Tuesday, June 12, 2012

In which I reread Breakfast of Champions and think about it

The other day I decided I would go back and read some of my favourite books. I don't reread books very often; sometimes I just reread passages, so I can copy a particular style or get inspired. With whole books, though, I'm more interested in reading something new, so can learn something new. A conversation on television got me thinking: if I read a book that I enjoyed when I was younger, would I still enjoy it right now? The conversation on television was about Kurt Vonnegut Jr. One half of the conversation, someone a few years older than me, said that Kurt Vonnegut is a young man's writer. "You can only possibly like him when you're young. There's a certain point after that where he seems juvenile. You can still enjoy him, but in a nostalgic kind of way." The other half of the conversation didn't add much. I read a lot of Vonnegut growing up, even before I started writing. I wondered if the man on television was right. I started rereading Breakfast of Champions to find out. The book is about Vonnegut's sci-fi writer Kilgore Trout and Dwayne Hoover, a rich man who believes he's a machine. Hoover reads a book by Kilgore Trout and goes nuts. The book's narrator is also a character in the story; in fact, the book's narrator has actually invented all the characters in the book and the books circumstances, only his control is vague and incomplete. The novel is filled with little sketches and Vonnegut's trademark language. It sounds like it's written for someone who hasn't done a lot of reading. Anyway, I should say that I don't go much for the postmodern stuff, especially these days. I don't like experimentation all that much, either. With the caveat that I know I'm making a broad generalization, it seems to me that a lot of experimental writing is written by a lot of lazy writers who denigrate things they secretly know they can't do well, like telling a story people want to read. There are obviously exceptions to that. Breakfast of Champions is an exception. Somehow, I like it just as much as I had eight years ago, when I first read it. A good piece of art lingers, and I have a feeling that BOC is going to linger with me even more now that I understand how slyly complicated it is. It's about death, and about the absurdity of life, a subject it shares with three other novels that I really like and will probably reread (Catch-22, The World According to Garp, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The thing about Vonnegut's best writing is that his unconventional form never overshadows the base humanity of his characters. Maybe I'm being too hard on experimental writing. Nicole Krauss's The History of Love, to use a contemporary example, has been called experimental. I would argue that Krauss shares with Vonnegut a concern with human beings, with breaking their hearts. And Breakfast of Champions is heartbreaking, in its own way. It makes me think about bad things that have happened to me and the people that I love, in a way that makes me laugh and be okay with laughing. I think that's a rare thing.

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