Reading Kurt Vonnegut

The well-known American writer, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. has many well-wishers in the U.S.S.R. who take a serious interest in his writing. The Russian translations of his satirical novels, “Player Piano,” “Cat's Cradle,” “Slaughterhouse-Five,” were immediately and widely acclaimed. His new novel, “Breakfast of Champions” which has recently appeared in Russian translation, has also been met favourably. Below we publish what MAURICE MENDELSON, a well-known Soviet scholar of American literature, has to say about this novel.

According to the somewhat ironical remark of the author, the novel, Breakfast of Champions, was conceived not only as a summary of his creative work but also as a present to himself on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday. This is perhaps why the more characteristic aspects of Vonnegut’s style are more evident here than in many other of his works. Furthermore, this novel gives an answer, and a sufficiently clear answer, although presented in a complex form, to a question that is very important for the reader: how does this present-day prominent American writer see the world?

Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions is shot through with biting sarcasm. This book could be called a satirical encyclopedia. It would be impossible, in the space of this short article, to enumerate all the evils the author exposes.

In his satirical novels Vonnegut seeks to mock the most diverse aspects of contemporary American life. One should however, not forget to mention that he introduces into his novel numberless grotesque situations and at times exaggerates his points. The author is full of contradictions and is sometimes ready to share the prejudices and delusions of the people he is ridiculing. Nevertheless, Vonnegut is perturbed at the state of American society—the consumer society.

Breakfast of Champions is of interest because it provides evidence that the old traditions of social criticism in American literature are still alive. The book also demands our attention because it offers a vivid picture of the world outlook of this major writer.

Many Western literary critics consider that over the last decade or two a very important, perhaps even the most important, place in American prose has been held by those writings at the basis of which is the idea of the extreme—and irreversible—degradation of man. In America such authors are often called “absurdist" writers, “black humorists,” or other similar names. Some historians of literature have concluded, and not without reason, that the work of these “absurdists” is really not a critique of capitalist society and its profound ideological crisis, but rather a propagation of the idea of man’s doom, the consequence of his eternal worthlessness.

Kurt Vonnegut is often considered as belonging to this category of writers. Western critics declare that he is fully convinced: all of mankind is suffering from an incurable disease which makes existence pointless. Does Breakfast of Champions strengthen the case of those critics who see Vonnegut as a consistent “absurdist” and a “black humorist,” or is the book proof of the fallacy of such theories?

An answer to this question will make it possible to judge whether or not Vonnegut is a humanist who cares about the future of mankind, or whether he believes, along with certain other modern American Writers, that mankind deserves not the slightest sympathy or trust, let alone love.

How, for example, is one to understand the fact that in a number of places the writer concentrates attention on the idea that men, particularly Americans, are only machines, robots, and that their actions are determined, in the final analysis, mechanically or by simple chemical reactions?American women, Vonnegut maintains, are not even “thinking,” but only “agreeing machines.” The author refers even to himself as a machine manufactured from meat instead of iron.

Vonnegut tells the reader in Breakfast of Champions, that the central idea of one of the most important books written by the principal hero of the novel, Kilgore Trout (the book that falls into the hands of another character—Dwayne Hoover), is that mankind consists, almost entirely, of machines. Should we accept this idea as the true position of the author himself?

Let us take a closer look at some of the places in the novel where the author expresses his ultra-sceptical opinion of human nature. Mentioning the American slave-owners of the past, Vonnegut does not hide his sarcasm about the conception that human beings are machines. He considers it necessary, for instance, to point out, that even after the formal abolition of slavery in the United States the descendants of the slave-owners “continued to think of ordinary human beings as machines.” In another chapter, he notes with the same irony that over recent years the white Southerners “weren’t using machines made out of meat any more. . .” (the Negro slaves, in other words), because they have come to the conclusion that “machines made out of metal were cheaper.. . .” These and other sardonic views expressed in Breakfast of Champions prove, of course, that the author has no sympathy with those who see man as a machine.

Still Vonnegut informs us that his hero, Trout, is prepared to subscribe to the notion that man is a machine. But significantly the author does not hesitate to call this a wrong idea and explains Trout’s state of mind by reference to his hard lot in life: he had found living so difficult that he had even wanted to die. We should add here that Vonnegut found the inhabitants of the town where Trout and Hoover meet to be lacking in truly human qualities and to be robot-like. (For example, everyone talks only about money, machinery and other “measurable things.”)

The declaration to the effect that man is a robot begins to sound as a protest against the fact that man is losing his humanity.

From such an artist as Vonnegut, who has such a passion for exposing the sores of society, one would not, of course, expect a clear and neat formulation of his positive ideal. But the author, nevertheless, gives us to understand that however much evil there is in the world, there does exist something “sacred,” something truly human, something that machines do not possess. This something is love. One of the characters in Breakfast of Champions talks in fairly definite terms about certain aspects of the writer’s ideal; he says to Trout: “. . . teach us to sing and dance and laugh and cry. We’ve tried to survive so long on money and sex and envy and real estate and football and basketball and automobiles and television and alcohol―on sawdust and broken glass!” Through Trout, the author ridicules the venal writers and journalists who have no original ideas, and, like machines, obediently follow the stereotype models.

In Vonnegut’s novel no one gains anything by believing that man is a machine; Breakfast of Champions, in fact, shows this idea not only to be false but to be dangerous. When Hoover becomes a follower of the principle that human beings are robots he turns into a maniac who begins inflicting injuries on everybody around him including the people he loves.

In my opinion, Breakfast of Champions shows more clearly than any of the author’s other books that Vonnegut is far from sharing completely the ideas of those American writers who see life as some eternal and unjustified absurdity and man as unimportant as a speck of dust.

The author, it is true, at times confuses his reader. His irony can be so cleverly hidden and his contradictions may come to the forefront so strongly that it is difficult to know what Vonnegut himself really thinks. On occasion he seems to be joining the ranks of the absurdists and the black humorists. But the most valuable in Vonnegut’s work is his genuine humanism and his sceptical attitude to the morality and assumptions of the world of property owners. The writer expresses quite openly, although he mixes his words with a good dose of irony, a longing for a life based upon principles of a higher spiritual order than those that govern the existence of men and women in capitalist society. We could mention here his comment that had presidents, senators, generals and other such influential personages begun in their youth to read literature that inspired in them fine emotions, it would have been possible to “poison” the minds of these gentlemen with. . . humanism. Very characteristic of the author is the maxim that decorates Trout’s gravestone: “We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane.”

The novel, Breakfast of Champions, is further proof that the essence of Vonnegut’s prose has to be sought, not in contempt for man, nor in an assertion of the pointlessness of his existence, but in the author’s satire, which shows a love for humanity and a passionate indignation against everything that disfigures human life.

Translated by Elizabeth Waters

SOURCE: Mendelson, Maurice. “Reading Kurt Vonnegut” [review of Breakfast of Champions], translated by Elizabeth Waters, Soviet Literature 1975 N° 8 (329), pp. 156-159.

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