Back to Basics with Vonnegut: Simplification in Breakfast of Champions

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            Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions tackles complex processes such as war, overpopulation, nationalism, art appreciation, and more and boils them down to a series of crude drawings and simplistic explanations. The plot takes a backseat to Vonnegut’s ramblings, making the novel seem more like an anthropological guide to American culture for alien civilizations. Through his author avatar, Philboyd Studge, Vonnegut himself describes the novel as a way “to clear [his] head of all the junk in there – the assholes, the flags, the underpants” (Vonnegut 5). Breakfast of Champions is a mental cleansing for both the author and the readers. Remove the overcomplicated context of what our culture so highly values and we are left with absurd but true observations about American society. By taking this outside perspective, Vonnegut allows readers to distance themselves from the conventions of their lives and re-evaluate the normality of these routines. Much like Horace Miner’s “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” which presents the practices of modern day Americans as the strange rituals of a little-known tribe, Breakfast of Champions satirically illustrates undeniable truths by dissecting our civilization into digestible pieces. In simplifying, Vonnegut strips down our defenses for flawed institutions, trivializes what we obsess over (including language itself), and turns controversial topics into points of discussion again by making them accessible.

            The simplistic and detached method of observation Vonnegut uses first takes away any excuses the reader may have for problematic trends. The audience loses the capacity to justify the more difficult aspects of society when they are presented in such transparent clarity. For example, Vonnegut chastises gun ownership by removing the possible reasons a person may have for firing a gun. He describes the gun as “a tool whose only purpose was to make holes in human beings” (Vonnegut 49). Without variables such as self-defense in the way, a gun is simply presented as a means of harming our fellow man. Vonnegut again uses this method of reduction in regards to the death penalty. To describe the electric chair, he writes, “The purpose of it was to kill people by jazzing them with more electricity than their bodies could stand” (Vonnegut 159). We lose any euphemisms about how the death penalty is meant to keep our nation safe from dangerous criminals by deterring future crimes or how it is meant to enact justice. However, Vonnegut also does not use this diagram as an opportunity to be didactic. He does not argue that we are playing God by deciding who lives and who dies. He simply presents the facts and the end result: the electric chair is used to kill people. As a result, readers must make their own judgments given the very foundation of the object.

Vonnegut’s pared down outside perspective also forces readers to reconsider their priorities by trivializing what our culture obsesses over. Early on, the author lampoons the population’s fascination with the female anatomy by presenting a childish drawing of a vagina, prefacing the image with, “The sort of beaver which excited news photographers so much looked like this” (Vonnegut 23). He compares this image with a drawing of the actual rodent, reveling in the farcical and absurd nature of our culture by means of juxtaposition. Vonnegut uses this crude method of display to poke fun at other phenomena that capture our intrigue. The majestic ancient pyramids are reduced to a series of basic triangle drawings that “tourists would come from far away to gaze at” (Vonnegut 112). Monuments such as the pyramids are important to us because of the rich history surrounding them. We ascribe significance to historical context; Vonnegut shows us what is really there. With these simple felt-marker drawings, our self-imposed meanings towards objects dissipate when we are presented with them in all their banality.

This trivialization through images also showcases the futility of language. In clearing both his head and the readers’ heads, Vonnegut cuts to the chase by drawing what he means. The author satirizes our rigid preconceptions of what a novel and story should be through devices like inserting himself into the story. Breaking literary conventions by trimming the flowery language often used to describe simple objects, Vonnegut tackles our obsession with language by demonstrating how often miscommunication leads us astray. Consider Kilgore Trout’s innocuous passing statement about Pluto’s gases, which causes widespread panic about a dangerous gang. Vonnegut writes, “So New Yorkers, who had so many nameless terrors, were easily taught to fear something seemingly specific – The Pluto Gang” (Vonnegut 77). At several points throughout the novel, the author is able to communicate exactly what he means without the need for words. If he is able to get his point across with just a picture, then why do we ascribe such importance to language? Vonnegut’s point seems to be encapsulated by Kilgore Trout’s story about a planet where language becomes pure music. As a result, “leaders in government and commerce, in order to function, had to invent new and much uglier vocabularies and sentence structures all the time, which would resist being transmuted to music” (Vonnegut 113). It appears that Vonnegut chooses the simplest means of expression so that the truths he wishes to communicate will not be misinterpreted.

The employment of simpler vernacular is a matter of accessibility – it serves to make troubling aspects of our history points of conversation again across the board. As if summarized by a child, the elementary language in the novel causes audiences to let down their guards, only to be faced with the gravity of undeniable truths. In describing the seizure of basic human rights in our history, Vonnegut writes:

Actually, the sea pirates who had the most to do with the creation of the new government owned human slaves. They used human beings for machinery, and, even after slavery was eliminated, because it was so embarrassing, they and their descendants continued to think of ordinary human beings as machines. (Vonnegut 11)

His description of the first settlers as “sea pirates” is initially amusing, until he reveals their cruel and inhumane actions during the eras of slavery. The author goes on to show how this sort of mindset has carried over today, with human labor fueling capitalism and industrialism. We see this approach again in Vonnegut’s description of Nazi Germany, when he says, “the people in a country called Germany were so full of bad chemicals for a while that they actually built factories whose only purpose was to kill people by the millions” (Vonnegut 137). He does not delve into the psychology and ideology of anti-Semitism and eugenics. The innocent diction of terms such as “bad chemicals” emerges as almost a plea from a child to consider the deplorable acts humanity is capable of. To present such events from history to a foreign civilization, this simplistic reduction becomes the best way to illustrate evils that fall outside the confines of reason. Rather than loading his prose with complex embellishments, Vonnegut’s sentences are straightforward because he wants everyone to be on the same page. While the topics are dense, the author’s style and methods are not. He presents blunt summaries of history that are nonetheless true.

            Breakfast of Champions is written in such a way that it allows readers to distance themselves from the lives they lead. Although the novel appears to be a guide to America for alien civilizations, members of human civilization are its intended audience. Vonnegut provides readers with a lens to look differently at the culture they are a part of and reflect upon what they deem as normal and what they value. This unique perspective provides a tour of Earth to its inhabitants because in many ways, we are removed from the things we are a part of. Without stepping aside, we are sometimes unable to see the big picture.

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