“Breakfast of Champions” is overt metafiction and satire, and it may be one of the weirdest examples of Vonnegut’s work.
Loosely, the story is about a writer who has been published a lot but who is not well known, and a man who is mentally ill but no one has noticed. They meet, and this meeting is the catalyst for the mentally ill man to run amock. However, this plot is bare, the outcome is mentioned very early on, and the real intent of this book is not to tell a story. The author, instead, uses this as a hook on which to hang satirical comment about people and life, and to refer constantly to the writing of the book, to his own thoughts while writing, his own life, and, towards the end, inserts himself into the narrative as The Creator (in terms of the story characters, anyway).
Metafiction can be defined as a “form of literature that emphasizes its own constructedness in a way that continually reminds the reader to be aware that they are reading or viewing a fictional work”. Vonnegut consistently refers to himself, what he is creating, how he is writing, and what his intentions are
“I sat there in the cocktail lounge of my own invention, and I stared through my leaks at a white cocktail waitress of my own invention. I named her Bonnie MacMahon.”
Vonnegut explains that ‘leaks’ are his main character’s word for glass, and the character imagines that you can look through glass to a different universe. So Vonnegut here mentions his glasses in this way to emphasize this is a world he has made up. He refers to himself as the god of the universe he has made up. He decides for convenience that the mad character has done a course of speed-reading, solely in order to facilitate his reading of the writer’s book that’s going to give him a rationale for his insanity.
A significant moment occurs when one of Vonnegut’s own characters does, according to him, something he didn’t expect the character to do, thus inspiring Vonnegut himself to believe that free will may be a possibility after all. Of course, as Vonnegut is creating all of this anyway, his statement that the character has done his own thing is dubious (though many authors claim this of their characters). Is the reader supposed to believe him? It’s hard to tell.
Vonnegut manages to satirize a large number of aspects of human behaviour and society during this book. His references are American, but you don’t have to be American to understand and appreciate this. For example, he says?
- As children we were taught to memorize this year with pride and joy as the year people began living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America. Actually, people had been living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America for hundreds of years before that. 1492 was simply the year sea pirates began to rob, cheat, and kill them.
He goes on to say this about the ‘sea pirates’:
The truth of this is quite obvious, but said in a way that makes the reader nod and chuckle at the same time.
The constant references to genitalia, both male and female, might lead the superficial reader to believe this book was written by a twelve year old boy, but the author’s point is that we are so obsessed with sex that we might as well all be stuck in pubescence for all our lives. Sexuality is, like it or not, treated as a defining trait of a person (Vonnegut’s reference to the size of various male characters’ penises as a reflection of how ‘manly’ they are). Pornography sells (see Kilgore Trout’s books, which have pornography on the covers though the contents are completely different), and you only need to casually look about you at today’s advertising to know the truth of this.
So, in conclusion, if you are looking for a novel with a beginning, middle and end, this is probably not for you. But if you are in the mood for something different with lashing of wicked satire and absurdist metafiction, give “Breakfast of Champions” a try.