1. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    WF Book Club December Selection: Breakfast of Champions

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by thirdwind, Dec 1, 2010.

    We'll be reading and discussing Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut this month, so please get a copy and begin reading ASAP.
     
  2. hiddennovelist
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    hiddennovelist Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm a couple chapters in. I like it so far, and the illustrations make it even better.
     
  3. Gannon
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    Gannon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Picking my copy up tonight.
     
  4. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I should have my copy in a few days, so hopefully I can start reading and discussing this weekend.
     
  5. Gannon
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    Gannon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah, so this is my fourth Vonnegut, and I think prior exposure to him may well help soften the blow of his inimitable style. As fab as Slaughterhouse 5 is, it doesn't really have the same levels of idiosyncracy as his other, earlier pieces seem to.

    There's a lovely précis on the back of my copy of this one, which reads: "Brilliant ... It seems, at times, as if Voltaire has returned to satirise the horrors of plastic, disposable America." Sunday Times

    If you've read Candide, you'll know how accurate this is. They share a biting wit and the power to wither and x-ray society from ten paces, in less words.
     
  6. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'll be re-reading my copy over the next few days to refresh the memory. Looking forward to it.
     
  7. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I finally started reading it. It's a good satire, and I completely agree that he has a very unique style of writing. I've only read part of Slaughterhouse 5, so this is going to be my first complete Vonnegut book.

    By the way, I'm really enjoying the pictures.
     
  8. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    Such fun reading this. More coherent than I remembered, but still, alongside Timequake perhaps, probably the most unconventional of his books.

    Normally, entirely possible to enjoy a book even if you have difficulties accepting the author's outlook, but here the satire is so unrelenting, and so devastating, you wonder if it's possible.
     
  9. Gannon
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    Gannon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Two interesting points here. I also find this read fun. This is due in part to the illustrations, but also the author's naive, but prescient, characters - this further ties the book with Candide as I touched on above. Any other thoughts on why this is fun? Any thoughts on the illustrations?

    Your second point relates to perhaps not being able to enjoy this book if you didn't agree with the author's views, but his satire is so well instilled is large swathes of society, and those that disagree would also likely be those that wouldn't read this book, that I think it'd be rare for a reader to disagree - at least entirely. I think there'll be points raised which all of us like to debate, but probably not the same ones.
     
  10. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I just finished the book last night. I'm not sure how far everyone else is, so I'll try not to spoil anything.

    Let me start by saying that this was a fun book to read. The satire is well done, mostly because Vonnegut is very conscious about the language he uses. One reason his satire is so successful is because he draws attention to irrelevant things while ignoring the important things in life.

    As for the pictures, I'm sure their inclusion has some connection with Trout's stories being published in adult magazines, though I'd have to give this more thought.

    The last thing I must comment on is his writing style. The book seemed very surreal at times due to the section breaks he uses. It reminds me of a bunch of vignettes strung together in order to paint a larger picture. I'm guessing his very direct writing style is probably what makes or breaks this book for most people.
     
  11. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    As an aside, you can read "Kilgore Trout's" book "Venus on the Halfshell" (really written by Philip Jose Farmer) if you can find a copy.
     
  12. Gannon
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    Gannon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Two thirds through. Will finish this wknd. thirdwind - I like your idea about the illustrations. He sets the tone early on with his "wide-open beaver" stuff, and then largley his images do focus on the cruder elements of what he discusses - not just the sexual, but often the inflammatory and the ridiculous. That this is an extended send up of pornographic publishing - and perhaps the larger publishing world as a whole - is an appealing one to me.

    I'm wondering now, having just read the passage which starts: "Nobody white had much use for black people anymore", continues: "...useless, big black animals everywhere, and concludes with an anecdote about how the local, white Police force have a stockpile of weaponry for an impending "open season", just how racist this novel is - given that throughout "black people" are portrayed fairly, to very, badly.

    I'm not naive enough to attribute such comments directly to the author and tar him accordingly. Vonnegut was a very intelligent man and comments such as these will have been thoughtfully added. What makes it a little difficult here is that the anonymous narrative voice chosen throughout has started to bleed at this point into a first person account. Mentions of "I" and "me" confirm it, and with no other context, we have to assume this is Vonnegut himself - be him setting himself up as a character or not.

    Clearly, Breakfast of Champions is satire from start to finish - as are these comments. They are presented matter of factly, which rightly appals the reader - this is a literary device. At this point the narration is again anonymous, the statements perhaps harmless repetition of what the author has heard around him - like Dwayne's condition to repeat the last word he hears. What I feel is important is the conclusion of this passage, the focus shifts noticeably toward the Police department. Once more satire - but one perhaps easy to miss if the reader were so inclined.
     
  13. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    This book was published in 1973, which was about ten years after the civil rights movement in America. The portrayal of black people in this book is largely based on stereotypes and exaggeration, which is how lot of the white folks viewed black people. There's no doubt that the narrator himself has racist views. However, as you mentioned, the narrator's views should not be confused with those of Vonnegut.

    But it goes further than just racism. People in this novel see each other as machines, and their worth is determined by how much work they can produce. This is something that transcends the color of one's skin. The washing machine is one example of this because it's basically a machine to replace another machine (either a woman or a black person). Effectively, humans are seen as replaceable things. This means that there is no such thing as individuality, which is further evident by the concept of free will that the narrator speaks of. By this argument, I would argue that the only true individuals are Dwayne and the narrator.
     
  14. Gannon
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    Gannon Contributing Member Contributor

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    I've got an alternative idea here. As there are so many definitions also presented in the text along with the diagrams, it comes across a little like an encyclopedia - and one that is often so simple, perhaps a child's encyclopedia.

    This perhaps has further credence if we leave this text. In Vonnegut's Sirens Of Titan he offers a definition of "chrono-synclastic infundibulum" taken from a child's encyclopedia entry, which, in context, Vonnegut himself has clearly designed. In that case, he sets up an omniscient character as the encyclopedia's author, but as we can see from this book, characters, narrators and author can intermingle almost freely. In this book, in this regard, the narrator could be seen as the author.
     
  15. Gannon
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    Gannon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Unquestionably, this is at the heart of this novel. The preface even includes an anecdote about how a young Vonnegut observed a man stricken with syphilis and how his movement was rendered robotic by the disease. But it goes much further than this.

    Vonnegut tackles the futility of life by reducing its actions to those of machines, and, certainly, we all are "pre-programmed" to a degree. The censor will get it but we are (almost all of us) without doubt designed to become the "****ing machines" Vonnegut describes.

    There is a strong theme within the text concerning the "Creator of the Universe" (He, Himself, if memory serves, portrayed as a machine). Whilst not an original concept in itself - pre-destination, as opposed to self-determinism - Vonnegut focuses on those whose "chemicals" are in disarray. Are those that "malfunction" free? We then enter existential ethics, which, on the whole is a debate Vonnegut leaves unanswered, and that is the sort of question that in my opinion should remain so allowing the reader to think for themselves - itself ironic when placed against the context of this work.
     
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I initially found it odd that the Creator is a machine, but if one assumes that people are created in the Creator's image, then it's perhaps not that difficult to take in.

    Interesting that you should bring up "malfunctioning" because I was actually thinking about it when I was reading. Most of the characters have a predictable pattern of behavior, and according to Vonnegut's definition of free will, those who act unpredictably (i.e. Dwayne) are free. After finishing the book, I'm not totally convinced that Dwayne has free will, though I'll wait to explain why after everyone has finished the book.
     
  17. Gannon
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    Gannon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Another point I found very interesting was Karabekian's painting as part of the Arts festival. If we skirt round the obvious implications and affects (its describing as representing awareness, something machinery in Vonnegut's time did not possess), then it brings some quite profound points to the table.

    There is an intelligence in art that I feel Vonnegut both satirises and lauds in this book. The common man has no use for art he says, and, as the machine he describes, indeed he doesn't. The flip side here is that the "fabulously well-to-do" have art, but frequently only for art's sake. What I mean here is that again the welll-to-do remain machines in their choices, their breeding, money and influence determing the artistic circles in which they mingle.

    The interesting development is the awareness point taken further than the surface. Machines don't have awareness, but Karabekian, channelled by the narrator and/or author, at least seems to. This suggests at intelligence gained through art (including literature). As the book says, art often becomes easier to "get" when explained. However, as the book also alludes to, this then devalues the art in the first place. It's not new to rely on art as a justification for existence (read life) - without artistic expression (and perhaps sport) we could very much be seen as machines - but Vonnegut handles the allusions well.

    The public respond well to the Karabekian's painting after having it explained ("an unwaivering band of light"). It's crucial that this band of light only refers to one individual. As a whole the public seem sheeplike, all suddenly convinced by the words of he who created the art - not an unbias view some might say.

    So with swipes at artistic pomposity, collective mindsets and the under appreciation of art as a whole Vonnegut simultaneously confirms the importance of individualism and non-linear intelligence. Quite a feat with such a small anecdote, but, then, this text is littered with such gems.
     
  18. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Is there a reason you think that explaining art makes it less valuable?

    I suppose that listening to another person's views on a piece of art kind of takes away the joy of learning about and interpreting a piece for oneself. But at the same time I feel that this could make art much more valuable, especially when it comes to literature. There have been novels that I appreciated (and valued) much more after learning more about them from a professor.
     
  19. Gannon
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    Gannon Contributing Member Contributor

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    I should have perhaps been clearer. There is certainly a school of thought, which, at present, I'm unsure if I subscribe to or not, that would argue if art is explained - whether it needs the explanation or not - it loses some of its value. I would argue their reasons for arguing this would be that art is often very personal and to have an individual piece's meaning pressed upon you takes away some of its power. Conversely, there's the pretentious element too, where those that don't "get" a piece - or at least can't formulate an articulate opinion of it - are seen as less intellectual.

    I think with the discussion and subsequent explanation of Karabekian's painting Vonnegut is certainly poking fun at the pretence surrounding art (including literature), but simultaneously not really picking a side in the debate.

    It's absolutely true that I have better enjoyed many novels after thinking about proposed discussion topics, and talking with friends about these topics, but equally don't like to be spoonfed - so, like Vonnegut, I think I'm sitting on the fence.
     
  20. hiddennovelist
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    hiddennovelist Contributing Member Contributor

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    A little late to really join in the discussion, but I just finished the book...

    I've wavered from one side of this fence to the other, also, and maybe this is a cop-out, but I've come to the decision that explaining art is one of those good in moderation things. In an English class, for instance, if the teacher starts a discussion on a book and no one is really getting into it, they could throw out a little "well, this is what x symbolized" to generate a little more interest and/or understanding. However, if there's a discussion going on and said teacher disagrees with the way other people interpreted the book and starts laying out for them from beginning to end what they thought the book was all about...that's no good. It's like you said about not liking to be spoonfed--people should be able to draw their own conclusions, but things like discussion questions or small explanations being available to guide understanding aren't a bad thing.
     

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