Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. (Vol. 5)
Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. 1922–
Vonnegut is an enormously popular American novelist, short story writer, and playwright. His deceptively simple fantasies and science fiction are incisive commentaries on contemporary life; his slapstick comedy is black. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions is more provocative as a straw in the wind than a work of literature. It has almost no narrative interest, almost no "solidity of specification," almost no moral complication, and almost none of the inside-dopesterism characteristic of books that sell very well; yet it has sold not merely well but best. What it does have is play, wit, structural unpredictability, some ingenious mimicry of American speech, and an absurdist vision continuous with Vonnegut's previous work, though here with a different tonal range. It seems to me possible that our literary sociology is changing in some ways that are not yet clear and that Vonnegut's rather unpretentious book, so astonishingly different from any previous bestseller, may mark the beginning of a different and wider public for new, unconventional fiction.
Vonnegut's principal strategy is to contrive the voice of a naïf, which in his case is the voice of a fifty-year-old naïf. "Everybody in America," the narrator tells us, "was supposed to grab whatever he could and hold onto it. Some Americans were very good at grabbing and holding, were fabulously well-to-do. Others couldn't get their hands on doodley-squat." Elsewhere the mention of a Colonel Sanders franchise evokes the following explanation. "A chicken was a flightless bird which looked like this: [Vonnegut here inserts his own drawing of a chicken, apparently done with a felt-tip pen, in the style of a child's coloring book]. The idea was to kill it and pull out 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, so it looked like this: [here a drawing of a bucket of fried chicken]." The two obvious risks of such a voice are that it will pall and weary the reader with its limitations of tone and, secondly, that the naive observations will finally seem to represent the mind of the author, which is to say that the book is apt to make Vonnegut himself appear simple-minded. On the other hand, the possibilities of the naive voice are considerable, and Vonnegut exploits them all: being naive, the narrator has no sense of structure or priority and thus can include anything, as indeed he does, moving in a few pages through matters of eschatology and teleology, cornball manners of the Midwest, irrelevant statistics, perverse sexuality, washroom graffiti, and automobile sales techniques. The satiric possibilities of the naive voice, moreover, are classic, and Vonnegut directs his innocent voice at American guile and idiocy with considerable effect. He explains, for example, with the same dull ingenuousness that he uses to explain the bucket of fried chicken, the function of the body bag in gathering together the fragments of a soldier killed in action. Ordinarily, however, the audience for naive narration is explicit and contained: Candide explains naively to Pangloss who explains naively to Cunegonde who explains naively to Candide while we readers overhear; Gulliver explains naively to the King of Brobdingnag while we, knowing more than either of them, listen, with some humiliation and much ironic amusement. Vonnegut's narrator, on the other hand, is explaining to nobody in particular, to the generalized reader, or perhaps to himself. And thus the naïveté seems especially bald and uncontrolled, without a plausible setting. (p. 302, 304)
[The] life of the book does not reside in the continuity of its central figures. The life of the book resides in its "bits," its gags, its lines, its long succession of comic-apocalyptic events, even its drawings. So it is that it seems...
(The entire section is 6,812 words.)