"The expression 'Breakfast of Champions' is a registered trademark of General Mills, Inc. for use on a breakfast cereal product. The use of the identical expression as the title for this book is not intended to indicate an association with or sponsorship by General Mills, nor is it intended to disparage their fine products."

- Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., in Breakfast of Champions

Copyright 1973. I loaned this book to another noder (years ago, before he showed me E2 and consesquently before the word "noder" entered my vocabulary) and in one of his daylogs here, he notes that it "smacks of Everything." Certainly, the book is organized in tiny, E1-style chunks, and is in many ways a series of definitions, a sort of guide to life in Vonnegut's America. You can tell this man is just aching to see the birth of hypertext:

"When Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout met each other, their country was by far the richest and most powerful country on the planet. It had most of the food and minerals and machinery, and it disciplined other countries by threatening to shoot big rockets at them or to destroy things on them for airplanes.

"Most other countries didn't have doodley-squat. Many of them weren't inhabitable anymore. They had too many people and not enough space. They had sold everything that was any good, and there wasn't anything to eat anymore, and still the people went on fucking all the time.

Fucking was how babies were made."

I know very few people who didn't spend at least some part of their adolescence engrossed in Vonnegut, so for many of you, Breakfast of Champions will be familiar territory. For one thing, as evidenced above, his skewed sense of humor and his skewering vision of America are perhaps more evident here than in any other Vonnegut book I've ever read. For another, Vonnegut's alter ego, the sci-fi writer Kilgore Trout, is more prominent here than in any other Vonnegut work I've ever read.

But while it's familiar territory to anyone who's read Vonnegut before, it's not so familiar that I'd hesitate to recommend it to anyone who, say, spent his or her adolescence embroiled in Vonnegut and has since outgrown him. Many passages are laugh-out-loud funny - I'm particularly fond of his summaries of Kilgore Trout's novels and short stories (which are, you may know, inexplicably packaged as porn, and printed in the kind of magazines that don't even send complimentary copies to their writers, let alone pay). So are his Magic Marker caricatures of assholes, underwear and hyperdermic syringes. The book is clever, on both macro and micro levels - but I don't think it's merely that.

The plot centers around Dwayne Hoover, a used-car dealer in the Midwest, as his course in life collides with miserable, cynical Kilgore Trout: verging on nervous breakdown, Hoover encounters Kilgore Trout in a parking lot and pleads, "Give me the message." Trout hands him a copy of his novel, Now It Can Be Told], and Hoover is finally unraveled by the novel's written-in-second-person revelation that he, the reader, is the only person on the planet with free will, that those around him are mere automatons. Not to spoil it, but near the end of the book, Trout has a curiously parallel conversation with Vonnegut, his maker, who agrees to liberate him.

But for me, the book is only kind of about that whole free-will thing. It's really a beautiful slice of an entirely un-beautiful America: strip malls, fast food, used-car lots, pornography, racism, American arrogance - and most of all, desperation and isolation. Yes, it's funny and political and satirical and philosophical and strange. But it's also a rendering of a very familiar place, whose existence we try to deny.

In fact, the setting for this book is the Midwest, which I have never in fact visited, but the place it describes is so familiar that I was not a bit surprised when Twin Falls, Idaho was chosen as the shooting location for the film. Twin Falls is not exactly home to me - though I grew up just a few hours away, I find the place distressingly flat. And, well, creepy, in that strip-malls-used-car-dealers-and-other-American-detritus way. Nonetheless, I was hoping Bruce Willis (who, as a sometime Idaho resident and local bete noire, is also familiar with Twin) and company would render it as interestingly as Vonnegut rendered the Midwest.

But no dice. Those of you who saw Slaughterhouse-Five and found it utterly baffling and disappointing will likely walk away from this with the same feeling. I don't know how it's possible to take an extremely accessible author with a notoriously straightforward, easy to follow style, and make his work into inaccessible gibberish, but that's exactly what happened to our boy here.

Obligatory IMDB info:

Breakfast of Champions (1999)

Directed by Alan Rudolph

Writing credits:

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (book)

Alan Rudolph (screenplay)

Breakfast of Champions (1999) Cast:

Bruce Willis .... Dwayne Hoover, Owner Exit 11 Motor Village
Albert Finney .... Kilgore Trout, Writer
Nick Nolte .... Harry Le Sabre, Hoover's Sales Manager
Barbara Hershey .... Celia Hoover
Glenne Headly .... Francine Pefko, Hoover's Secretary
Lukas Haas .... George 'Bunny' Hoover, Lounge Singer
Omar Epps .... Wayne Hoobler
Vicki Lewis .... Grace Le Sabre
Buck Henry .... Fred T. Barry, Chairman of Midland City Arts Festival
Ken Hudson Campbell .... Eliot Rosewater/Gilbert (as Ken Campbell)
Jake Johannsen .... Bill Bailey, Bunny's Manager
Will Patton .... Moe the Truck Driver
Chip Zien .... Andy Wojeckowzski, Gave ride to Trout
Owen Wilson .... Monte Rapid, TV Host
Alison Eastwood .... Maria Maritimo

I think I'm in a bit of an odd position on this one as I really enjoyed both the book and movie. The movie seems to be pretty much hated, even by people who loved the book. While there were a few differences between the book and film, I really thought they did a great job of bringing a difficult book to the screen.

The story revolves around Dwayne Hoover, a car salesman in a small midwestern town, who is a bit of a celebrity. His wife is a bit out of it, wrapped up in the television and her own fantasy world. His son is a lounge singer. Dwayne is searching for meaning in his life, having a bit of a nervous breakdown. He get's the idea that Kilgore Trout, an author coming to the Midland Arts Festival, can explain everything to him.

Trout, Vonnegut's alter ego in many books, is a science fiction author whose works are mainly published in adult magazines because they are the only place that will publish his stories. He get's invited to the arts festival as the guest of honor by Elliot Rosewater, a local town benefactor, who is a great fan of his works. Trout decides to go in order to show the world what a washed up hack he is.

Dwayne get's the idea that he is the only person with free will and that he exists just so the creator of the universe can view his reactions, as this is the theme of one of Trouts stories. It really becomes a look at an author interacting with his creations towards the end of the book, where things get a bit strange.

Overall, I think both the book and the movie were excellent. The acting in the move has been called fake, however the whole point of the movie is to view a story from the point of view of an author interacting with his characters, so it is intended to be off the wall. Vonnegut also satires many aspects of popular culture, and if you understand that, you will see that the actors did an amazing job. The story is bizzare, but very enjoyable. I highly recommend reading the book and seeing the movie, just keep an open mind.

Until you die, it's all life


Something passed the Turning test.   A QA engineer at Google convinced himself that the program he was testing represented the machinations of a sentient creature.  It passed a test proposed by one of the pioneers of computational science, Alan Turing. More on this in a moment.

In Turing's day, computers were basically giant calculators.  By giant, I mean physically huge.  And Turing invented these.  What he could do was to apply manually entered algorithms to some sort of numerical stimulus.  The stimuli to Turing's machine were encrypted messages.

During WWII Turing and his machinery cracked the enigma machine code.  Of course, he did this partially through social engineering.  During WWII, it was customary for German operatives to sign their missives with "Heil Hitler."  Knowing this character string was liable to be at the conclusion of every piece of communication, Turing was able to modify his algorithm and use the machine he invented to crack the code. Of course it wasn't nearly as simple as this.  But in the movie The Imitation Game, it seems it was. 

Geniuses make the impossible seem simple.

For his assistance in helping the Allies defeat Hitler, Turing was convicted of being a homosexual and chemically castrated.  Apparently, it was more important to the leadership of the day to attempt to excise homosexuality from society than to fight the greatest evil civilization had known to that time. Of course, this "conviction" for being himself happened nearly a decade after the war ended.  So civilization as we knew it was saved, and we could get on with destroying the lives of those who seemed to be on the fringes of things because they might disrupt the flow of life to which the majority of people had become accustomed. (Of course, it wasn't as simple as that and didn't go exactly the way those few sentences suggest - but it's how it turned out.)

Turing later committed suicide, or was murdered, or was killed accidentally. In any case, he was dead from cyanide long before he would have been without having been exposed to cyanide. So, 20th century humanity could convince itself that it was a complete fluke that a gay man saved the world.  Or maybe we'd just forget it altogether.

To quote Kurt Vonnegut, for whom this writeup is titled, "So it goes."


People want to believe what they want to be true, whether or not it is. 

There are many attempts to redefine "truth" as a result.  Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame used to say on the show: "I reject your reality and substitute my own."  He'd say this in jest, while trying to prove or disprove a particular pseudo-scientific supposition.  The reason it's funny is because this is a complete rejection of the scientific process, and the show was all about the scientific process.

(By the way: my wife and I were extras on an episode of Mythbusters and I can assure you that maintaining scientific integrity was an objective of the producers.)

Nowadays, the acceptance of unscientific reality substitution via media is an acceptable outcome for advertisers and politicians.  In the 20th century, it wasn't so effective, even though Richard M. Nixon bemoaned his debate loss to John F. Kennedy saying that the Tube had done him in.

Which is to say: we could have seen this coming.




Kurt Vonnegut was a WWII veteran.  As a soldier in the US army he had been taken prisoner and was held in Dresden, Germany.  

Dresden is a beautiful city.  I have been there.  

One significant aspect in the history of this city is that during WWII it was carpet bombed by the allies and the entire place went up in flames.  Vonnegut survived the Firebombing of Dresden, and was freed eventually.

By the time I got to Dresden, WWII had been over for 50+ years and most of the bomb craters and bullet holes were gone.  But it didn't stop me from imagining Kurt Vonnegut being held in a basement warehouse as a prisoner, watching people melt.

Except for depictions in movies, and TV, and real video on You Tube and Facebook and Reddit - I have never seen anyone burned alive.  Back in Vonnegut's day, death and destruction were only dramatized.  And as we know, real life is much more intense than a screenplay.  

So watching the firebombing of Dresden from the Dresden city streets would not have been something a normal human would have had experience with.  Thus, a person would have come out of it changed.

Vonnegut came out of it a writer. 

I have read all of his books.  I can sum them up in one word: cynical.

If being cynical is the worst that happens to someone surviving a firebombing during a world war, then maybe it could be said he got off lightly.




Vonnegut was a science fiction writer, and I loved science fiction.  My favorite Vonnegut story was Harrison Bergeron, which to my literarily-uneducated-mind is an anti-Communist treatise.  The idea is that there is a society in which everyone must be equalized to retain peace.  Diana Moon Glampers is the Handicapper General whose job it is to apply hilarous high-tech handicaps to people who are "above average" to make them average, and to do the same, in reverse, to those below average to bring them up to standards.

Harrison Bergeron is so far above average in every respect that there is no way to handicap him to bring him down to society's baseline. 

At the end, as he is flying away (he could fly), she skeet shoots him out of the sky with a shotgun.

Or something like that.

I was a kid when I read this.  In high school.  I loved this story because it celebrated individuality and the stellar brilliance of the human soul, and the unflagging effort of established elements to destroy disruptive ideas.

It seems as valid a story today as it was back in the day.




"Breakfast of Champions" was a Book of the Month Club selection when it came out in the 1970s.  As a member in good standing, I received it and was immediately enthralled, mostly due to its kind of "sing-song" humor and the pictures he doodled.  It was hilarious.

Because I was a kid who was more interested in calculus than fine art, I missed the messages. 

I spoke of the book enthusiastically to my Russian piano teacher.  I loaned her my copy.

She returned it without a smile.  She said, "He's awfully cynical."

As I didn't know the definition of the word cynical I simply agreed and figured it meant, "really amazingly funny."

When you're a kid you're wrong about most things.  This is what growing up is supposed to cure.  Sometimes it doesn't.



When that Google engineer proclaimed the AI he was testing for quality was sentient, my thoughts turned immediately to "Breakfast of Champions."  An extremely high-level view of the plot of "Breakfast of Champions" is that a certain scion of industry in the fictional town, Midland City, Ohio, reads a science fiction story that he takes as truth.  As he is already on the verge of a psychotic break, the story pushes him over the edge and he goes on a violent rampage.

It really is pretty funny.



The plot of the science fiction story, within the story of Breakfast of Champions,  is this:

God speaks to the reader.  God informs the reader that the book he now holds is an actual message directly to him, much like a custom-written bible done for exactly one person: YOU.

God tells YOU (the reader) that YOU are the only actual living creature on Earth.  Earthly existence is an experiment. Every other living creature is a robot, cleverly designed to test YOU to see how YOU would react. All other humans may act like real people, but it is not true.  They're machines designed as part of the experiment to test the true soul-possessing human, YOU.  Same for every animal and insect.

When I was in high school I thought this was one of the most clever, funny things ever written.  Because, how could "you" (real life 'you') really know?

And because I was better at math than literature, I reasoned that it could be true because everything other than computers passes the Turing test.




After the Google engineer proclaimed  the software upon which he was performing Quality Assurance was sentient, lots of people started explaining why the Turing test was invalid. 

See, we know how computers and software works.  So we want to believe that software can't be sentient.  

But is that what Turing meant with his test?  He knew how all his machines worked, but he still suggested artificial sentience was possible. Back in his day, it was not possible to make a system that "fooled" people.  And that verb itself is loaded with a conclusion. 

Because we know how to create an AI that "fools" people, they are "fools" if they believe in its inner intelligence.

Computers are not made of meat, so to many it seems it will never be possible to make a "sentient" AI unless we synthesize it from proteins.

Is that it?  Cows are made of meat.  They seem sentient to me, though none of them could pass the Turing test. And could a 2-year-old human child pass the Turing test?

It seems that guys like Musk and Kurzweil don't agree with the idea that you need to be made of meat to be sentient.

Now it can be told .

There is simply no way for YOU (and you) to know.



I was recently in an airport.  I used to be in airports all the time, but due to COVID-19 and having leukemia, of late I have avoided them.

But there I was with my wife, at the last bastion of actual bookstores.  (Are there bookstores anymore?  Seems they exist only in airports.)  And there on the shelf was a modern printing of "Breakfast of Champions."   As my own copy - an original - was back at the house, I got my wife to buy me a new one. (As I grow old and feeble I think it's important to get my wife to be accustomed to buying me things.  It will have to be this way in  the future.  I can see it coming.)

Reading Breakfast of Champions as an over 60-years old guy, it impressed me differently than it did when I was a high school freshman.  I did not find it as outrageously funny.  I did not find it as deliriously entertaining.

I found it very sad and cynical. 

If only I had learned to play the piano as well as my childhood piano teacher thought I would.

But at least I now know the definition of the word.




The message of "Breakfast of Champions" is that we value the frivolous and trite trappings of modern life more than humanity itself.  We treat each other terribly in the names of less significant priorities.  These priorities have more to do with commerce than human morality.  Some would like it to be true that other people pass the Turing test just because they are made of meat, but they're really robots.

Now I understand, fully, Vonnegut's catch phrase:  So it goes.

Because in Vonnegut's day, the 20th century, nothing had changed regarding our love for our fellow man.

And here we are in the 21st century.

So it goes.



Before my recent re-reading of "Breakfast of Champions" I told everyone I knew it was the best book ever written.

I don't think that anymore.  I now think "Winter's Tale" by Mark Helprin is the best book ever written.

Both of these books were made into absolutely horrible movies. 

Maybe that's saying something.

(It's entirely possible that as I have never been a good student of literature, I have completely missed the message of "Winter's Tale".  Helprin is kind of a seriously right-wing sort of guy, and my own thoughts do not tend that way.  Yet his fantasy/love story affects me deeply, the same way "Breakfast of Champions" did when I was a teenager. Maybe what I can say about "Winter's Tale" is that it has been useful to read a novel by a guy with whom I disagree politically.  At least we can agree on something.  True love is amazing. And miracles only seem that way. )



My favorite part of "Breakfast of Champions" is when Vonnegut breaks the fourth wall and places himself as a character in his own fiction.  He takes the role of sort of deity where he controls his characters from within the story.  Yet, his control is not absolute.  His explanation is that it is as if his abilities to modify reality is made through "stale rubber bands."  The plot and characters have their own inertia, and so some semblance of their own sentience. This individuality gives him the moral justification to both loathe and love them. 

See the science fiction story within a story, is another aspect of the fictional recursion (to use a software design term).  He is the deity telling his characters that everything is robotic and set into motion by him, the author.  And as a 50th birthday present to himself, he decides to set his characters free.

And they don't react as he thinks they will.  They exhibit fear and disbelief.

His characters pass the Turing test, even though he knows precisely that it is all his own invention.


And now, here is Kilgore Trout, occupying space in my own brain long after Vonnegut's death.

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