BY MATTHEW HERBERT
I’m chipping away at writing a review of Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece, Slaughterhouse Five. It’s not going well.
The subject of Slaughterhouse Five is the aerial firebombing of Dresden, which killed 38,000 Germans on the night of February 14, 1945. The Allies, the good guys, did it. And we did it for the sake of retribution. The war was almost over, and Dresden had no military value. We just decided that burning down a Baroque city of opera houses and picture galleries would be a nice touch.
The event made no sense; it surpassed the human ability to comment. But still, Vonnegut was there. He bore witness. He had to write about it, and for years he called the working manuscript his “big, important Dresden novel,” poking fun at his own pretension and his own meager capacity to comment.
I’m in the same boat, trying to write about something much bigger than me. How do you say anything intelligent about a novel whose subject matter was chosen because it defies intelligent commentary? The recursive trick can only be pulled off once, I feel, and Vonnegut already did it.
While I was busy feeling stuck on Slaughterhouse Five, I needed a pick-me-up. So I re-read Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut’s eighth novel. It is zany and wise but not a masterpiece. On its release in 1973 it was widely panned for being cheaply outrageous. Even to me, a huge fan, Breakfast of Champions gives the impression in places of following a well-worn formula. But in a way it also offers proof of Vonnegut’s greatness. If Breakfast of Champions is the kind of thing Vonnegut can reel off on a bad day, truly we stand in the presence of a genius.
I’m going to prove it. And I’m going to prove it by cheating.
Rather than churning out one of my turgid, philosophical essays about hidden structures and moral realism and so forth, what I’m going to do is: march straight through the text of Breakfast of Champions and give you the money quotes. I will proffer only the smallest soupcons of comment along the way, promise. I just can’t be bothered to think very hard today.
Where better to start than with the founding of our country, by enlightened commercial privateers whom Vonnegut calls “sea pirates.” A good 35 years before the New York Times “1619 Project” claimed that rapaciousness and subjugation were organically part of our colonial founding, Vonnegut was already on point:
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.
The sea pirates were white. The people who were already on the continent when the pirates arrived were copper-colored. When slavery was introduced onto the continent, the slaves were black. Color was everything.
Here is how the pirates were able to take whatever they wanted from anybody else: they had the best boats in the world, and they were meaner than anybody else, and they had gunpowder, which was a mixture of potassium nitrate, charcoal, and sulphur. They touched this seemingly listless powder with fire, and it turned violently into gas. This gas blew projectiles out of metal tubes at terrific velocities. The projectiles cut through meat and bone very easily; so the pirates could wreck the wiring or the bellows or the plumbing of a stubborn human being, even when he was far, far away. The chief weapon of the sea pirates, however, was their capacity to astonish. Nobody else could believe, until it was much too late, how heartless and greedy they were.
More or less, the sea pirates thought they were doing the copper-colored people a favor in 1492. That’s what we learned as kids in school, right?
The teachers told the children that  was when their continent was discovered by human beings. Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them.
Breakfast of Champions is a novel of ideas, but not in the usual sense. Rather than tracing one or two big ideas all the way though, it goes different directions. Sometimes it’s about bad ideas and how humanity has survived despite having so many of them. Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s favorite made-up science fiction writer, does yeomen service looking into this question. He comes up with some answers, too.
And here, according to Trout, was the reason human beings could not reject ideas because they were bad: “Ideas on Earth were badges of friendship or enmity. Their content did not matter. Friends agreed with friends, in order to express friendliness. Enemies disagreed with enemies, in order to express enmity.
The ideas Earthlings held didn’t matter for hundreds of thousands of year, since they couldn’t do much about them anyway. Ideas might as well be badges as anything.
. . . And then Earthlings discovered tools. Suddenly agreeing with friends could be a form of suicide or worse.
In our time, of course, our idea badges have been put to serious use, thanks to our tools. Cold War economics was instructive in this area:
Dwayne Hoover’s and Kilgore Trout’s country, where there was still plenty of everything, was opposed to Communism. It didn’t think that Earthlings who had a lot should share it with others unless they really wanted to, and most of them didn’t want to.
So they didn’t have to.
Everybody in America was supposed to grab whatever he could and hold on to it. Some Americans were very good at grabbing and holding, were fabulously well-to-do. Others couldn’t get their hands on doodly-squat.
Mostly we get our idea badges from school. Regarding Kilgore Trout’s chidlhood education in Ohio:
His high school was named after a slave owner who was also one of the world’s greatest theoreticians on the subject of human liberty.
So it goes.
Dwayne Hoover, Breakfast of Champions’s antagonist, is psychotic, Vonnegut tells us. It’s because of bad chemicals in his brain. Moreover:
A lot of people were like Dwayne: they created chemicals in their own bodies which were bad for their heads. But there were thousands upon thousands of other people in the city who bought bad chemicals and ate them or sniffed them–or injected them into their veins . . .
People took such awful chances with chemicals and their bodies because they wanted the quality of their lives to improve. They lived in ugly places where there were only ugly things to do. They didn’t own doodley-squat, so they couldn’t improve their surroundings. So they did their best to make their insides beautiful instead.
Well, it is hard being human. Kilgore Trout, impoverished, unknown science fiction writer, knows this:
[Street life] had given him a life not worth living, but it had given him an iron will to live. This was a common combination on the planet Earth.
And people in America aren’t just ravaging themselves over this dilemma. They’re doing it to the ground beneath their feet, too. As Kilgore Trout hitchhikes through West Virginia, he is positioned to observe:
The surface of the state had been demolished by men and machinery and explosives in order to make it yield up its coal. The coal was mostly gone now. It had been turned into heat.
The surface of West Virginia, with its coal and trees and topsoil gone, was rearranging what was left of itself in conformity with the laws of gravity. It was collapsing into all the holes which had been dug into it. Its mountains, which had once found it easy to stand by themselves, were sliding into valleys now.
The demolition of West Virginia had taken place with the approval of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the State Government, which drew their power from the people.
That last part is the kicker.
Life is not just institutionalized in demented ways in the America. Bad craziness seeps into every aspect of life, making you wonder if the gods themselves are crazy. This passage is allegorical–it’s about a dog–but you’ll get the point, I think. Lancer, the dog in question, is a greyhound, nervous and active by breed. He is kept
in a one-room apartment fourteen feet wide and twenty-six feet long, and six flights of stairs above street level. His entire life was devoted to unloading his excrement at the proper time and place. There were two proper places to put it: in the gutter outside the door seventy-two steps below, with the traffic whizzing by, or in a roasting pan his mistress kept in front of the Westinghouse refrigerator.
Lancer had a very small brain, but he must have suspected from time to time, . . . that some kind of terrible mistake had been made.
We build our own hells. Or we placidly occupy them while we allow them to be built around us. Lancer didn’t ask for the life he had.
Although I’m a sturdily happy person and feel like forging ahead through all of life’s challenges right up till the end, I also feel, in a certain way, that an insuperable hell is being built around me. Vonnegut suggests something of it here:
As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.
Why were so many Americans treated by their government as though their lives were as disposable as paper facial tissues? Because that was the way authors customarily treated bit-part players in their made-up tales.
And so on.
Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.
If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead.
It is hard to adapt to chaos, but it can be done. I am living proof of that: It can be done.
There are more great quotes from Breakfast of Champions, but this is the one I will close with, because it sums up certain discontents that I feel as keenly as Vonnegut does. I find myself done in by the idiot choices of my countrymen in the same way.
To wit: The society in which I live is consciously designed as a shooting gallery. It makes no more sense than Lancer the greyhound’s mad setup, but it is worse because it kills. In any encounter between law officer and citizen in America, both parties have a presumptive right to carry and use lethal force. And the reason the situation is this way is because gunfighting is the most meaningful story that Americans can bring themselves to believe about their lives–that it’s a frontier struggle, which is fun and exciting.
But it’s not. Life is chaotic: it lacks any point that we do not give it. We are compelled to give an unformed life narrative shape. Why did we give it this one? My brain is small, but I feel some terrible mistake been made.