A Confederate General from Big Sur has had a mixed reception. It is usually not ranked as highly as Brautigan’s masterpiece, Trout Fishing in America (1967), because the narrative point of view is somewhat clouded. Critics admire its comic inventiveness, however, and students have remarked upon its humor even when they are hard put to explain it.
Perhaps it is the unexpectedness of the connections Brautigan makes that delights some readers and dismays others. His similes and metaphors are often literally farfetched, seemingly awkward, and therefore subversive of literary conventions: “Elaine stared at the waves that were breaking like ice cube trays out of a monk’s tooth or something like that. Who knows? I don’t know.” The inconclusiveness of the prose, the flatness of the style, can be irritating and boring. Yet the honesty inherent in forsaking smoothness and in admitting that all metaphors are only approximations, a part of the writer’s search for appropriateness, is refreshing. The question in regard to this novel is whether Brautigan has balanced the opposing principles alive in all of his work: coherence and chaos.
A considerable poet as well as a novelist, Brautigan has favored writing in short units. Nearly all of his poems and short stories are quite brief, and the chapters of his novels rarely exceed five or six pages. A Brautigan novel seldom goes beyond two hundred pages. Yet there is a significant...
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