Solipsism, as a philosophy, has its attractions. The idea behind it is that since all we can truly know is our self, the self is the only being that really exists. This outlook is expressed in tragicomic form in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. Written in Vonnegut’s characteristic style, there’s confusion and continuity, and almost a mockery of the gullibility of readers. Kilgore Trout, a penurious science fiction writer, wrote a novel where one character was human amid a planet of robots programmed to act like people. Dwayne Hoover comes to believe this is true and acts on it, with several other characters ending up in the hospital. The story ends with the narrator realizing, I think, that he’s the only real human being because he made up this entire novel.
As someone who generally works alone, and whose lifestyle includes early rising and early sleeping, solipsism suggests itself from time to time. Writers tend to spend quite a bit of time in their own heads, either reading or expressing their own thoughts via their craft. Anyone who’s been a victim of a solipsist (and we all have) knows that such a viewpoint is wrong, but it does address one of consciousness’ deepest fears—how do we know what others know or experience? We keep secrets. We hide our weaknesses and insecurities. We show others, most of the time, only what we want them to see. Addressing the individualism of the late sixties and early seventies, Vonnegut takes to task a society that still promotes prejudice and wages war.
Vonnegut experienced war and it’s clear that it haunted him for the remainder of his life. He tried, and often succeeded, in finding some hilarity in life, but it always seems to stop short with a slap of cruelty. I’ve been reading quite a few of Vonnegut’s novels over the past few years. He’s a writer that mixes profundity with frivolousness in such an easy way that it’s beguiling. Breakfast of Champions is, despite being an easy read, a difficult book. Quickly finished with its goofy doodles and swift pace, it leaves you feeling as if you’ve been poisoned with an idea, somehow. Or maybe it’s just me. For this year’s reading challenge I’ve selected two more of Vonnegut’s novels, but I haven’t decided which ones yet. I think about asking others, but then I remember that if he’s right in this one, there’s really nobody else to ask.