Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions, book review
Type : Essay
Note to the reader: I use 'single quotes' when paraphrasing and "double quotes" when quoting directly. Deal with it.
Note to the reader: SF stands for Slaughterhouse-Five, not San Francisco, and BoC stands for Breakfast of Champions, not Boards of Canada. No other abbreviations are used.
Round Characters and Flat Characters.
Listen: Round characters are morally ambiguous; they change, learn, and are many-faceted. Flat characters stick to their old ways, and their opinions are immutable. People in real life are round, but in fiction, there are flat characters too. Round characters are the stuff of tragedy; flat characters are the stuff of comedy.
Kurt Vonnegut is a master of flat characters: every one of his characters is flat. As such, they are seen as ridiculous or extreme in some way. Vonnegut can make his flat characters come alive, making him a remarkable writer. In doing so, Vonnegut proves that the flatness or roundedness has to do with how characters are presented to the reader rather than how 'realistic' they are.
SF (Slaughterhouse-Five) and BoC (Breakfast of Champions), by Kurt Vonnegut, are two books about flat characters told by a flat character. No one learns anything; everyone is stuck in their flawed ways. These books are about hilarious misunderstandings between dysfunctional and crazy people. They're not about growth.
Flatness in Slaughterhouse-Five
The main character is Billy Pilgrim. He's flat. He's an insane veteran with delusions about aliens and time warping. He's apathetic and has no will whatsoever. No will to live, no will to die. During the war, he's weak and ridiculous; after the war, he is a rich and comfortable optometrist.
The War Heros are all Flat
Wild Bob is flat. He makes a wild speech to his dead troops before dying of something unspecified; Paul Lazzaro is flat. He's ridiculously mean and petty; The homeless man who freezes to death is flat. 'It's not so bad. I've been through worse' are his dying words; Roland Weary is fat. And flat. He's sadistic, people don't like him, his dying words are hateful, and that's all there is to him; The Englishmen are flat: funny and ridiculous.
"Poor old Derby, the doomed high school teacher," is flat. Every time he is introduced, his death is foreshadowed. Perhaps Vonnegut is warning us not to get too close to him because he's one of the only likable characters. He's described as "tragically patriotic," so we are invited to see him as flat and absurd.
Post War Characters are also Flat
Kilgore Trout is flat in SF. (K. Trout is the star of BoC but plays only a minor role in SF.) He is vain, nutty, tragic, and hilarious; Billy's wife is flat. I could describe her fully in four words: fat, vein, rich, faithful. Billy's daughter is flat. And so on.
Perhaps Vonnegut is trying to convey that, in war, everyone is flat. Or maybe, making everyone flat is a way of distancing them emotionally, enough for the reader to be able to laugh at them rather than cry; it's a mechanism that renders the tragic whimsical. Or perhaps he's suggesting that Billy distances himself emotionally from other people as a coping mechanism.
Style, and the Narrative Voice
We compare the narrative voice in BoC and SF.
Listen: Vonnegut grabs the reader's attention in straightforward but unique ways.
One of Vonnegut's favorite ways of getting readers to pay attention is to order them to pay attention. Every so often, he begins a paragraph with "Listen:" e.g., "Listen: The waitress bought me another drink," "Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.", "Listen: Billy Pilgrim says he went to Dresden."
This technique uses the imperative mood; the narrator addresses the reader directly and authoritatively. This kind of direct speech may be undesirable in another novel, but here it adds to Vonnegut's humorous tone. It is so simple that only a genius could have thought of it.
On top of using the imperative "Listen," Vonnegut sometimes breaks the fourth wall, interrupting the story to speak directly to the reader. This makes the reader feel like Vonnegut doesn't take his stories too seriously.
In both books, the narrative voice is unreliable. Confusingly and endearingly, Vonnegut is both the narrator of and a character in his own novels. He sometimes (amusingly) gets excited by his own prose and then compulsively interrupts himself to tell the reader about his excitement. Notably, in this passage in BoC:
And now comes the spiritual climax of this book, for it is at this point that I, the author, am suddenly transformed by what I have done so far.
The timber of Vonnegut's narration is more light-hearted in BoC than it is in SF. This is due to another aspect of the narration: The voice is influenced by the character who is currently in focus.
In SF, Billy Pilgrim is the only main character. Although he says he's happy, the tone is depressing and monotonous whenever it seems like Billy's spirit is addressing the reader. Vonnegut lightens the mood by peppering it with his own jovial witticisms.
In contrast, there are two main characters in BoC: Kilgore Trout and Dwayne Hoover. Furthermore, peripheral characters in BoC are given more time on the page than those in SF.
Another point of contrast is that, by and large, in BoC, the characters' personalities emerge from dialogue, whereas in SF Billy Pilgrim is not talkative --quite the opposite, he's secretive and estranged from those around him, even his wife doesn't know him very well. Therefore the reader gets most of his information about Billy's character from his own unspoken thoughts and the book's tone, which filters through Billy's distorted perspective before reaching the reader's ears.
Kilgore Trout and Dwayne Hoover (BoC) engage with the world, but Billy Pilgrim (SF) seems to have been terrified to the point of emotional severance from it. In BoC, Vonnegut makes the reader feel this willingness to engage with the world by making the voice empathize with peripheral characters; as such, we are provided with colorful details about the lives of peripheral characters.
"I bring Chaos to Order."
Vonnegut presents every character on equal footing, and, in one of his breaking-the-fourth-wall moments, he tells us why:
(passage from BoC)
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 storybooks. 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 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 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.
I agree. Vonnegut's narrative voice treats all characters equally; he accomplishes this by describing acts of violence and generosity in the same observational manner. He never tells us to pick a side; instead, characters' personalities are revealed through action.
Despite his shrewd sarcasm, Vonnegut includes notable acts of generosity in his novels. The following passage is from BoC
"Welcome to the real world, Brother," he said gently and with wry lovingness to Wayne. "When was the last time you ate? This mornin'?" [...] Eldon arranged for Wayne to get a free steak and mashed potatoes and gravy and anything else he wanted, [...]
Wayne, who has quite a tragic life, has thus far been described light-heartedly. This passage reminds us of his humanity.
Cynicism and Determinism
Determinism is an important theme in both books. The voice has a cynical and deterministic attitude to life, most of the time. In SF, the reader is told that we humans are 'like bugs, trapped in the amber of time.' The same attitude is present in Breakfast of Champions: "Wilbur got his medals for killing Japanese, who were yellow robots. They were fueled by rice." But every now and then, we catch a glimmer of optimism, notably in:
And this book is being written by a meat machine in cooperation with a machine made of metal and plastic. The plastic, incidentally, is a close relative of the gunk in Sugar Creek. And at the core of the writing meat machine is something sacred, which is an unwavering band of light.
As mentioned above, one of the most tragic characters in Breakfast of champions is Wayne Hoobler:
[Wayne] missed the clash of steel doors. He missed the bread and the stew and the pitchers of milk and coffee. He missed fucking other men in the mouth and the asshole, and being fucked in the mouth and asshole, and jerking off--and fucking cows in the prison dairy, all events in normal sex life on the planet, as far as he knew. Here would be a good tombstone for Wayne Hoobler when he died: Black Jailbird. He adapted to what there was to adapt to.
But he's not tragically portrayed. The reader is not invited to pity him; instead, she is invited to laugh at the universe's lunacy through him.
More Determinism: Trapped in Amber *
Billy Pilgrim is a determinist like the Trafaldimorians --he's apathetic, detached. At one point in the novel, the four-dimensional aliens tell him:
Why you? Why us, for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?
Supposedly from his encounter with aliens, Billy becomes convinced that he is like a bug trapped in the amber of time, that this moment simply is, was, and always will be. This attitude is shared by the voice. Billy finds comfort in the fact that the world is deterministic. He tells the reader that everything is as it should be and that it could not be any other way, that this is beautiful. In other words, Billy is a peace with the feeling of being trapped in amber.
Rather than take him literally, I suggest interpreting this as Billy's will being broken. In other words, Billy no longer has the will to struggle to free himself from the amber. He realizes that the amber is stronger than he is.
What I find interesting is not what this contributes to the free will debate; it's the psychological aspects of these beliefs as manifest in Billy and Kilgore.
Struggling to get out of the amber
Billy voices his view of determinism when explaining how the aliens see time.
All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians [Aliens] can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
Kilgore Trout agrees that we are helpless, but he lives with it very differently.
Then Trout made a good point, too. "Well," he said, "I used to be a conservationist. I used to weep and wail about people shooting bald eagles with automatic shotguns from helicopters and all that, but I gave it up. There's a river in Cleveland which is so polluted that it catches fire about once a year. That used to make me sick, but I laugh about it now. When some tanker accidentally dumps its load into the ocean, and kills millions of birds and billions of fish, I say, 'More power to Standard Oil,' or whoever it was that dumped it." Trout raised his arms in celebration. " 'Up your ass with Mobile gas,'" he said.
The driver was upset by this "You're kidding." he said.
"I realized," said Trout, "that God wasn't any conservationist, so for anybody else to be was sacrilegious and a waste of time. You ever seen one of His volcanoes or tornadoes or tidal waves? Anybody ever tell you about the Ice Ages he arranges for every half-million years? How about Dutch Elm disease? There's a nice conservation measure for you. That's God, not mad. Just about the time we got our rivers cleaned up, he'd probably have the whole galaxy go up like a celluloid collar. That's what the Star of Bethlehem was, you know."
"What was the Star of Bethlehem?" said the driver.
"A whole galaxy going up like a celluloid collar," said Trout.
On the surface, it appears that Trout is much more cynical than Billy. At least if you only look at what they say and not how they say it. But I cannot help but take Trout's words with a grain of salt. Unlike Billy Pilgrim, Trout has not surrendered himself to a monkish acceptance of the world: half of BoC's pages are filled with Trout's long journey to an art conference that he is ironically attending to show everyone there just how stupid and wrong they are. (The act is ironic on many levels.) Trout is comically bitter about the world. However, unlike Billy, who surrenders himself entirely to determinism, Trout takes pleasure in the world's contradictions. Trout has not been defeated by the world.
Sanity and Insanity
In SF, the reader is trapped inside Billy's perfectly insane head, but Billy presents himself as perfectly sane. Vonnegut reminds the reader just how silly Billy's version of reality is by introducing Billy's daughter's perspective.
Perhaps the time warping, back and forth between life during and after the war, is a device used to give the reader a taste of what it might be like to have PTSD.
The narrator tells us:
Billy didn't want to marry ugly Valencia. She was one of the symptoms of his disease. He knew he was going crazy when he heard himself proposing marriage to her, when he begged her to take the diamond ring and be his companion for life.
Despite this short passage, the rest of the book is written from Billy's perspective, and the reader is constantly invited by Billy to take his time-warping delusions seriously.
In contrast, insanity in BoC is treated very differently. For one, Dwayne Hoover actually goes insane because of "bad chemicals," but the reader is never in any doubt about this fact. Furthermore BoC is peppered with jokes at the expense of all of the characters, and the reader is led to view characters' perspectives and objectivity as vastly separate concepts. The characters of BoC can be placed on a narrow sub-region at the tail of the sanity spectrum: namely, everyone is somewhere between delusional and insane.
* I found this orchestral piece composed by Sarah Rimkus called 'Trapped in Amber.' The music was inspired by Slaughterhouse-five.