Richard Brautigan Short Fiction Analysis
Richard Brautigan’s short fiction explores the imagination’s power to transform reality. In some stories, this means contrasting a gritty, naturalistic portrait of cheap materialism, personal defeat, and latent violence with a vision of the lost American Eden or a nostalgic remembrance of childhood’s innocence. Collectively, the stories describe a search for good in contemporary America, but because they sympathize with the defeated, they suggest that such a search is futile. Brautigan’s stories stoically accept the conditions of existence, withholding judgment while suggesting that the imagination holds the only possible hope for transcendence.
The stories are self-consciously artificial, continually calling attention to the process of their creation. The typographical experimentation, outrageous figures of speech, extreme compression, and deceptively simplistic syntax work through a disengaged narrative voice to create prose that has been compared to skywriting. The conscious artificiality of Brautigan’s stylistic mannerisms has led some critics to dismiss his work as whimsical, coy, naïve, and self-indulgent.
Although Trout Fishing in America became popular as a counterculture book during the late 1960’s, it was written in 1961 as a late expression of the San Francisco Beat movement. Brautigan, like other Beats, had been conditioned by the experience of the Great Depression and World War II, historical examples of deprivation and violence, and he saw in these experiences deep truths that belied America’s complacent prosperity. In contrast to the radicals of the 1930’s and the New Left of the 1960’s, Brautigan and other Beats sought social change not through collective action but through personal transformation.
Thus, Trout Fishing in America is an antididactic book, an effort to document America from a disengaged, thoroughly nonpolitical point of view. Although the America it documents is spiritually decayed, the forty-seven stories that compose Trout Fishing in America do not promote a program of social reform. Instead, the book’s underlying philosophy, derived from Zen Buddhist belief, assumes that life is essentially determined and that social progress is an illusion. Brautigan expounds a politics of the imagination in which social activism is supplanted by the individual imagination’s ability to create a vision of freedom, a vision of an America that is “often only a place in the mind.” To this extent, the explicit theme of Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night, which was published in 1961, as Trout Fishing in America was being written, suits Brautigan’s book: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” Brautigan’s unnamed narrator uses his imagination to “fish” for something of value in the stream of contemporary America, but like his comically failed fisherman Alonso Hagen in “Fishing on the Streets of Eternity,” his effort becomes “an interesting experiment in total loss.”
Stylistically, Trout Fishing in America seems without literary precedent, a documentary collage of prose poems and cultural allusions that exhibits no interest in character, plot development, or psychological motivation. Literary parodies (of Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Henry David Thoreau) are juxtaposed to references to historical figures (Richard Nixon, “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Andrew Carnegie, Caryl Chessman, Deanna Durbin) and the signatures of popular culture (bumper stickers, diaries, tombstone engravings, recipes, warning signs). Woven through this cultural stew is the protean phrase “Trout Fishing in America,” which is applied to people, places, a hotel, a pen nib, a state of mind, and the book itself.
“The Cover for Trout Fishing in America,” the opening piece, exemplifies the book’s self-consciousness and introduces Brautigan’s ironic view of America. By describing the book’s cover photograph, Brautigan reminds his reader that Trout Fishing in...
(The entire section is 2,818 words.)