Bad Chemicals Overrun Breakfast of Champions

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"Madness" is something which is used again and again in modern literature. Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions adds a whole new representation of madness. This paper would like to explore Vonnegut's weird world of madness.

“Bad Chemicals” overrun Breakfast of Champions

Many critics continue to praise Vonnegut as a “masterly stylist”, a jazz improviser in prose. In his eighth novel, Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday, he performs considerable complex magic. He wheels out all the latest fashionable complaints about America - her racism, her gift for destroying language, her technological greed and selfishness - and makes them seem fresh, funny, outrageous, hateful, and lovable, all at the same time. He even claims that one of his major characters, Dwayne Hoover, went crazy because of “bad chemicals”. Well, who can think that “bad chemicals” can be a plausible and satisfactory explanation for going mad? If those “bad chemicals” are synonymous with social problems like commercialism, capitalism, and materialism then the answer is “yes” and indeed Hoover became mad due to the “bad chemicals”. 

If one wants to understand the idea of madness then it is a critical job as the topic of madness is, if not the most interesting and exciting, then of the oldest issues which was consistently explored in modern literature. In order to examine the idea and nature of madness, first it is needed to understand the role of madness to the basic plot. A close and careful look at the flowing of incidents clarifies that not only the major character Hoover is afflicted with madness; rather the entire text is written in a haphazard and irrational way and Vonnegut admits that this book was an attempt to “clear out” his head and that there is a lack of “harmony” regarding the story. Madness takes on more than one role in his novel – which is mainly seen through the character of Dwayne Hoover, and Vonnegut continues criticizing almost every social, political and cultural problem of America, specially the concept of “American Dream”.

“American Dream” made people think that America produces too much wealth, and too many Americans have to make too much money. Production and accumulation of wealth are not the problems. The issue is consumption - what people do to get that wealth and what people do with the money they make. Vonnegut in Breakfast of Champions excels at criticizing American beliefs, environmental destruction, and the American economic system, capitalism as capitalism and materialism seems absurd and laughable, which makes the criticism of such valued aspects of American life more bearable to the reader and creates a better, less disputable argument. Moreover, he criticizes individualism when it is taken to an extreme level in the example of a black woman dying alone in the presence of a black doctor who is unable to identify with her; rather he identifies with people in his native country, which also causes the concept of what an American is to seem abstract, as this doctor; who was educated at America’s oldest university, Harvard, and earns his living in America, would seem to be an American; yet, he has no connection with a person who, according to the common understanding of what an American is, is his fellow American, revealing a lack of cohesion in American society. His criticism of capitalism is more thorough; he criticizes it philosophically and based upon the outcomes of said economic system. He simplifies the whole system as everybody in America is supposed to grad whatever s/he can have. Vonnegut also criticizes the glorification of European colonization which is closely associated with the capitalist nature of America. It will not be wrong to state that a close reading of the book makes the reader feel that all these cruel and crude characteristics of American society made ‘people’ like Hoover go mad, crazy and insane.

Throughout the course of the novel, it becomes apparent that it is madness which drives many of Hoover’s actions, and eventually leads to the climax of the novel. Vonnegut describes Hoover as a Pontiac dealer “who was going insane”. However, while Hoover’s actions may be unique in their forms, the symptoms of his madness are easily classified and examined. Throughout the novel, the reader sees Hoover slowly descend into an advanced stage of what is most likely schizophrenia. As mentioned, Hoover’s descent is indeed a slow one, at least in the scope of the novel itself. In fact, real signs of Hoover’s mental disorder are not discovered until roughly the middle of the novel, when it is learned that he has developed echolalia, which is usually a precursor to schizophrenia. The reader also witnesses many of Hoover’s actions as a result of his madness. In one particular scene, Hoover is witnessed firing a shotgun into the tiles of his bathroom. Another memorable scene occurs when Hoover demands “the secrets of life” from a man he has never met before. Over the course of the novel, Hoover’s condition continues to progress, until, in the final pages of the novel, the reader witness Hoover attack several individuals for now apparent reason, including his own son. He can not get rid of the grief of his beloved wife’s suicide. He can not ignore the disappointment and embarrassment that his only son is a homosexual. Like other ‘characters’ of society, he is unable to be happy with all his properties. Indeed Hoover is a man of property but he is not greedy like others, machine like others. He has free will which let him feel, think n finally, go mad.  

Unlike Hoover, Kilgore Trout is a man of vision. He not just sees things around him, but finds out the deeper meaning also. When Trout travels, he finds out that landscapes and roadsides are disfigured by advertisements and billboards as the whole society has become a child of capitalism. Capitalism is based on the idea that the most meaningful part of life is one’s possessions. Lust for money and property overrun the society and which makes people violent, mad, and crazy. People go insane for maintaining their false hopes and status. Vonnegut even describes an incident where a young boy shoots and kills his parents only because he does not want them to know about his poor report card! 

Vonnegut wrote Breakfast of Champions to append his convictions to the political climate. The corruption that has accompanied American prosperity has not gone away, though serious attempts have been tried to make the distribution of income more equitable and to cut back the destruction of the air, land and water. Despite all the shots that are taken, the air waves are still desecrated by mindless commercials for inconsequential products, the span between the higher earners and the poor is the greatest in the industrialized world, and large corporations are drowning small stores while downsizing workers and homogenizing the cities and suburbs with tasteless malls. Breakfast of Champions points out these evils. 


Vonnegut hopes to prevent his readers from trying to “live like people invented in story books.” Breakfast of Champions is Vonnegut’s attempt to define a new humanism, a world in which “we are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane.” The characters in Breakfast of Champions are puppets. Like Robbe-Grillet, Vonnegut believes that the novel of character is dead, so Breakfast of Champions is filled with cartoon figures who can be adequately described with a single identifying phrase, but Vonnegut also fears that actual human beings are little more than robots leading determined existences. This depressing view of character is tempered in the novel by the minimalist painter Rabo Karabekian. In defense of his abstract painting The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Karabekian passionately argues that “our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery.”  

Vonnegut explores the ambiguous connection between the real and the invented, questions the authority of the artist, and considers the paradox of freedom. He frees his literary thralls at the novel's end although he cannot grant them the happiness and immortality they want. He attempts to show that the whole idea of American capitalism lacks logic. He explores the vacuity of capitalism and concludes that people who have free will can not handle all these ideologies and thus, people like Hoover ends up in insanity. 


Submitted: March 25, 2013

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