Tuesday, 21 December 2010
And So On
Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions is as far as you can get from the polite, 'well-made', realist novel about middle-class family-life that still dominates our fictional landscape(I haven't read Freedom yet, but I just read quite a scathing critique of Franzen's bestseller based on just these terms in Danny Byrne Blog). In fact it's a trenchant, anarchic anti-novel which lays bare and satirises all the revered and elevated 'inner workings' of how a conventional novel is written - for sure, Joyce had already performed something like this autopsy in Ulysses back in the 20s (and in their own ways BS Johnson and Alain Robbe-Grillet made further scalpel-turnings throughout their own creative careers), but Vonnegut goes further in undertaking a running parody of himself as novelist apparently making it up as he goes in whatever haphazard order the story occurs to him, inserting ineptly-drawn doodles to illustrate certain points, taking narrative shortcuts wherever he can (the phrase "And so on" is used repeatedly to imply the hackneyed predictability of almost all storylines).
In fact he is more like the 'diagetic' narrators of 18thC. novels (telling rather than showing dramatic action) - like Fielding and Sterne, in fact - than the supposedly hidden, 'God-like' narrators of the 19th and 20th C. Realist tradition - in many respects Breakfast of Champions could be seen as a Post-Modernist Tristram Shandy, in so far as both novels continually and humorously expose their own shortcomings as fictional representations of the world.
In the end, despairing of ever making the corrupt, absurd, debased world of 20th C. America cohere into a readable narrative, Vonnegut climbs into his own novel and has blackly comic fun meeting his own doomed characters, rescuing the one who is a kind of self-portrait - the science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout - and playfully showing up how arbitrary and solipsistic a novelist's imaginary world really is.
His final act of letting Trout free from the novel's fictional bounds is a last damning parody of the traditional novelist's self-apotheosis and vanity. We finish Breakfast of Champions thinking that all writers, no doubt, need their pretentions as omniscient creative geniuses pinpricked in this way, whereas it can only be salutary for readers to be reminded that literature should be a means for discovering challenging new ideas and perpectives, not for furnishing escapist fantasies that merely bolster everyday norms.