“I am on par with the Creator of the Universe here in the dark in the cocktail lounge,” Vonnegut says. As Bonnie MacMahon brings him another drink, she eyes him suspiciously. “Can you see anything in the dark, with your sunglasses on?” she asks. “The big show is inside my head,” Vonnegut answers. She nods and goes back to the bar, where she tells the bartender, Harold Newcomb Wilbur, about their strange customer.
Vonnegut’s statement that he is “on par with the Creator of the Universe” reflects his total control of his characters, similar to an engineer designing a machine. Because he has created them, he has the control to make them appear and behave in any way he pleases.
Harold stares at Vonnegut, and Vonnegut wants him to stop, but he can’t force him. “Here is the thing about my control over the characters I create,” Vonnegut says. “I can only guide their movements approximately, since they are such big animals. There is inertia to overcome.” Vonnegut explains that he is not connected to his characters “by steel wires,” but by “stale rubberbands.” Vonnegut makes the telephone ring to distract Harold, so he won’t kick him out.
The “inertia” that Vonnegut describes begins to unravel his people-as-machines narrative. Despite the fact that he has engineered them, Vonnegut isn’t able to completely control his characters, which implies that actual people can’t be controlled like machines either. Like actual people, Vonnegut’s characters represent sentient human beings, with actual feelings and opinions.
Harold is the second most decorated veteran in Midland City. He was awarded several medals during the Second World War, “which was staged by robots so that Dwayne Hoover could give a free-willed reaction to such a holocaust.” The phone is ringing because Vonnegut makes Ned Lingamon, the most decorated veteran in Midland City, call Harold. “Don’t hang up,” Ned says to Harold. “The cops got me down at City Jail. They only let me have one call, so I called you.”
Again, Vonnegut’s people-as-machines narrative creates an emotional distance that allows for atrocities such as war to be more easily accepted. Thinking of soldiers and wartime civilians as robots makes war crimes and other injustices more palatable to society, which both justifies and sustains these atrocities.
As Harold talks to Ned, Vonnegut draws a colorless representation of Rabo Karabekian’s painting, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, on his tabletop. The Mildred Barry Memorial Center for the Arts has purchased the painting for fifty thousand dollars. The painting, which is twenty feet wide and sixteen feet high, is a green square with a “vertical stripe of dayglo orange reflecting tape.” The cost of the painting is a “scandal,” and the whole city is “outraged” that the center has paid so much for such a simple painting. “So am I,” Vonnegut says.
Rabo’s painting is symbolic of art’s subjectivity. For whatever reason, both Rabo and the arts center have decided that the painting is worth a significant amount of money, yet it doesn’t reflect any actual talent and is even described as childish. In this way, the value of Rabo’s painting is determined in a completely arbitrary way, and is about making money, not revealing truth or beauty.
Beatrice Keedsler is “dismayed” that Rabo has been paid so much money. Still, she hides her feelings and converses politely with him. “This is a dreadful confession,” she says to Rabo, “but I don’t even know who St. Anthony was.” Rabo tells her that he doesn’t know either and doesn’t really care. “You have no use for truth?” Beatrice asks. “You know what truth is?” says Rabo. “It’s some crazy thing my neighbor believes. If I want to make friends with him, I ask him what he believes. He tells me, and I say, ‘Yeah, yeah—ain’t it the truth?’”
Here, Rabo implies that truth is not rooted in any universal understanding, but instead is something that people agree to in an attempt to be friendly. Rabo doesn’t agree with his neighbor because he necessarily believes in his definition of truth; he does so to prove his friendship. Here, the definition of truth is based in convenience, not inherent meaning.
“I have no respect whatsoever for the creative works of either the painter or the novelist,” Vonnegut says. Rabo, it seems, has “entered into a conspiracy with millionaires to make poor people feel stupid,” and Beatrice has “joined hands with other old-fashioned storytellers” who believe life, like literature, has “lessons to be learned.” It is because of artists like Rabo and Beatrice, Vonnegut says, that Americans “behave so abominably.” Everyone is “doing their best to live like people invented in story books.” So, writes Vonnegut, “I resolve to shun storytelling.”
Vonnegut reveals his discontent with art and with storytelling as a form of art. He directly implies that art is arbitrary and meaningless, and that it is more about money than beauty or truth. He even directly blames art for the ugliness of society. Vonnegut’s vow to “shun storytelling” is his motivation to write this antinovel, which parallels Kilgore’s own attempt to show up at the festival a representation of a failed artist.
“Let others bring order to chaos,” Vonnegut says. “I will bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.” If other writers did this, according to Vonnegut, then perhaps people “will understand that there is no order in the world arounds us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead.”
Essentially, Vonnegut argues that since there is no truth or beauty to be found it the world, it likewise cannot be found in art and storytelling. Vonnegut adapts to the ugliness of the world by directly calling it out and attempting overcome it.
Bonnie brings Rabo another martini. “Breakfast of Champions,” she says again as she places the drink in front of him. Rabo tells Bonnie that she said that the last time she brought him a martini. “I say it every time I give anybody a martini,” Bonnie says. She tries to be friendly, since she works for tips, and even though she “detests” Rabo, she continues to smile.
Bonnie underscores the plight of the blue-collar worker. She hates many of her customers but is forced to smile in the name of making money, which is more evidence of American society’s unequal distribution of wealth.
Rabo asks Bonnie about Mary Alice Miller, the girl on the cover of the program for the Festival. Mary Alice is the Queen of the Festival, and she is also an Olympic Gold Medalist and the Women’s Two Hundred Meter Breast Stroke Champion of the World. She is a local celebrity, and her father had taught her to swim when she was just eight months old. “What kind of a man would turn his daughter into an outboard motor?” Rabo asks.
Whereas the people of Midland City find Mary Alice’s story incredibly important to their collective identity, Rabo finds it complete nonsense. When he expresses this opinion, he simultaneously insults Midland City’s entire population.
“And now comes the spiritual climax of this book,” Vonnegut interrupts, “for it is at this point that I, the author, am suddenly transformed by what I have done so far.” When Rabo questions Mary Alice Miller, he essentially questions Midland City as well, and makes the people worry that “their lives might be ridiculous.” Rabo, “a man from out-of-town,” has “ridiculed” their lives. “Oh yeah?” Bonnie yells. “Oh, yeah? You don’t think much of Mary Alice Miller?” she asks. “Well, we don’t think much of your painting. I’ve seen better pictures done by a five-year-old.”
Vonnegut’s “spiritual climax” again unravels much of the argument he has been making thus far. Vonnegut maintains that art is subjective and arbitrary, and therefore inherently meaningless, but he is brought to this “spiritual climax” through Rabo’s art, which he has already admitted he doesn’t respect. The fact that Vonnegut is moved to such a change through art suggests that art is not as meaningless as he claims.
“Listen,” says Rabo. “I have read the editorial against my painting in your wonderful newspaper.” Rabo is aware that Midland City doesn’t like his painting, but he doesn’t care. “The painting did not exist until I made it,” he says, and it “shows everything about life which truly matters.” It is a rendition of the “awareness of every animal,” the “immaterial core” that is at the center of each living thing. He calls it an “unwavering band of light,” and it is “all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery,” he explains.
The meaning of Rabo’s painting cannot be gleaned simply by looking at it, which implies that the connection between Rabo’s painting and its meaning is completely arbitrary and created by Rabo for his convenience. Nevertheless, Rabo’s explanation perfectly explains the “inertia” that makes Vonnegut’s characters impossible to control, and as such, Vonnegut finds new value in the painting.