The novel is presented as a diary of daily entries which are soon broken by lost days and months and which the protagonist describes as the “route of a calendar map following one man’s existence during a few months period of time.” The protagonist is, if nothing else, incurably peripatetic, jumping among cities, states, countries, and a variety of homes and apartments. Beginning in January and extending to June, 1982, he wanders between locations, friends, and a disjointed series of experiences, only to arrive at a seeming still point: watching a sunset and scribbling in his notebook. As he explains at the outset, “We’ll go on with this journey that isn’t really getting any shorter because it’s already taken this long to get here, which is a place where we are almost starting over again.”
Howling through this otherwise quiet novel is a palpable sense of isolation, an overwhelming separation in spite of the narrator’s apparent devotion to and concern for others. The lives of his family and friends are important to him, but usually only in so far as they produce a mood or feeling, which always leaves the reader centered on the protagonist. For instance, on a visit to a friend in Buffalo where he is to lecture, the narrator’s plans are interrupted first by the rape of the friend’s neighbor and next by an intruder who terrifies the friend and his wife. After changing their plans and heading to Toronto for a few days, the writer concludes, once back in San Francisco, “My trip East had turned out exactly the opposite of what I had intended. I just wanted to have some fun and maybe a few pleasant memories along the way.” Pleasant memories, however, are never part of this novel’s equation.
Most of the narrator’s relationships, especially love relationships, are transitory and ultimately unfulfilling. The narrator constantly ponders his next sexual conquest, but no sooner does he attract a woman than he repels her. Lovers are simply means to an erotic end, not partners in any true sense, and when the narrator thinks he is being amusing or avant in his descriptions of sex, he is more often annoying. During one affair, he describes a seduction technique which involves engaging the woman in deep conversation and then suddenly interrupting her with the request that she disrobe. He is proud that she obliges (confiding that women always do) and then imagines the reader posing the following questions, “Do you take your clothes off?’ No.’ Why not? Because it’s not the effect that I want to produce. ’” The double standard and the exploitative nature of these relationships ensure further isolation and despondency.
There is, however, a measure of pathos in this insulation and self-absorption that can be clearly seen in his description of a lonely forty-seventh birthday. Absent are friends, a celebration, any gifts; instead, he describes himself as “very distant, almost in exile from my own sentimentality.” Riding across the San Francisco Bay on rapid transit, he wonders what might happen if he were to announce his birthday to the other passengers and spins out a series of amusing scenarios, which end in silence and the terse conclusion: “I just know I won’t be 46 again.”
The deepest moment of alienation occurs late in the novel when he describes a rift in his relationship with his daughter. After eight months of silence, she phones on Father’s Day, and the two can only talk in superficialities, incapable of even agreeing on a date for a future meeting. After abruptly ending the call, he wishes she had never phoned and laments, “I don’t know what’s going to happen between my daughter and me. I’ve searched through the possibilities like an archaeologist. These ruins puzzle and haunt me.”
Isolation reinforces the novel’s central preoccupation with death, and given the close identification of the narrator with Brautigan himself and the widely publicized details of his suicide in 1984, the novel is hauntingly prophetic. A common misconception about Brautigan’s works is that they are airy paeans to flower power and the blissful acceptance of all life. On the contrary, all of his major works concern themselves with death, and in An Unfortunate Woman the preoccupation is more overt and obvious.
The story begins with three ominous events: a prefatory letter to a female friend who has died of a heart attack after battling cancer, a single woman’s shoe lying forlornly in a Maui intersection, and the suicide of a woman living in the narrator’s rooming house in Berkeley....
(The entire section is 1862 words.)