Tuesday, April 17, 2007

More Vonnegut - I’m Kilgore Trout...

I so much admired Kurt Vonnegut that his death got me thinking, quite nostalgically, about the first time I encountered his work. In 1976 my first proper, post-high school girlfriend lent me Breakfast of Champions. She was at university and she had the book as part of her Modern Studies course. Which was something of a surprise in itself, because I didn't know Modern Studies was even a subject. (Back in those days, British universities only taught academic things like English, History or Maths. They hadn't yet moved on to awarding degrees for watching TV or making balloon animals.)

She was a great girlfriend. But more of her later.

At this time I had no clear ambitions. I'd always liked writing, but I didn't think there was much chance of me ever producing a proper book. A proper book being, for instance, Jane Austen. I was in fact quite annoyed with Jane Austen for being long and dreary. Later I came to realise that Jane Austen was neither long nor dreary, and was actually a mighty genius. But it took a while before I realised that.

So when my girlfriend lent me Breakfast of Champions, I was just astonished. It hardly seemed like a novel at all. It contains a lot of little ink doodles. It's written in a series of short paragraphs, jumping from character to character, situation to situation. Absolutely nothing that could be called dreary. I loved this because I've always had a short attention span.

This made me think, well that's a good way to write a book. I could do that. Or at least I could do the short paragraphs bit. So I did. I just adopted Vonnegut's style of chapterless, short paragraphs, moving from one part of the story to another. After some years and several failed attempts, I managed to produce something worthwhile, and it was published.

However, the wholesale borrowing / theft / plagiarism of Vonnegut's style for my early books isn't my only reason for loving Breakfast of Champions. The book features the immortal Kilgore Trout - an author so steeped in failure, so shabby, defeated and unsuccessful, that you can't fail to warm to him. Poor Kilgore Trout's stories are printed mainly as filler in porn magazines, and they often don't even pay him. In Breakfast of Champions, Kilgore Trout is old and decrepit, and he's about to let the world know how badly it's treated him.

There have been occasions when, after writing for a long time, and then wandering out absent-mindedly to the shops, I've caught sight of myself in the supermarket mirror. I suddenly realise that I've forgotten to get shaved for several days, I've apparently managed to spill soup down my T-shirt without noticing, and I'm bearing a strong resemblance to the beggar who's sitting outside the shop. And I've thought to myself - My goodness, I've turned into Kilgore Trout.

But I've found that quite a comforting thought really. Especially during times when I've not been successful, of which I've had my share. Because Kilgore Trout, while shabby, defeated and ignored by the world, has his own dignity. He's a worthwhile person with a great imagination. He's smart, even if the world doesn't realise it.

Yes, I'm very fond of Kilgore Trout. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that many authors, in times of trouble, have mused on the heroically-defiant Trout, and felt better about themselves.

Kilgore Trout is wise enough to realise that he's actually a character in someone else's book. In Breakfast of Champions, he meets his creator, Kurt Vonnegut, who is himself a character in the novel. Trout, realising that Vonnegut has the power to do anything he wants with him, shouts at him - "Make Me Young!" Quite a reasonable request, and one which I might echo if it turns out I'm merely a character in someone else's novel.

What else might I ask Kurt Vonnegut to do, if it so happened I was one of his characters? Well, about that girlfriend who leant me Breakfast of Champions. She was witty, intelligent and beautiful, and strangely fond of me. So, naturally, I ruined the relationship by being young and stupid.

* shakes fist at my youthful stupidity *

I might ask Kurt if he could write all that a bit better this time. You know, make me more sensible at an early age. And maybe make me a bit taller. And with more hair. And definitely selling more books.

1 comment:

  1. Not quite myspace, I know, but surely 1 from The Bush is worth 107 By Hand. :o) Ahem.

    I would kill to be a filler in a porn mag. Kilgour Trout did tremendously well for himself as far as I'm concerned. And you too!

    But who needs hair in this day and age? We have wigs for pittance on ebay!