The absurdity of modern life

Breakfast of Champions - Kurt Vonnegut

I finished reading this book a few days ago and while I like to try to write my commentary soon after I have finished reading this book, others things (such as my monthly Friday Night Magic – and despite the fact that I absolutely suck at Magic – I still like to go) sort of got in the way. Anyway, if there is one thing that I can say about this book is that by the end of it it had <b>COMPLETELY DONE MY HEAD IN</b>. I was actually wondering around Melbourne looking at all the machines that the creator had created simply to respond to me – such as the begging machines that sit outside of the railway station because they make more money demeaning themselves (and it is tax free income) than actually doing something productive, and the whining machine that sits opposite me at work who all day bitches and moans about how much he hates his job but probably has no idea what it is like to be unemployed.

Anyway, before I get on to what I am talking about with regards to these machines I have to say that this is one of those very unique books. In a way it takes the concept of modernism to the absolute extreme. Where as a lot of modernist writers write about the ordinary, Vonnegut goes one step further and writes about one can considered to be the boring. He writes in very short sentences, not overly descriptive, but will talk about things that are incredibly irrelevant, like the interstate that goes past the new Holiday Inn. Further, he breaks up the story (which is a pretty ordinary story about how two people meet and the result of that meeting) with pictures of things that are probably irrelevant to the story as a whole. For instance, he talks about an asshole, and says that this is what an asshole looks like:



Oh, and Kurt Vonnegut looks like this:




With the drawings and the pictures one sort of wonders if he is trying to write a children's book, but considering the concepts that he explores and talks about in this book I highly suspect that he is not. It feels that in a way he is writing down to the average person in the United States and suggesting through the style of his writing, that the intelligence and intellectual ability of the average American is not that much greater than that of a child. In fact, this book is incredibly scathing of American society, and the pointlessness of the book (it doesn't go anywhere, and while the two main characters end up switching roles at the end, they never get anywhere, nor do they grow, nor do they accomplish anything) is a scathing attack on the pointlessness of the modern American society.

In fact, what Vonnegut does is that he rips away the veil that covers the faces of most Americans (and Australians as well) and shows us what really is. For instance, at the beginning of the book, he rewrites the story of the founding of America by white man by indicating (no actually he says outright) that they never actually found anything because millions of human beings had already found the continent and where living there quite happily until a bunch of sea pirates came along and took it away from them. This is what a sea pirate looks like:



This is what the sea pirates that Vonnegut was referring to looked like:



In fact Vonnegut leaves nothing out in his scathing attack at American society, and some of his attacks are quite straight forward, such as his attack against the obsession with wide open beavers that American men have (and also goes into a side note on how the term beaver came about), and others are much more subtle. One of the ways he does this is by telling us about the stories that Kilgore Trout, the science-fiction writer who is one of the main characters in the book, wrote. One of these stories is about a planet where the sentient race were automobiles and that this race had destroyed their planet, however another alien visited this planet and went to Earth to warn them, however they stole the idea of the automobile from him and killed him instead of listening to his warning.

Another of the stories satirises our obsession with sex and pornographic films. Sex is a pleasurable thing, but Vonnegut considers that this obsession with watching people have sex, and explicit sex, on film to be absurd. To put this absurdity in context he writes about a planet that would make the dirtiest movies that anybody could think of, and a visitor from Earth goes and watches one of these movies and discovers that the entire movie involves people eating food. In fact the eating of food in these films is incredibly detailed and explicit. As such, what Vonnegut is suggesting is that watching two people have sex, and getting excited over the fact that two people are having sex, is just as absurd as watching somebody eat an apple, or a steak, or even a bowl of mashed potato. Eating food is incredibly pleasurable, but we don't react when we watch somebody eat food, so why do we react when we watch people having sex.

I would probably put this book into the absurd, in the same sense that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Waiting for Godot are absurd, however the book explores the absurdity of what our society has become. For instance, Vonnegut gets to the point where he describes the dimensions of the penises of every single male character in his book (and the dimensions of some of the female characters in the book as well) and at one point the dimension is so huge that he suggested that most of this guy's penis existed only in the forth dimension. In a way it is an attack against our obsession with pointless things. The size of a character's penis adds absolutely nothing to the character, in the same way that numerous authors would add details to their characters which added nothing to that character. By the way, this is what a penis looks like:


You thought I was going to put a picture of a penis here, didn't you?

(show spoiler)


There is actually quite a lot that I could write about this book and haven't even touched upon, such as the concept of race. For instance, Vonnegut describes that this idea of discriminating against somebody based upon the colour of their skin is as absurd as describing the dimensions of somebody's penis. However, this happens, and Vonnegut is very blunt about it. He actually goes one step further with this absurdity with regards to race by introducing a Nigerian into the book, who is actually more well respected in the story than the average Afro-American because he is not an Afro-American, he is a Nigerian with a medical degree.

Now, I should finish off with this discussion about the machines because, well, I said that I would talk about it. The story that this relates to is the story that makes Kilgore Trout famous, and that is the a story that is actually a letter from God to the reader in that God explains that the reader is the only person in the planet with free will and that everybody else is simply a machine that reacts to the person with free will. In fact the billions of machines that are created are created just in case they may, some time in the future, interact with the reader. This story sends the other main character insane, and he ends up going on a rampage which results in a lot of people suing him and sending him onto Skid Row (and I haven't even mentioned this idea about 'bad chemicals' that Vonnegut talks about).

I remember sitting at a table in one of my friend's houses one when a couple of other friends had come over. My friend said to one of the girls there that he understood her view of the universe, and that is that outside of her immediate perception nothing existed, and that existence only existed when she could actually perceive existence, which meant that before she was born there was nothing, and once she dies, the universe returns to nothing. This is the absurd end of individualism, in the same sense that the idea that the reader is the only entity with free will is also an absurd end of individualism.