Written after Vonnegut's brief-lived rejection of prose, the novel is a conscious effort to break away from the successful formulas of his earlier writing. Vonnegut openly addresses himself in the role of creator "on a par with the Creator of the Universe," and with a Prospero-like gesture releases the characters from his earlier fiction. He also talks freely of his own personal experiences, including his mother's suicide and his relationship with his psychiatrist.
The result is a colloquial antinovel, a further break from the confines of realistic fiction. Vonnegut undercuts suspense by revealing his plot in the first few chapters. In one of his numerous authorial intrusions, Vonnegut states that his purpose is to bring "chaos to order," to undercut his readers' comfortable expectations. Vonnegut freely ranges in time from 1492 forward into the future, saying that life is like an endless polymer without beginning or end. He stylistically emphasizes this notion of continuity by beginning many of his sentences with the word "And." In another rebellion against the order of realistic fiction, he makes no effort to dish out moral justice; the good and the evil suffer equally.
Other technical experiments in Breakfast for Champions derive from pop art. Vonnegut's felt-tip-pen illustrations reduce experience to its inexorable essence while parodying Americans' tendency to accept simplistic, commercial versions of reality. Their crudeness mocks...
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Breakfast of Champions is set in an America stripped of physical and spiritual beauty. Before setting out on the darkly humorous journey to the heartland that takes him past various scenes of ecological and human destruction, Kilgore Trout cries out, "I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains. I can't live without a culture anymore." But when he arrives in Midland City, where antipersonnel bombs and body bags are manufactured, he is confronted by a garish array of fast-food restaurants and neon-lit motels divided by a vile stream called Sugar Creek.
The interspersed historical notes, which rewrite American history as a tale of racist sea pirates, place these observations in a larger context, reminding the reader of the dark and paradoxical nature of American capitalism. The contradiction between the ideal of American independence and the actual experience of Vonnegut's Americans is symbolized by Thomas Jefferson's ownership of slaves. In summary, the book reminds its readers of the continuing bloodshed in Vietnam, addresses Americans' increased concern over the ecological destruction of the planet, satirically explores the vacuity of American culture, questions the benefits of capitalism, and suggests that racism is central to the structure of American society.
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Perhaps the most important literary precedent is The Tempest, Shakespeare's symbolic exploration of the role of the artist. Like Shakespeare, Vonnegut explores the ambiguous connection between the real and the invented, questions the authority of the artist, and considers the paradox of freedom. Like Prospero, he frees his literary thralls at the novel's end although he cannot grant them the happiness and immortality they want.
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Although Vonnegut frees his characters in Breakfast of Champions, several are recalled in later books: In the Prologue to Jailbird (1976), Vonnegut announces that "Kilgore Trout is back again. He could not make it on the outside"; Deadeye Dick (1982) is set in Midland City in the years prior to Kilgore Trout's disastrous visit and describes many of the same characters; the ghost of Leon Trotsky Trout, the son of Kilgore Trout, narrates Galapagos (1985) from a distant future long after humanity has extinguished itself.
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Allen, William Rodney, ed. Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988. One of the definitive sources on Vonnegut’s personal insights into his literary themes and style and his aesthetic vision.
_______. Understanding Kurt Vonnegut. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991. A perceptive critical study of Vonnegut’s fiction. Provides many valuable insights into his most important novels and short stories, including an extensive analysis of Breakfast of Champions.
Boon, Kevin A., ed. At Millennium’s End: New Essays on the Work of Kurt Vonnegut. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. A diverse collection of essays on Vonnegut’s fiction and broader cultural influence.
Broer, Lawrence R. Sanity Plea: Schizophrenia in the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut. 2d ed. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994. One of the most significant and widely cited works on Vonnegut’s fiction. Probes the depths of what Broer finds to be Vonnegut’s most pervasive theme, schizophrenia.
Leeds, Marc. The Vonnegut Encyclopedia: An Authorized Compendium. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Ambitious both in scale and scope, this collection is especially useful as an introduction to...
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