Richard Brautigan Long Fiction Analysis
Richard Brautigan’s novels are generally characterized by the appearance of a first-person narrator (sometimes identified in the third person as Brautigan himself) who presents an autobiographical, oftentimes whimsical story. Brautigan’s work employs simple, direct, short, and usually repetitive sentences. In his best work, he has an uncanny ability to create vibrant and compelling scenes from apparently banal subject matter. It is the voice of the “I,” however, that carries the Brautigan novel, a voice that often unifies virtually plotless and quite heterogeneous materials.
Brautigan’s first published novel, A Confederate General from Big Sur, is perhaps his funniest. A burlesque of American society long after the Civil War, the story is told by Jesse, a gentle, shy, withdrawn narrator (not unlike Brautigan himself) who meets Lee Mellon, a rebel, dropout, and activist living in San Francisco. Lee soon moves to Oakland, California, where he lives, rent-free, at the home of a committed mental patient. The story then moves to Big Sur along the central coast of California, where Lee and Jesse live in a cabin, again owned by a mental patient. As Jesse and Lee figure out how to cope with life and no money, they find a fortune of six dollars and some loose change, get rip-roaring drunk in Monterey, and discover Elaine and a great deal of money. Johnston Wade, a crazed insurance man, arrives on the scene, informing everyone that he is fleeing from his wife and daughter (they want to commit him to a mental institution). He leaves as abruptly as he arrived, remembering an important business appointment he must keep. The book ends, as it must, without ending.
In A Confederate General from Big Sur, Brautigan is facing the question of how to cope with civilization. The flight from technology toward wilderness holds risks of its own. Brautigan offers no answers. Human life is not unlike that of the bugs sitting on the log Jesse has thrown into the fire. They sit there on the log, staring out at Jesse as the flames leap around them.
The theme of the novel is the ambition to control one’s life and destiny. The ownership of the Big Sur log cabin by a mental patient and Johnston Wade’s own mental aberrations only serve to illustrate the fleeting control all people have over their lives. Brautigan introduces Wade to burlesque the myth of American destiny. He is a parody, a ridiculous image of American business and technocracy: the self-made man running away from his wife and child who suddenly remembers an important business engagement.
Although not published until 1968, In Watermelon Sugar was written in 1964, during Brautigan’s evolution from poet to novelist. The book reflects this evolutionary change, for in many ways it is more poetic than novelistic in its form. The story is that of a young man who lives in a small community after an unspecified cataclysm. In the first of the three parts of the book, the shy and gentle narrator tells the reader about himself and his friends. Their peaceful life was not always so, he explains, and he tells about iDEATH, a central gathering place that is more a state of mind than an actual physical location. In the second part of the novel, the narrator has a terrible dream of carnage and self-mutilation. The third part of the book begins with the narrator’s awakening, strangely refreshed after the terrible dream. The gentle, leisurely pace of the first part then restores itself.
In Watermelon Sugar is like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), a utopian novel of the Garden of Eden, springing forth out of the chaos of today’s world. It is Brautigan’s vision of the rustic good life in postindustrial society. From watermelons comes the juice that is made into sugar, the stuff of the lives and dreams of the people of iDEATH. By controlling their own lives, by creating their own order, the people of iDEATH recover society from chaos. The sense of...
(The entire section is 2,179 words.)