Robots All: A Letter to Kurt Vonnegut on the Anniversary of Breakfast of Champions
by Rob Drew
I’ve been re-reading your 1972 classic Breakfast of Champions, in which your perpetual alter-ego Kilgore Trout encounters the Midwestern car dealer Dwayne Hoover in a cocktail bar and brings his world crashing down by handing him a copy of Trout’s book Now It Can Be Told, which purports to reveal that the reader is actually the only living human on the planet. Other than the reader, Trout’s book claims, the planet is inhabited by machines put there by the Creator of the Universe to test this new creature (the book’s reader), who is the only human with free will. In your book, this revelation introduces “bad ideas” that mix with Dwayne Hoover’s “bad chemicals” and drive him insane.
I am writing you this open letter 40 years after the book’s publication to work out for myself what sort of mind would produce this visionary little tome which was so instrumental to my own youthful development. There’s still a great deal I can relate to in your book. By temperament I identify with its cynicism and alienation, and having settled in a Midwestern “rust belt” town that has seen better days, there is even more today that I recognize in the flat terrain and culture of your book’s central setting of Midland City, a place where the streets are lined with franchise restaurants and hotels and car dealerships and the creeks are full of chemicals from the local industrial plants (I suspect it also shares a lot with your own hometown of Indianapolis). Yet as the book proceeds, I see troubling parallels between your own book and that of your literary alter ego Kilgore Trout. I feel I am in the hands of an author who himself sees this planet as inhabited by automatons or robots, much like the world laid out in Trout’s Now It Can Be Told. Although this perspective troubles me, I must admit it is one I have always harbored myself.
There are a number of things about Breakfast that give me the sense that the solipsistic vision of its book-within-a-book is more than a story but very much a reality in your mind. First, you write about characters and phenomena on this planet (our planet) as if you were observing them from quite far away. To take just one example, you refer to Reader’s Digest as “the dying planet’s most popular magazine.” Phrases like this appear frequently in your book. They are jarring to the reader precisely because they seem irrelevant to your story. The observation that Reader’s Digest is (or was at the time of publication) the most popular magazine in the world is phrased in the spirit of an anthropological observation of our planet for the benefit of non-inhabitants, and thus puts the reader in the position of a non-inhabitant (I know from your biography that you studied anthropology as a graduate student). Moreover, the fact that you refer to Earth as “the dying planet” rather than “our planet” or “the world” or “the Earth” (like most Earthbound authors would) leads me to suspect that you see yourself as “not of this world” and that you expect your reader to relate to this otherworldly perspective.
Another point worth noting is the role of machines in your book. Machines often seem to control the lives of your characters, just as they do in Trout’s Now It Can Be Told. For instance, you make a point of how the Robo-Magic washing machine (the first product manufactured by Barrytron, the largest company in Midland City) made some women’s lives easier when it appeared (i.e. rich white women) while throwing other women out of work (i.e. black servants). Beyond this, you often refer to the characters in your story themselves as “machines.” You refer to Dwayne Hoover’s real mother, who died in childbirth, as a “defective child-bearing machine.” There are other motifs in your book that convey the sense that your characters are machines carrying out pre-programmed actions: i.e. your frequent references to the physical proportions of characters’ body parts, and your use of the phrases “etc.” and “and so on” in recounting your characters’ lives, as if they were programmed computers stuck in infinite loops. By writing about your own characters as if they were programmed machines in a sense you extend the premise of Now It Can Be Told to the larger fictional world of your own book. It’s worth noting how seemingly heartless and amoral this view is (a woman who dies in childbirth being “a defective childbearing machine”). The universe you create in your book is radically Cartesian; I get the sense that you believe, as your character Trout does, that the Creator of the Universe has set this world going like a machine without any moral compass.
In Trout’s view, as in your own, the Universe itself seems to be a highly defective machine. Trout tells a truck driver whom he hitches a ride with, “I realized that God wasn’t any conservationist, so for anybody else to be one was sacrilegious and a waste of time. You ever see one of His volcanoes or tornadoes or tidal waves?” Trout blames the Creator for floods and tornadoes, and falls back on this as an excuse for not being a “conservationist” himself. This is a deeply pessimistic and cynical view but of a piece with the rest of Breakfast, which is not just about a man who reads another man’s book and loses his mind, but about the inhabitants of a dying city in a dying industrial region of a “dying planet,” and about the hopelessness and cynicism such a place breeds (in your characters and in their author). Our fate appears to be sealed in your work by the entropy of the universe and our own flawed engineering. Like Chekhov’s gun, if industrial toxins appear in the first act they’re bound to end up in the river by the last. Your pessimism in this regard is even more clearly captured in your Cat’s Cradle by the fictional polymer Ice Nine, a substance whose destructive potential (it could freeze all the world’s oceans) exceeded even the nuclear stockpiles that in your time seemed fated to blow us all to bits. If you were still alive today (since I understand that you yourself are dead), would you despair even more of the planet’s fate as global warming seems to push us toward catastrophe? Or might you find hope in the fact that with the help of science at least some of the planet’s inhabitants are coming to see these catastrophic conditions for what they are and trying however feebly to reverse them? And wouldn’t you agree that the science of global warming has exposed Kilgore Trout’s view that the Creator is not a conservationist as something of a cop out? After all, although there have always been and always will be natural disasters, scientists have now made us aware that weather catastrophes are not just the doings of an amoral Creator but something we humans have a hand in.
Your book gives the impression, not only that most humans act like machines, but that the universe itself is like a machine. One device you employ frequently is jumping to events later in the story and even to events long after (or before) the timeline of the book. In particular you intermittently remind the reader that at the climax of this story Dwayne Hoover will go over the edge into a violent rage. Most writers recount the events in their stories chronologically. This not only creates suspense but also the sense that “anything can happen.” In contrast, your way of writing makes it feel as if everything that happens in your fictional world is predetermined. This becomes especially apparent toward the end of your book when you introduce yourself as a character in order to highlight your own puppet-like manipulation of the other characters in the book. I get the feeling this is kind of a power trip for you, but also a kind of therapy. Perhaps pulling the strings of these characters as they gravitate toward their violent fates provides some catharsis for violence in your own past. What sorts of horrors did you witness as a prisoner of war in World War II? Was there a relative in your own childhood who spouted the sort of hateful, racist rhetoric that Dwayne Hoover’s stepfather spouted at him? Writing in the early 1970s at a time of rampant war, crime, assassinations, and assorted violence, you resolved to “write about life” and “adapt to chaos.” Your characters sometimes do terrible things, not out of any clear motive, but because they are “defective machines,” and because, as you so often remind us, they are predetermined to do such things by you, their author.
This question of predetermination has vexed us mortals for ages. The degree to which one feels the future is predetermined partly depends on the context of one’s own time and place. I can understand how you might have felt fatalistic when you published Breakfast in 1972. Back then, the “old media” of television and movies and radio produced an endless supply of homogeneous content. Manufacturing plants ground out industrial goods just as they had for decades. America was hung over and exhausted in the aftermath of the 1960s. Perhaps this is why your book, even as it is animated by the futuristic fantasies of a science fiction author, seems so nostalgic. It dwells on the past, even if those aspects of the past that it dwells on are not always happy ones. As Kilgore Trout says, “It is the past that scares the bejesus out of me.” Forty years later, however, it is the past that seems dull and the future that both terrifies and excites us with its possibilities. New manifestations of media and culture appear almost daily. Forces of destruction from war, disease, terrorism, and climate change loom over us even as new possibilities for renewing our lives constantly emerge. With so much seemingly at stake, it is difficult to feel that the future is fixed or that humanity consists of mere robots.
Although its preface states that you wrote Breakfast of Champions as your fiftieth birthday present to yourself, and although I find myself rereading it just after my fiftieth birthday, I also find there is something adolescent about its point of view. This is not intended as an insult; it is precisely why I enjoyed the book so much when I was an adolescent and why I’m eager to pass it on to my own children. Regarding the world from their perspective, I suspect that much of what they see around them, particularly the behavior of adults and especially of their own parents, must seem entirely predictable and robotic. My younger son gave me a Father’s Day card last year with the heading “Dad Libs,” a parody of the Mad Libs word game, which made fun of the fact that so much of what I say to him can be represented by filling in the blanks of standard phrasal templates (“Do you want to go to the gym,” “Do you want to watch a movie,” etc.).
It’s only natural for our kids to see us and often treat us something like machines at this stage; as teenagers, they are in the late stages of Freud’s “family romance.” Freud noted how pre-teen kids often will develop fantasies that their parents are not in fact their birth parents and that their actual pedigree makes them somehow special and gifted. The obvious manifestation of this in contemporary young adult literature is the Harry Potter series. In a sense Kilgore Trout’s Now It Can Be Told is not a far cry from Harry Potter, though the main character of Trout’s book (the person addressed by the book) is in fact far more special and far more alienated than J.K. Rowling’s main character. Rather than all the other creatures on Earth being inferior non-wizards (as in Harry Potter) or “phonies” (as in Catcher in the Rye), they aren’t even humans. Thus Now It Can Be Told (and, by extension, Breakfast) may be the ideal book for a young person in the throes of adolescent alienation. Granted, the main character of your book is not an adolescent boy but a grown man, but the only way such a man is likely to experience such feelings of alienation and paranoia is if he is so run down by life as to have lost his mind (like Dwayne Hoover). For adolescents, such feelings of alienation and paranoia are part of normal everyday life.
I first read your book at a time when I was going through just that life stage of loneliness and identity crisis. I spent most of my time at home in my room. Sometimes it felt difficult to communicate even with old friends. Reading your book, it was tempting to see the world as you seemed to see it, from very far away, as if I were placed on Earth as a test case among a planet full of machines by a cold and amoral Creator of the Universe. A few years later I could see that this wasn’t true, and I hope that a few years from now it won’t feel true for my children. We can see the ultimate consequences of regarding the rest of humanity as a collection of machines in the fate of Dwayne Hoover: insanity and unfeeling violence.
In closing, I suppose I should thank you for capturing in prose those thoughts and feelings of utter isolation that we all sometimes experience. On the other hand, I’m not sure if I should thank you at all. We are quite used to celebrating the edifying potential of great literature and art; one lesson of your book is the destructive potential of art. Kilgore Trout’s book provides the bad ideas that mix with Dwayne Hoover’s bad chemicals to drive him insane. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye provided some of the bad ideas that mixed with the bad chemicals of murderous assassins like Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley to drive them insane. As far as I know Breakfast of Champions has never driven anyone insane, nor has Harry Potter. My kids began their descent into adolescent alienation with Harry Potter. At the risk of their destruction I will encourage them to cap it off with Breakfast of Champions. And so on.
Rob Drew teaches Communication at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. His book Karaoke Nights: An Ethnographic Rhapsody is published by AltaMira Press. Photo of Kurt Vonnegut mural in Indianapolis, IN from rowsdowr.com.