however, rather irrelevant—it functions largely as a vehicle for social commentary in which Vonnegut disguises a scathing rebuke of topics such as patriotism, capitalism, free will and anti-environmentalism with crude sketches and a Byzantine plot. The value of the book, however, lies in its side stories.
In these asides, Vonnegut unpacks and reduces behaviors, routines, and symbols into their bare constituents, in the process exposing the often hideous reality that underpins them. Referring to Columbus and the ‘discovery’ of America, Vonnegut opines “the sea pirates were white. The people who were already on the continent when the pirates arrived were copper-colored. When slavery was introduced onto the continent, the slaves were black. Color was everything.” And in a single paragraph, Vonnegut lays bare the uncomfortable, colored reality upon which our country is founded. The absurdity of this reality, that history is shaped by something as childish as differences of color, is consummately exposed through the a rather sterile, clinical writing style which enables Vonnegut to dissect the underlying content behind the metaphor that cloaks thought and language.
It is an incredibly powerful rhetorical device to describe reality as if you were explaining it to a child. Explorers and navigators are stripped of their titles, and relegated to ‘sea pirates’; race is reduced to ‘color’; Liberty’s torch on the preceding page becomes ‘an ice-cream cone on fire’; and so on. When you constrain yourself to a fifth grade vocabulary, forced to construct meaning through the most naked and axiomatic of structures, you render some very tortuous concepts—patriotism, colonization, exploration— laughable and tragic.
Consider his depiction of chicken consumption: “The idea was to kill it and pull out all its feathers, and cut off its head and feet and scoop out its internal organs—and then chop it into pieces and fry the pieces, and put the pieces in a waxed paper bucket with a lid on it…” The process sounds, and is, barbaric. Yet people rarely interrogate their own behavior. Instead, they insulate their perspective through sophistry and rhetoric, and go on living a rather unexamined life.