Essay: The Undergrad Writing Sample Submitted with the Grad School Application (Still a Favorite)
The Function of Kurt Vonnegut’s “I”
Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions:
“And now comes the spiritual climax of this book, for it is at this point that I, the author, am suddenly transformed by what I have done so far. This is why I had gone toMidlandCity: to be born again. And Chaos announced that it was about to give birth to a new me by putting these words in the mouth of Rabo Karabekian: “What kind of a man would turn his daughter into an outboard motor?” (Vonnegut 224).
Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?”:
“Consequently, it is not enough to declare that we should do without the writer (the author) and study the work itself. The word work and the unity that it designates are probably as problematic as the status of the author’s individuality” (Foucault 547).
Kurt Vonnegut wrote Breakfast of Champions or Goodbye Blue Monday as a fiftieth birthday present to himself. His purpose in writing this book was to exhaust the various musings floating around in his head, including drawings of assholes, insults of the American paper currency, and so on.
In the preface, he states that he plans to set free the characters that have hopped around from book to book, such as Eliot Rosewater and Kilgore Trout. In the process, Vonnegut tears up the rulebook, and heavy-handedly writes himself into the novel as one of the most important characters. This character metafictionally deconstructs his creations with the intent to ultimately set them free. The function of Kurt Vonnegut’s “I” in Breakfast of Champions demands analysis, especially with regard to the paradoxical theory Michel Foucault broaches in “What is an Author?” By using this method of criticism, the effectiveness of the inclusiveness of the author in his work can be made manifest.
Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions almost reads as journal entries transformed into a novel and married to the fiction and framework that makes the story work. Because the book is a work of fiction, the reader cannot be sure how much of the “I” character is truly autobiographical. At the very least, a window is opened into Vonnegut’s mind about how he thinks and functions as a human being. At the end of the preface, Vonnegut cunningly develops a name for the “I” of his triumvirate of semi-autobiographical characters by giving him the fictitious name “Philboyd Studge” (Vonnegut 6). The three semi-autobiographical characters appear to all be the same age and are repeatedly mentioned as in the following passage: “When Dwayne [Hoover] was a boy, when Kilgore Trout was a boy, when I [Philboyd Studge] was a boy, and even when we became middle-aged men and older, it was the duty of the police and courts to keep representations of such ordinary apertures from being examined and discussed by persons not engaged in the practice of medicine” (Vonnegut 23). This passage is not only the first to mention the three characters together, but it also shows how these three characters are somehow attached to Vonnegut’s reality and are used as both historical and literary tools. Furthermore, Vonnegut has used Kilgore Trout’s name as a pseudonym for his own more obscure science fiction published works, tying Trout tightly with his creator. Studge’s use of the word “I” simply makes the line between Kurt Vonnegut’s reality and his invented universe much thinner.
Kurt Vonnegut styles Philboyd Studge in such a way he seems less an invented character and more like Kurt Vonnegut by mentioning other books and characters that Vonnegut, not Studge, had famously written. In 1965, Kurt Vonnegut wrote God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, in which, Eliot Rosewater was the alcoholic main character. In Breakfast of Champions, Philboyd Studge uses the same character, and even extends his history from Vonnegut’s previous book about Mr. Rosewater, writing,
“I made Rosewater an alcoholic in another book. I now had him reasonably well sobered up, with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. I had him use his new-found sobriety, to explore, among other things, the supposed spiritual and physical benefits of sexual orgies with strangers inNew York City. He was only confused so far” (Vonnegut 277).
These could easily be the novel’s author’s words or the fictitious Philboyd Studge’s words. Furthermore, the author used “a full-sized General Motors transcontinental bus” (273), for the special ambulance, Martha, which was used to treat all the victims of Dwayne Hoover’s broken down rage. Vonnegut had mentioned the future according to Disney and General Motors in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five, and Vonnegut often uses recurring large companies like General Motors, General Electric, and other corporations that he felt may eventually turn the world into a 1984-esque reality. These repeated references help Philboyd sound more and more like Kurt throughout the novel.
The most effective and interesting aspect of Breakfast of Champions is the authorial layers the Creators of the Universe. In the novel exists an unspoken puzzle. First of all is the sort of almighty creator. “The real beetle was made by the Creator of the Universe” (Vonnegut 139). This is the Creator that created Vonnegut’s world, from whom he steals many basic creations for the making of his novel, and the preceding quotation is an excellent example of the author’s awareness of said thievery. As mentioned earlier, Philboyd Studge is Kurt Vonnegut’s creation. Next, most of the characters mentioned in Breakfast of Champions are supposed creations of Philboyd Studge, the fictitious “I.” As the “I” creator’s purpose was to set free Kilgore, his predestined meeting with the character establishes Studge as Creator in Trout’s mind through the use of metafiction: “’Mr. Trout,’ I said, ‘I am a novelist, and I created you for use in my books’” (299). Kilgore Trout is also referred to as Creator when Studge is writing about Now It Can Be Told, saying, “The book was in the form of a long letter from the Creator of the Universe to the only creature in the Universe who had free will” (57).
If one were to diagram the layers of creators starting at the top, it might look like this:
The godhead figure >>> Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. >>> Philboyd Studge >>> Kilgore Trout >>> the only character with freewill (from Now It Can Be Told) >>> the actions created by free will (It seems as though the reader would able to extend the layers this far since Dwayne Hoover thinks he is the experiment of the Creator, Trout, in this case, and his free will causes him to create all sorts of tragedy, mayhem, and madness.)
Here, the line between Vonnegut and Studge is practically invisible. Vonnegut chooses to put himself on a plane above Studge, yet Vonnegut could just as easily be Studge.
In “What is an Author?”, Michel Foucault says, “The work, which once had the duty of providing immortality, now possesses the right to kill, to be its author’s murderer” (Foucault 546). In order to remove a heavy-handed, self-praising author like Kurt Vonnegut from a metafictional book like Breakfast of Champions, certain steps would have to be taken. First, the critic would have to completely believe that the “I” is in no way autobiographical, but rather a completely fictionalized character. Philboyd Studge is the fictional Philboyd Studge, and although his name is only mentioned once, he is the main character in the story. “And the madness about wide-open beavers was extended to underpants when Dwayne and Trout and I were boys” (Vonnegut 24). In this passage, Studge successfully pulls himself closer to the story and to the characters, while creating a strong fictionalized past that is relatable to most readers who were once young boys. One important thing needs to be understood at this point: the author we are removing is Kurt Vonnegut. Philboyd Studge is a fictional character who claims to be the author of the story. This device is being used so that the reader may understand that the true author is not important in such a book. Vonnegut, in a way, is catering to Foucault’s idea that “It would be just as wrong to equate the author with the real writer as to equate him with the fictitious speaker; the author function is carried out and operates in the scission itself, in this division and this distance” (Foucault 553). Vonnegut needs the author function, so he removes himself and implants the clever Philboyd Studge.
The next step in understanding the world of Breakfast of Champions, as according to Foucault, is bringing down the author. The reader needs to understand that when he says, “My doorbell has just rung in my New York apartment. And I know what I will find when I open my front door: an unwavering band of light” (Vonnegut 231), Studge is using a device that within the story separates himself from the story, so that later entering the story dramatically will be more effective. The reader should not think that the true author is channeling reality into the novel, and even if he is, it is not at all important in reading, understanding, or critiquing the work. What is being revealed is that Studge lives in an apartment in New York and is undergoing subtle, albeit life-changing epiphanies. Furthermore, the mention of previous novels by Studge can only be considered coincidentally similar to the real novels that the true author might have written in the past. However, the other novels by the true author should be completely ignored, and resemblances to what Studge talks about should in no way whatsoever help categorize Breakfast of Champions.
The final and hardest aspect in removing the author from the equation deals with the layers or Creators discussed before. The layers of Creators of the Universe are much harder to understand without the fictional “I” as a possibly steady foundation seated in reality. “Thanksgiving Day was a holiday when everybody in the country was expected to express gratitude to the Creator of the Universe, mainly for food” (Vonnegut 144). Since a possible true author has been removed, this Creator is merely Studge’s author, who is still unnamed. He is a godhead figure not called God, Brahma, or any other godname, but rather acts as the constant that ends the lineage of Creators of the Universe. Kilgore Trout has now become a device used by Studge, as explained when he couldn’t find anything to write in response to the question, “What is the Purpose of Life?” The Creator tells us that Trout would have answered, “To be the eyes and ears and conscience of the Creator of the Universe, you fool” (Vonnegut 67-68). Trout is the fictional conscience of the “I.”
Additionally worth mentioning, is that the diagram of a polymer molecule that appears as an illustration drawn by Studge was fictitiously taught to him. Studge says, “The man who told me how to diagram a segment of plastic was Professor Walter H. Stockmayer ofDartmouthCollege” (233-234). Whether or not this person exists in reality is not important to the novel. In this situation, both Professor Stockmayer and the diagram of the plastic molecule are devices used to further the story and have no ground in reality. So, once the Creator of the author’s universe is placed on a fictional plane, thus turning the author into a fictional creator, the godhead figure becomes just as important as: free will, the only character with free will, Kilgore Trout, and Philboyd Studge. Although creating an interesting concept which is virtually pantheistic, the story has become much more linear yet unforgivingly blurry.
To conclude, the Michel Foucault interpretation, through which we abolish the author, transforms the critique of Breakfast of Champions into a very linear and almost hard to follow family tree. Who was the creator of whom becomes much less important because every character has a creator of his universe, and the universes collide, regardless of the fact that they were all in the same fictional cosmos to begin with. While Foucault has strong and important ideas on how literature should be critiqued, limitations are clearly shown when Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions or Goodbye Blue Monday is put under the proverbial hypercritical microscope. Ignorance of the author is truly bliss for Foucault, but Vonnegut’s function as the “I” surely reveals a much more engaging and productive critique. The reader can pull valuable information from looking at the author and what he has used to create his world: a mix of reality and fiction. The reader is engaged by the juggling of Creators and what each one gives his creations. And ultimately, what we find is a paradoxical reversal of roles where Trout and the godhead figure contribute free will while Kurt Vonnegut and Philboyd Studge contribute chaos to the universe of the readers and critics alike.
Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” Trans. Josue V. Hatari.
Criticism Major Statements. Fourth Ed. Charles Kaplan and William DavisAnderson.Boston,MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. 544- 558.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Breakfast of Champions.New York:
Dell Publishing, 1973.