I decided to write a thing about Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions for CBC’s Stories of Change contest. The thing is here: bit.ly/1brEvdm, or also you can just read it below.
The summer after I graduated from university, I went through a minor quarter-life crisis. I had managed to avoid thinking about my future for the last four years, and I felt paralyzed by indecisiveness about what to do with my life. In order to distract myself from the real problem, I had made a series of questionable life choices, and had surrounded myself with questionable people who I didn’t really trust.
The biggest cause of my existential angst was my then-undiagnosed, un-dealt with anxiety. I had panic attacks on a regular basis that I didn’t want to acknowledge; I had become moody and paranoid that I was going insane or possibly dying, but I didn’t want to talk about it with anyone. I dismissed my mental health issues, and did my best to laugh them off, but in reality I felt scared and very alone.
Somehow, I had never heard of Kurt Vonnegut until earlier that year in April when he died. I couldn’t have named a single one of his novels; I didn’t know about Tralfamadorians or Bokononism or Kilgore Trout. But now his name had seeped into my consciousness, and one June day, when I noticed a Vonnegut novel while browsing through a bookstore, I picked it up and read the back cover. The book was Breakfast of Champions, and the description sounded interesting enough – something about a used car salesman who goes insane and the dirty underbelly of America.
I was hooked from the beginning by Vonnegut’s simple sentences. In the preface alone, the author questioned the American Dream in a way that was cynical, honest and brave. As the synopsis suggested, the book is about a car salesman who goes insane, who starts to believe he’s the only real, living human in the whole world, and that everyone around him is a machine. Vonnegut even wrote himself into the novel and questions his own sanity, something I could certainly relate to.
But that wasn’t the only aspect of Breakfast of Champions that resonated with me. Vonnegut had a way of articulating things I had always believed, but which I didn’t even know I felt until I read the book. He wrote about adapting to chaos, and not knowing whether to take life seriously, and how there isn’t anything sacred about human beings; that we really are machines, doomed to collide over and over again.
By the time I finished Breakfast of Champions, I somehow felt less alone. Kurt Vonnegut wasn’t alive anymore – I had missed him by a few months – but his words were still there, and somehow it felt like he knew exactly what I was going through.
My life didn’t change overnight, but discovering Vonnegut was a catalyst. I made a few better decisions, I stopped spending time with certain people, and I decided to go back to school. I kept reading Vonnegut, and I kept uncovering more pieces of wisdom, things that seemed like obvious truths once I read them, but which I never would have been able to articulate so perfectly.
Reading Vonnegut now reminds me of the importance of being kind and appreciating all the things in the world that are good, while also giving me some context for handling the senseless randomness of life.
Vonnegut changed my life, and of course, Kurt himself best describes exactly how in his last novel, Timequake: “Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.’”