“I Can’t Live Without Culture Anymore”: The way we read science fiction as demonstrated through Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions

Til Knowles |

I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains. I can’t live without culture anymore.

What do you want from your science fiction? Detailed descriptions of non existent utopias? Interstellar wars fought with weapons blueprinted from tomorrow’s technology? Humour? The meaning of life?

We are lucky enough to be living in an age flooded with pop culture analysis at every level, from teenage girls live blogging the latest episode of Supernatural, to PhDs on the parallels between Voldemort and Hitler, via the A.V. Club’s “close watch” reviews of Battlestar Galactica and Farscape. Surely all this analysis, all this layman narratology and cultural contextualisation, shows that we, as an audience, are not content with critically disengaged art. This is particularly true with regards to science fiction, which has long been aligned with allegory; not necessarily the “one to one” allegory that many modern science fiction writers reject in favour of metaphor, but rather the allegorical as a convention of genre.[1] Science fiction has always been about exploring, critiquing and allegorising some aspect of the real world.

Yet science fiction also comes from a place of “low art”, of gratification and entertainment. Much popular modern science fiction has its foundations in the pulp and pornographic magazines of the early and mid twentieth century, with Playboy publishing Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, to name a well known few. This latter aspect of science fiction’s history has been fictionalised in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions (1973), wherein Kilgore Trout publishes the majority of his science fiction stories in hardcore pornography magazines. Kilgore Trout’s trajectory is representative of the careers of many science fiction writers, from the crazy appearance and the dirty beginnings to the melancholic optimism and ultimately the adoration of the public. In fact, the whole novel is both exemplary as a representation of recent science fiction themes, and the genre’s ability to combine the intellectual and the emotional.

Breakfast of Champions coverKurt Vonnegut is considered, by most academics, to be a post modern humanist. The title of Todd F Davis’ book summarises the positive critical response to Vonnegut’s work: Kurt Vonnegut’s Crusade; Or How A Post Modern Harlequin Preached a New Kind of Humanism (2006). According to Davis, “the ‘post modernism’ celebrated by critics is undermined by the ‘humanism’ that attracts a popular audience” (in Cacicedo 2007, 116), as though the two are mutually exclusive, and as if those two reader categories do not intersect.

However, the description of Vonnegut as a “post modern humanist” holds up when applied to the content of his work. Vonnegut’s combination of post modern technique and humanist values is important because it precedes the search for subjective sincerity that pervades the cultural and literary zeitgeist today. This kind of subjective sincerity is evident in the impact and angst of late 20th and early 21st century literary authors like David Foster Wallace, who seek a unity between the dominant post modern form and the belief that “fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being” (McCaffery, 1993). Vonnegut’s work, like many ideas first explored in science fiction, is prototypical. His writing technique is thoroughly post modern. Open any introduction to literary theory text, say Peter Barry’s straightforward Beginning Theory (2009), to the section of post modernism and note how each of the following described elements in Vonnegut’s work aligns with the theory as explained by Barry (2009, 87). The paragraphical style of Breakfast of Champions is fragmented and interspersed with Vonnegut’s drawings. The novel’s continuity is fragmented too, with Vonnegut summarising the entire plot, climax included, in the first chapter. Important moments often feature simultaneous sequences, decentralising the narrative from its main characters. A better example of post modern fiction could perhaps only be found in Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985).

The structure of the narrative is post modern too, presenting a fractured story more focused on ideas than truths. Set in the fictional Midland City, Breakfast of Champions documents Dwanye Hoover, car salesman, and his descent into mental illness, culminating in a violent outburst. This mental illness has been caused by a “bad idea” of Kilgore Trout’s, presented in a science fiction story that posits that everyone in the world is a robot except for you – you have free will. Throughout the novel, Vonnegut gleefully points out that the character of Kilgore Trout, his bad idea (in fact all of his ideas), Dwanye Hoover, and Midland City, are all constructs of the author, ironically reflecting and refracting the unfolding narrative. Vonnegut’s self-reflexive presence in his own work appears for the first time in the second chapter, revealing subjectivity in what had appeared to be objective narration, ambiguity in the certain, personal in the general, and the human in the post modern. The structure of Breakfast of Champions mirrors, in a metafictional fashion, the structure of Kilgore Trout’s novel, as ultimately Vonnegut gifts Trout “free will” (269).

Let’s consider how post modernism views science fiction then, seeing as Vonnegut’s work clearly employs a post modern discourse on a technical level. The most notable post modernist take on the thematics of science fiction stems from Jean Baudrillard’s chapter on the genre, “Science Fiction and Simulacra” from Simulacra and Simulation (1995). Baudrillard posits that there are three orders of simulacra which map onto three subsets of science fiction – utopias, projections and hyperrealities (121). The key difference between these orders of simulacra is distance. Where the utopias maximise the distance between fiction and reality by romanticising it, projections reduce the distance by extending reality into fiction. In hyperreal science fiction the distance has been reabsorbed, fiction and reality jostling in the same space, intertwined (124).

Vonnegut’s stories are third order simulacra, especially Breakfast of Champions with its first person author narrator alongside its fictional science fiction writer. Trout is the protagonist, the true focaliser for Vonnegut, and the man with whom readers sympathise. Yet Trout is not the hero of the novel. Vonnegut gives that title to Dwanye Hoover – the chemically imbalanced Pontiac dealer – on page 13 of the prologue. It is through Hoover, moreover, that Vonnegut’s humanism is demonstrated. Vonnegut’s description of Hoover as an attractive well-endowed man with “oodles of charm” (28) creates an empathetic character who is as deserving as anyone in his right to preside over his life’s meaning, even in the face of his slipping grasp on reality and increasingly unhinged and destructive behaviour.

Vonnegut drawing 'Beavers'Without reading Vonnegut’s work in an ethical humanist light, critics are easily swept up and drowned by the perceived negativity of the writing. The clearest example of this is Peter Messent’s article “Breakfast of Champions: The Direction of Kurt Vonnegut’s Fiction” (1974). Messent criticises Vonnegut’s post modern techniques, in particular dismissing the drawings, “which seem for the most part absolutely pointless” (iii). The drawings are simplistic doodles of automobiles, signs, dinosaurs, assholes and wide-open beavers. They serve to literally illustrate Vonnegut’s narratives and asides, which simultaneously alienates – by breaking from the traditional novel form – and familiarises – by over explaining common concepts – the reader with the text. Yet such stylistic interventions – the drawings along with the self-reflexive voice of the author in the text – are where Davis claims that Vonnegut seeks to fill the vacuum “at the heart of post modernism” (Cacicedo 2007, 116) with the ethics of humanism. The relationship between post modernism and humanism in Vonnegut’s work is not one of the latter “fixing” the former; rather the two operate as parallel modes of reading; the critical discourse and the ethical viewpoint.

In the book, post modernism and humanism intersect through the two main characters: Trout embodies post modern critique, and Hoover stands for a more humanistic mode of narrative therapy. To understand how these two elements work alongside each other, a psychoanalytic discourse on reading is helpful on two levels. Firstly, the humanistic elements of Vonnegut’s work cannot be successfully read through post modernism, whereas like humanism, psychoanalysis has a distinctive focus on the individual’s narrative (Barry 2009, 101). Secondly, psychoanalysis, in the form of psychotherapy, is important to Vonnegut. The two central characters Hoover and Trout provide the “pathological, or psychic, context” of the novel: the psychotic and the neurotic (ibid.). Hoover is a victim of ideas and post modernism; his thoughts and actions are pervaded by it. Trout vocalises these ideas, but he is not impaired by them. They are two displaced parts of Vonnegut’s own struggles with mental illness and authorship, and in this regard Vonnegut’s novel operates like a dream.

With psychoanalysis in the mix, it should be noted that there is a distinct lack of authorial unconscious in Breakfast of Champions. Freud theorises “transference and displacement of psychical intensities occurs in the process of dream formation” (2001, 925); by separating the character suffering and the creator, Vonnegut is able to reconcile the conflict they cause one another. This effort to reconcile the “narrative world” and the “real world’ links directly to Vonnegut’s own mental health and his self fictionalisation.  He is fully aware of what he is symbolising with his narrative constructs; Vonnegut, familiar with his own misbehaving brain chemistry, is not afraid to take a pill or talk to someone in order to secure his happiness. He directly confesses in Breakfast, “I think I am trying to clear my head of all the junk in there” (14). What would usually manifest as a character’s unconscious personal tension instead unfolds as overt interpersonal conflict between characters and direct addresses to the reader.

Vonnegut drawing 'Assholes'Vonnegut wants to have a conversation, with his characters, his readers, and himself. He stages this conversation through post modern techniques, and as such Breakfast of Champions is frequently poignant and uplifting, the sincerity of otherwise corny or depressing sentiments brought home by the author’s presence. Vonnegut combines the narrative structure with the content of therapy explicitly and personally, saying “And now comes the spiritual climax of this book, for it is at this point I, the author, am suddenly transformed by what I have done so far. This is why I have gone to Midland City: to be born again” (203).

It is this kind of intervention into his own narrative which allows Vonnegut to so overtly unify the intellectualism of post modernity with the emotionality of human experience. Combining discourse and narrative therapy allows Vonnegut to reflect on worlds and the people that live in them without being either too general or too realistic. As Vonnegut says towards the end of the novel, in agreement with Kilgore Trout “about realistic novels and their accumulations of nit picking details”: “I already know about human beings” (255). Yet Breakfast of Champions is a novel that delights in conversing with the intellect and the emotion of human beings. Herein lies the power and the joy of science fiction.

[1] Speculative fiction and new-weird author China Mieville explains his rejection of allegory in favour of metaphor in an interview about his novel The City and the City (2009). Mieville cites Fredric Jameson and J. R. R. Tolkien when discussing his “cordial dislike of allegory” and its implication that there is “a specifically correct meaning”. Mieville argues that “metaphor is intrinsically more unstable” and less reductive than allegory (quoted in Manaugh 2011).

References

Baudrillard, Jean 1995. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Barry, Peter 2009. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. 3rd edition. Manchester University Press.

Cacicedo, Alberto 2007. “Todd Davis Review”, Studies In the Novel Vol. 39. No 1. Spring, University of North Texas, 116–117.

Davis, Todd 2006. Kurt Vonnegut’s Crusade; Or, How a Postmodern Harlequin Preached a New Kind of Humanism. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Freud, Sigmund 2001. “The Interpretation of Dreams”, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, W.W Norton, 918–929.

McCaffery, Larry 1993. “A Conversation with David Foster Wallace”, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 13.2.

Manaugh, Geoff 2011. “Unsolving the City: An Interview with China Mieville”, BLDGBLOG, <http://bldgblog.blogspot.com.au/2011/03/unsolving-city-interview-with-china.html> (accessed 3 April 2014).

Messent, Peter 1974. “Breakfast of Champions: The Direction of Kurt Vonnegut’s Fiction”, Journal Of American Studies, Vol. 8 No. 1, pp. 101–114.

Vonnegut, Kurt 1982 [1973]. Breakfast of Champions. Sydney: Granada Publishing.

Bio

Til Knowles is a writer, radio presenter, and reviewer, currently completing her Bachelor of creative writing at RMIT University. Til is a regular contributor to online geek review site www.popculture-y.com. Her fiction has been published in Gore Journal and she is a co founder of the collaborative multimedia science fiction website www.chronicleduniverse.com. Til is currently involved with SYN radio, having just wrapped up two seasons of the movie discussion show The Good, the Bad, and the Box Office.

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