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Richard Brautigan 1935-1984
American novelist and poet.
The following entry provides criticism on Brautigan's works from 1984 through 2001. For criticism prior to 1984, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 5, 9, 12, 34, and 42.
Brautigan's avant-garde poetry and fiction made him a transitional figure between the Beat movement of the 1950s and the counterculture movement of the 1960s, as well as a precursor of the postmodernists. In his novels, Brautigan employs lyrical prose, simple syntax, and a whimsical narrative style while exploring such themes as death, sex, violence, betrayal, loss of innocence, and the power of imagination to transform reality. Several critics have argued that Brautigan is an unclassifiable author, most closely allied with Kurt Vonnegut.
Brautigan was born on January 30, 1935, in Tacoma, Washington. He never met his biological father and had few happy memories of his childhood. Though a troubled teenager, he began to write stories in high school. Brautigan was once placed in a mental hospital after being diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Upon his release in the mid-1950s, Brautigan went to San Francisco where he encountered poets of the Beat Generation, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Philip Whalen. Brautigan then began to frequent poetry readings in North Beach coffeehouses. In 1957 he married Virginia Dionne Adler, with whom he had a daughter. Brautigan first published poetry but began to write fiction in the 1960s, which were his most productive years. Brautigan divorced in 1970 and in 1977 married a Japanese woman after he had achieved a measure of literary success in Japan. In 1976 Brautigan bought a ranch in Montana, where he continued to write despite his waning popularity. Another divorce, numerous other personal disappointments, and a heavy dependence on alcohol contributed to his death in September of 1984 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Brautigan's first important volume of poetry, The Galilee Hitch-Hiker (1958), an outgrowth of his experiences with the Beat poets in San Francisco, is the surrealistic odyssey of a man who drives a Model A Ford across Galilee and the United States. Brautigan plays with language, especially similes and metaphors with humorous twists, in Lay the Marble Tea (1959) and in The Octopus Frontier (1960) uses objects in the natural world to construct a world of imagination. Another poetry collection, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (1967), was followed by The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster (1968), which became his most popular volume of poetry. His novel A Confederate General from Big Sur (1964) is a play on the concept of historical accuracy. Brautigan's lasting fictional legacy was probably fixed by his 1967 novel Trout Fishing in America, which found its first audience among the counterculture then beginning to flourish in San Francisco. This novel, set mostly in the American West, is a lament for the loss of the natural landscape told in a picaresque and absurdist way. In Watermelon Sugar (1968) takes place in a postapocalyptic utopian commune called iDeath, where people manufacture everything they need from watermelon sugar and have no hope for uplift or progress. Brautigan's The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 (1971) is a parody of a genre novel which tells the story of a trip to Tijuana to secure an abortion for the author's girlfriend. Another parody, The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western (1974), takes on the western novel genre in a bizarre tale of a monster who lives in ice caves under an estate in Oregon. Three more novels in this parody series included Willard and His Bowling Trophies: A Perverse Mystery (1975), Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel (1976), and Dreaming of Babylon: A Private Eye Novel 1942 (1977). Brautigan produced just one volume of short stories, Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970 (1971), composed of very short vignettes on specific themes. He published several minor volumes of poetry in the 1970s, ending with June 30th, June 30th (1978), a collection of his impressions as an outsider in Japan in 1977. A novel, The Tokyo-Montana Express (1980), also grew out of his experiences in Japan and his new life on his Montana ranch. So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away (1982), Brautigan's final novel, was marked by the pessimism which pervaded the last part of his life.
Brautigan's critics have found him hard to classify. Some called him a last vestige of the Beat Generation, a hippie writer, or a modern-day Thoreau; others thought he was an early postmodernist or a Zen Buddhist. In the 1960s his experimental fiction was well received, although some reviewers felt his work was simplistic and lightweight. Trout Fishing in America received considerable critical attention for its unusual style and humorous tone. This book became something of a cult classic, especially on the west coast. Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar and A Confederate General from Big Sur were also reviewed and widely read. Brautigan's later genre novels, however, were given much less attention. His poetry gained mixed reviews, called uneven by some and linguistically and imaginatively interesting by others. In the 1970s and early 1980s Brautigan's work was out of fashion and received few reviews, except in Japan, where he had gained a new audience. Those western critics who did comment on Brautigan's work often labelled him an aging hippie whose literary time had past. By the time of his death, most critics had dubbed Brautigan a minor writer of the counterculture period. In the mid-1980s and in the years after his death, however, critics began to take a renewed look at Brautigan's work, finding in it considerable complexity and an originality. The publication of a biography, three biographical-critical studies, and a detailed bibliography helped to rekindle interest in Brautigan's life and body of work.
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The Galilee Hitch-Hiker (poetry) 1958
Lay the Marble Tea (poetry) 1959
The Octopus Frontier (poetry) 1960
A Confederate General from Big Sur (novel) 1964
All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (poetry) 1967
Trout Fishing in America (novel) 1967
The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster (poetry) 1968
In Watermelon Sugar (novel) 1968
The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 (novel) 1971
Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970 (short stories) 1971
The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western (novel) 1974
Willard and His Bowling Trophies: A Perverse Mystery (novel) 1975
Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel (novel) 1976
Dreaming of Babylon: A Private Eye Novel 1942 (novel) 1977
June 30th, June 30th (poetry) 1978
The Tokyo-Montana Express (novel) 1980
So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away (novel) 1982
An Unfortunate Woman: A Journey (novel) 2000
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1264
SOURCE: Horvath, Brooke K. “Wrapped in a Winter Rug: Richard Brautigan Looks at Common Responses to Death.” Notes on Modern American Literature 8, no. 3 (winter 1984): Item 14.
[In the following brief analysis of “Winter Rug,” Horvath discusses the manner in which the characters come to terms with death.]
“Winter Rug,” a story included in Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970, reveals in brief compass the preoccupation with death central to Richard Brautigan's fiction.1 Whereas Brautigan's major imaginative efforts present characters who typically bring radical tactics into play in their efforts to gain psychological control over death (the retreat into fantasy in A Confederate General from Big Sur, death's imaginative revision in Trout Fishing in America, the attempt of the iDEATH inhabitants to live in and with death in In Watermelon Sugar, and the mock-heroic triumph over death achieved in The Abortion), “Winter Rug” examines the paltry efforts of two characters to defuse death's sting through recourse to society's less drastic, habitual ploys.
The story concerns an old dog “dying very slowly from senility.”2 Owned by a wealthy old woman, the dog is eventually wrapped in an expensive Chinese rug and buried in the garden following the woman's reluctant decision to have her pet put “to sleep,” a euphemistic expression that, like the rug, serves to hide death's reality. “Winter Rug,” however, proves interesting not because of its plot but because of the responses the dog's death elicits from the narrator and his friend (the woman's gardener and the source of the story). Indeed, the first page of this stubby tale concerns not the dog and its owner but the narrator, who commences by presenting credentials to establish his competence to speak of death. His funereal vita begins:
My credentials? Of course. They are in my pocket. Here: I've had friends who have died in California and I mourn them in my own way. I've been to Forest Lawn and romped over the place like an eager child. I've read The Loved One, The American Way of Death, Wallets in Shrouds and my favorite After Many a Summer Dies the Swan.
The narrator goes on to cite funerals he has witnessed (from a distance) and recalls once seeing a corpse, “done tastefully in a white sheet,” carried out of a skid row flophouse to an ambulance solemnly waiting to drive it away, his friend remarking at the time that “Being dead [was] one step up from living in that hotel.” The narrator concludes simply, “As you can see, I am an expert on death in California.”
The narrator's opening lines thus disclose several common means of masking death's horror. His mourning, like the tasteful winding sheet and stately processional bestowed upon a flophouse resident, witnesses to society's usual practice of blanketing death in distracting legalities and honors (the ambulance “was prohibited by law from having a siren”); of wrapping it in ritualized, symbolic acts that serve to sooth us survivors; of handing it over to professionals to be disguised and distanced: all ways of removing death from the sphere of daily life, ways ably dissected in Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death. Reading this book and the others mentioned suggests a second common attempt at conquering death's strangeness: the acquisition of knowledge, the knowledge-is-power routine.
The narrator also tells of visiting Forest Lawn and romping “like an eager child,” as though life's final mystery could be familiarized, made the object of happy expectation, rendered innocuous (ploys Brautigan characters attempt elsewhere, as in The Abortion and In Watermelon Sugar), made part of a game (an attempt made in many of the stories of childhood in Revenge: for instance, “The Ghost Children of Tacoma,” “A Need for Gardens,” and “Sand Castles”). His childlike behavior suggests further a denial of time's passage, a willed return to innocence, to that time when, necrobiotically speaking, one is as far from death as one will ever be. Finally, the friend's joke, with its allusion to the notion of death as the doorway to one's reward, seeks to deflect a discomfiting confrontation through humor, which serves to distance the fact of death and to deflate its seriousness.
Beginning his account of the dog's death, the narrator observes that “the dog had been dying for so long that it had lost the way to death.” Dwelling upon the dog's suffering, the narrator resorts implicitly to the perennial wisdom, seeing death as a release from suffering, a kindness: it is the animal's “time”; death is for the best. In short, this “metaphysical war” (as the narrator describes the enterprise of funeral directors) is won by giving death a purpose, by transforming it from end to means (another tactic in the Revenge stories: compare “A Complete History of Germany and Japan”).
Finally, the story closes with the friend cursing the dog and having second thoughts about burying a rug worth $1000. Although someone earning a gardener's wages might well regret the lost opportunity of possessing such a treasure, more importantly the friend's comment reveals another prevalent means of controlling death anxieties: by reducing death's place in the scheme of things, by pretending that other things are worthier of one's concern, things whose loss constitutes sounder reason to mourn.
“Winter Rug” presents its thanatopsis with unusual guilelessness, but its catalog of life-enhancing illusions is far from unusual. Although the narrator claims to be “an expert on death,” clearly he is no more experienced than most of us, and his attempts at controlling his responses to life's irremediable end are among society's routine strategies, as he must know from his reading. The defensive tone with which he begins—as well as his limiting his area of expertise to “death in California”—exposes self-doubts vis-a-vis that mastery of death's mystery his introduction is supposedly establishing, just as his story reveals one old woman's pathetic attempts first to deny death's reality (“When the old woman [first saw the death doctor's] little black bag, she paled visibly. The unnecessary reality of it scared her …”) and then to control death by choosing the time and means of her pet's departure.
But the inadequacy of the narrator's ploys and those of his friend are perhaps best suggested by the fact that an unknown dog's death has so captured the narrator's imagination, has thrust the problem of death so unavoidably before him, that he must transform it into a story, into art. Particularly in the absence of religious belief (an absence present in this story), such an act, according to psychologists and literary theorists alike,3 is inherently concerned with giving our endings meanings, with creating illusions that make endings part of a comprehensible, hence meaningful and possibly acceptable whole. If the narrator of “Winter Rug” has gained any control over death, he has done so—as, perhaps, has his creator—by capturing it in a fiction.
On the death-obsessiveness percolating through Brautigan's work, see, for example, Tony Tanner, City of Words: American Fiction 1950-1970 (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), and Jack Hicks, In the Singer's Temple: Prose Fictions of Barthelme, Gaines, Brautigan, Piercy, Kesey, and Kosinski (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981).
Richard Brautigan, Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970 (New York: Pocket Books, 1972). The story runs from page 59 to page 62; because it is so short, I will not include page references for individual passages cited.
See, for example, Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: The Free Press, 1973); Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967); and Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (New York: Knopf, 1984).
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SOURCE: Horvath, Brooke. “Richard Brautigan's Search for Control over Death.” American Literature 57, no. 3 (October 1985): 434-55.
[In the following essay, Horvath examines the ways in which Brautigan's fiction deals with the illusion of cheating death.]
Ludwig Wittgenstein once noted that “Death is not an event in life. Death is not lived through.”1 However, as Keirkegaurd and others have forcefully argued, the prospect of death is life's central fact and the repression of this fact life's primary task. For Ernest Becker, moreover, man's heroism lies in his impossible efforts to transcend creatureliness, to deny death by means of “life-enhancing illusion.”2 Among such illusions might be placed statements such as Wittgenstein's and the fiction of Richard Brautigan.
As Becker writes early in The Denial of Death, “The irony of man's condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive” (p. 66). For Becker, this dilemma is inherent to consciousness, a consequence of human nature more than nurture. His views thus oppose those of Marcuse or Norman O. Brown, whose works speak to the desire for unrepressed living while pointing an accusing finger at society as the cause of repression. Yet throughout the Sixties, Brautigan created characters seeking not greater freedom but greater control over their lives: over their creatureliness, their thoughts and emotions. But further, although shrinking from life should not be seen exclusively as a result of social antagonism toward freedom and self-expansiveness, society can exacerbate this existential timidity. And in Trout Fishing in America (completed 1961, published 1967), A Confederate General from Big Sur (completed 1963, published 1964), In Watermelon Sugar (completed 1964, published 1968), and The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 (1971) the global village falls to ataractic communes and isolated dreamers seeking escapes from history, time, and change.
The American 1960s was often violent and deadly. The decade brought the country Vietnam and nightly body counts, the Cuban missile crisis and renewed atmospheric nuclear testing, Birmingham Sunday and the Days of Rage, Watts and Newark, Charles Whitman and Richard Speck, assassinations and alarms of overpopulation and eco-death. Strange, unnatural death and explicitly detailed acts of irrational, unexpected violence clearly obsessed the decade's fiction. Brautigan suggested the inseparability of death from his vision of the Sixties in the title of his fourth novel, The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966, thereby underscoring the death-obsession which his critics have frequently noticed percolating through his work.3 This obsession underlies the now-famous vignettes of blighted landscapes and polluted streams, perverted myths, frustrated hopes, corrupted values, corporeal and spiritual death in Trout Fishing in America. Brautigan's disappointment with our times underlies as well the sense of degeneration informing A Confederate General, evoked through the novel's contrast of present-day America with the Civil War years and of the heroic images that war typically conjures up with both the imagined behavior of Lee Mellon's ancestor Augustus and the observed behavior of that border psychopath Lee. In Watermelon Sugar reveals its author's critique of society in its images of an alternative community and of the Forgotten Works: those remains of a self-destructive civilization so far fallen into ruin that its survivors, 171 years later, can no longer identify many of its simplest artifacts.
Additionally, Brautigan's idée fixe habitually works itself out in stories of dropouts or of those living along the mainstream's more ragged tributaries, for his characters customarily sound retreats: to Big Sur, to what remains of the wilderness, to the emotionless science-fiction commune of iDEATH, to the cloistered utopia Vida and the narrator share in The Abortion.4 Such a conjunction of death, destruction, and disaffiliation suggests that Lee, Vida, and the rest share a countercultural view of the dominant culture as dealing and desiring death; in which case, disengagement from society might understandably follow. But further, to the extent that fear of death may be considered the primary motivational factor in men's lives, disengagement may result not only because death is ubiquitous within the confines of the establishment but because, even when most admirable, most heroic, the dominant culture offers promises of transcending death that no longer convince. When such promises fail to inspire belief, the individual is forced back upon himself to create his own illusions of control, his own means of defusing death fears. In short, our world makes closet neurotics of us all when we must forego, in some measure giving allegiance to the dominant culture as savior and attempt instead to erect private stays against dissolution.5
To free themselves from the anxiety of death, Brautigan's heroes seek to control the life that awakens it, seek the know-how of dominating life through self-imposed restraints upon life and self. Lee Mellon, for instance, may possess a certain amount of barely serviceable survival know-how, but, as importantly, he also has the know-how to shape his life into a denial of death. In that connection, Hugh Kenner has recently observed how-to literature's venerable tradition in America. Infiltrating the work of our best writers (Kenner points to Walden, Moby-Dick, Life on the Mississippi, and Death in the Afternoon), how-to literature has over the years metamorphosed into “a genre sui generis, the indigenous American literature of escape.”6 Similarly, Brautigan's Sixties seekers put a premium on self-reliance, on know-how, as a way of creating the illusion that one is master of one's life, hence of one's destiny. In this respect, The Abortion is in a sense only a terribly au courant how to manual (how to resolve a problematic pregnancy easily, safely, and relatively emotionlessly); In Watermelon Sugar, a mock blueprint for structuring utopia; and Lee Mellon, that “Confederate general in ruins,”7 a half-assed, latter-day Thoreau.
Brautigan's is, however, a curious brand of how-to self-reliance. Two comments reprinted on the back cover of the Dell edition of Trout Fishing clarify the nature of these novels as how-to literature. A reader at the Viking Press noted that “Mr. Brautigan submitted a book to us in 1962 called Trout Fishing in America. I gather from reports that it was not about trout fishing.” Fly Fisherman magazine, on the other hand, told its readers that “reading Trout Fishing in America won't help you catch more fish, but it does have something to do with trout fishing.”8 The point is that Brautigan, foregoing even a facade of practical instruction, foregrounds instead the escapism underlying America's indigenous genre no less than it underlies the musings of armchair and weekend anglers. He focuses on the how-to of escape: not only from a particularly deadly society but from too much life generally, and from the fear of being overwhelmed by this life, the life awakening fears of death.
Such concerns may be described as religious insofar as they manifest a preoccupation with death and its transcendence and insofar as the desire to transcend death lies at the heart of religious belief. Brautigan's fiction as how-to, then, involves creating a private religion that promises a triumph over death. This combination of self-reliance and spiritual necessity—requiring the reshaping of a received but no longer viable tradition or, more drastically, the constructing of a private alternative to fit personal needs—characterizes as well a large part of religious thought in America. America's history of do-it-yourself religion might be seen to begin with the Puritans' covenant theology and their vision of the New World as the New Israel. This tradition informs the Enlightenment appropriation of Puritanism, the Transcendentalist and Romantic revisions of Puritanism and Unitarianism, the merger of civil and millennial expectations that became so centrally a part of nineteenth-century thought, the Campbellites and Millerites (indeed, America's history of utopian communities in general), the work of Joseph Smith and Mary Baker Eddy, Emerson's plea for religious self-reliance and James's Varieties of Religious Experience, Henry Adams and the Beats. In short, whenever spiritual dissatisfaction has flowered, Americans have been quick to “make it new,” to clear some imaginative ground upon which to raise their personal solutions.
As man's capacity for killing increased in scale, as incomprehensible death seemed increasingly omnipresent, as conventional religious belief as a means of resolving death fears continued to collapse, literary theorists began speaking more and more of literature's function in terms of its ability to give endings meaning.9 It is art's ability to control its ends, its power to resee and to reorder reality, that Brautigan foregrounds in his first completed novel, Trout Fishing in America. “Rembrandt Creek,” one of the novel's two “lost chapters” (published in Esquire three years after the book's appearance), seems to offer a heuristic for interpreting Trout Fishing's intention: “Often I think about Rembrandt Creek and how much it looked like a painting hanging in the world's largest museum with a roof that went to the stars and galleries that knew the whisk of comets.”10 Like the name arbitrarily assigned to the creek, this passage reminds the reader of the possibility of transforming life into art. More explicitly still, Brautigan emphasizes fiction's ability to legislate endings by the conclusion he here offers. The penultimate chapter of the novel ends with the narrator expressing his desire to “write a book that ended with the word Mayonnaise” (p. 181). Then, on the next and final page, postfixed to the letter concluding Trout Fishing but having nothing to do with this letter, the following appears: “Sorry I forgot to give you the mayonaise” (p. 182). (Not to strain, but the fact that “mayonnaise” is here misspelled—in all editions of the novel, as far as I can tell—may suggest that the narrator's wish to control his story's ending has been at best imperfectly realized.) Finally, the book's overall style and structure highlight art as symbolic transcendence: through its collage construction and lack of narrative line, the novel seems intent on converting time into space and thereby halting America's progressive decay, while this tactic of atemporality likewise creates a sense of timeless presence that erases mortality as a function of time-boundedness.11
On the other hand, like the Biblical prophet, who assumes a countercultural stance to speak against his culture's numbness to death, Brautigan as controlling author has constructed a witty, dispassionate jeremiad to criticize his country's passionless capitulation to death, America's degeneration and forgetfulness concerning its hopes and dreams: which he does by ironically mirroring in his book's construction the sense of that eternal now that Walter Brueggemann labels “the lewd promise of immortality” and argues is always an illusion the establishment finds necessary to maintain to deny the possibility of newness, of alternative beginnings. By voicing through its series of koan-like sketches the despair over death and dissolution America has provoked, is blind to, and cannot countermand, Trout Fishing expresses the grief that must precede dismantling and energizing toward a new beginning. That is, through its language of grief, through its dark humor, through its awareness of death fears suppressed so long they have been forgotten in numbness, Brautigan's first novel opens the possibility of controlling death insofar as the novel now allows the future to be imagined alternatively.12
However, Brautigan's fiction attempts to solve the problem of death not only by finding an energizing language of grief and hope, not only by imposing “coherent patterns” providing ends consonant with beginnings and middles,13 but also by intercalating within these patterns accounts of characters who themselves seek controls over death, controls they would like to think proffer freedom, dignity, and hope—characteristics of the “best” illusions, according to Becker (p. 202). Toward this end, the characters of A Confederate General, In Watermelon Sugar, and The Abortion resort, variously, to fantasy, simplification of perception and response, ritualized and routinized behavior, and an effort at shutting down the self by maintaining a cool aloofness from emotion, from too much introspection, and from anything else that might cause a loss of self-control. Self-reliance for these characters is achieved not by expanding the sphere of their competence but by reducing life's scope and possibility (the less-is-more approach) or by wrapping themselves in private myths that imaginatively render life harmless. The problem with such ploys lies in the fact that rather than penetrating a numbness to death and so engaging in that “embrace of deathliness [that] permits newness to come,”14 these characters typically spin illusions enhancing numbness by camouflaging its underlying anxiety: those fears of death with which they refuse to wrestle.
A Confederate General, with its hard-drinking, dope-smoking, gun-toting, womanizing dropouts Lee and Jesse, might seem to illustrate not the characterization of Brautigan's heroes just drawn but that craziness that may easily result from the need to contrive private rituals. Yet neurosis and psychosis are ways of seeking to control life and to neutralize the terror of eventual annihilation—though such strategies cost too much, which is part of the reason why Lee and Jesse seem finally to be leading unenviable lives.
In an early discussion of A Confederate General Terence Malley objected that Jesse's replacement of Lee as the novel's center of attention works to the book's detriment. Malley found Jesse's slide into psychological instability too radical a change from his earlier role as humorous sidekick, and the melancholic temperament he comes to exhibit, too perplexing.15 Yet from first to last the book is Jesse's, not only because he is its narrator and central consciousness but because what A Confederate General in fact chronicles is Lee's effect on Jesse: the gradual undermining of this shy loner's precarious psychological balance through his acquaintance with Lee, that “end product of American spirit, pride and the old know-how” (p. 93).
The reader learns little about Jesse's life prior to his meeting Lee, but one suspects it was quietly desperate. Well read, given to paying visits on the elderly woman living below him, conscientious he leaves a newfound lover's bed, for example, to recover a drunken Lee before the police find him), Jesse finds his days nonetheless clouded by depression. The most unlikely experiences emerge from his mind in metaphoric shrouds: “a rush of wind came by the cabin. The wind made me think about the Battle of Agincourt for it moved like arrows about us …” (p. 111). Against this habitual disposition, Jesse favors small life-enhancing illusions, such as humor—which attempts to distance despair and to deflate its seriousness—or the book about the soul he reads shortly after joining Lee at Big Sur: “The book said everything was all right if you didn't die while you were reading the book, if your fingers maintained life while turning the pages” (p. 66). Similarly, after obsessively reading and rereading Ecclesiastes, Jesse finds a way of bringing its gloomy world view under control by reducing the text to its punctuation marks, which he then carefully tabulates night by night, Qoheleth's vision mastered by being reduced to a “kind of study in engineering” (p. 74).
Yet at the time Jesse is practicing such pathetic rituals, he has already fallen into the manic world of Lee Mellon. Lee's exuberance doubtless attracts the withdrawn Jesse, who finds fascinating material for his death-suffused outlook in Lee's martial fantasy and violent behavior. Throughout the novel, Jesse has occasion to relate instances of Lee's sadism, as when Lee threatens to shoot two teenagers caught trying to siphon gas from his truck (pp. 76-80). If heroism is, at root, the courage to face death, and sadism, like mental illness generally, “a way of talking about people who have lost courage” (Becker, p. 209),16 Lee's sadistic behavior is a logical consequence of his lifestyle, as is the fantasy role he assigns himself: the outlaw descendent of the fictitious Confederate general Augustus Mellon.
Lee leads a life of petty violence, squalor, and penury; as a self-reliant outlaw, he is inept: his hold-ups net him petty cash; he cannot shoot straight because he is “excitable” (p. 65); and although while holed up in an abandoned house in Oakland he successfully taps a gas main, he cannot control the resulting flame and is consequently seen for a time minus eyebrows. To give such a life meaning and the heroic dimension that would justify it, Lee must resort to sadism and fantasy: as the Confederate General of Big Sur, he gains self-worth by proxy and a precedent for abandoning the conventions by which lesser men must live.
The martial imagery draping Lee and the book is, however, primarily Jesse's doing, for he has masochistically bought into Lee's fantasy life to add vicarious grandeur to his own failed heroics. As Jesse observes while the two teenagers grovel at gunpoint and he stands by, ax in hand, “Do you see how perfect our names were, how the names lent themselves to this kind of business? Our names were made for us in another century” (p. 78). But eventually, these fantasies become themselves too overwhelming, no longer a means of controlling life but now a threat to self-control. Johnston Wade may be the final straw here, for, unlike the fantasies of the others (even Lee, threatening the teenagers, knows his gun is not loaded), Wade's are so out of control and dangerous that Lee finally resorts to chaining Wade to a log to keep everyone safe. Further, Wade, as a deranged insurance magnate on the lam because convinced his family is out to get him, offers an unsettling reminder not only of society's power to destroy but also of both the trapped individual's recourse to fantasy-control and the destructive potential of fantasy itself.
After a few hours of Wade, Jesse confesses, “I wanted reality to be there. What we had wasn't worth it. Reality would be better” (p. 126). But life at Big Sur will continue to tip Jesse's delicate balance: “I was really gone. My mind was beginning to take a vacation from my senses. I felt it continuing to go while Lee Mellon got the dope” (p. 152). By the final chapter, Jesse has fallen into sexual impotence and, looking back, concludes, “The last week's activities had been a little too much for me, I think. A little too much of life had been thrown at me …” (p. 154).
Jesse fails to find the illusions he needs, leaning instead on the crutch of others' fantasies, which offer him small hope, smaller dignity, and at best a loser's kind of freedom. Unable to discover a way of ordering his life into a meaningful, heroic whole, Jesse, not surprisingly, finds no satisfying end for his story but rather five alternative conclusions followed by “more and more endings: the sixth, the 53rd, the 131st, the 9,435th ending, endings going faster and faster, more and more endings, faster and faster until this book is having 186,000 endings per second” (p. 159).
According to Nietzsche, most men employ either “guilty” or “innocent” means in their struggles against life's “deadening dull, paralyzing, protracted pain,” which only the courageous have the capacity to experience without a soporific. Guilty means always involve “some kind of an orgy of feeling,” whereas innocent means include a “general muting of the feeling of life, mechanical activity, the petty pleasure, above all ‘love of one's neighbor’ … the communal feeling of power through which the individual's discontent with himself is drowned in his pleasure in the prosperity of the community.”17 In A Confederate General Lee and Wade represent the employment of guilty expedients, which submerge Jesse and his more innocent stratagems. Well aware of the dangers of excess, and more fortunate than Jesse in avoiding these dangers, the characters of In Watermelon Sugar and The Abortion likewise favor innocent maneuvers. In both books, characters find asylums wherein carefully regulated and ritualized fantasies—do-it-yourself religions—achieve a drastic shutting down of self that masks a failure of heroism and voids death anxiety more successfully than anachronistic secession and more predictably than dope.
In the world of Watermelon Sugar, simple, quietly routine days pass without disturbing emotions, thoughts, or desires. Whatever happens is seen to have happened for the best and as it must, and whatever displeases tends to disappear from view, like Margaret's note: “I read the note and it did not please me and I threw it away, so not even time could find it.”18 Personality has been so repressed that most of the community's art, to choose one telling example, stands as the work of anonymous artists who typically favor harmless subjects, electing to produce statues of vegetables and books on innocuous topics like pine needles and owls. In iDEATH, the community's spiritual center, as in Watermelon Sugar generally, “a delicate balance” obtains, as the narrator acknowledges (p. 1). To safeguard this life's emotional and intellectual deep sleep, virtues conducive to placidity must be cultivated; consideration and politeness are fetishized, and small, unsophisticated pleasures prevail. To experience such innocent joys, emotion must be carefully monitored, and even sexual desire must be satisfied with passion well under control (p. 34).
Further, all actual or potential threats to the community's well-being must be neutralized. Books, for example, are unvalued. Written by those who can find no satisfaction in more communally useful employment, books are seen as odd, solitary pursuits. If they do not, as in Farhenheit 451, represent such subversive dangers as curiosity and originality of thought, this is because no one pays them any mind. Although only twenty-three books have appeared in 171 years, even these go largely unread (pp. 11, 135), the possibility of life's growing too large averted by simple disregard, which also serves to defuse the nearby evil of the Forgotten Works:
Nobody has been very far into the Forgotten Works, except that guy Charley said who wrote a book about them, and I wonder what his trouble was, to spend weeks in there.
The Forgotten Works just go on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on. You get the picture. It's a big place, much bigger than we are.
Other sources of unrest fade from view as readily. The tigers, the once-great threat to Watermelon Sugar, required the most active opposition. Exterminated and subsequently mythologized, the tigers, symbols of human aggressiveness and instinctual need, have taken the theological problem of Blake's tyger with them, leaving only their remembered virtues—their math prowess and beautiful singing voices—for souvenirs. On the other hand, inBOIL and his gang, like Margaret, obligingly remove themselves through suicide, the end of their restless dissatisfaction with iDEATH. However, their deaths, although violent, trouble utopia only momentarily because Watermelon Sugar is a world with the knowhow to repress death anxiety by masking death's reality behind numbing familiarity, spurious immortality, and soporific funereal wisdom. InBOIL may kill himself to reveal iDEATH's true meaning, what the death of the self really entails: that it means more than the death of the ego (Ideath), of the id (IDeath), of thought (IDEAth); that Charley and the rest have made a mockery of iDEATH, have, in fact, failed to confront it. Yet nestled firmly in their numbed, death-in-life existence, iDEATH's inhabitants cannot be flushed by literal death so easily. In the midst of the mass suicide of inBOIL and his gang, the narrator's girlfriend responds only by fetching a pail and mop to clean up the “mess” their bleeding to death has made. And although other deaths may elicit more sympathetic responses, they do not provoke much more emotion. Watching in the Statue of Mirrors (in which “everything is reflected”) as his former girlfriend Margaret hangs herself, the narrator remarks, “I stopped looking into the Statue of Mirrors. I'd seen enough for that day. I sat down on a couch by the river and stared into the water of the deep pool that's there. Margaret was dead” (p. 136; see the similar reaction of Margaret's brother, p. 142).
Naming its center iDEATH, a place as changeable as death is various (pp. 18, 144-45), the community can pretend to be living with and in “death,” which is further familiarized through elaborate burial rituals that leave the dead “in glass coffins at the bottoms of rivers” with “foxfire in the tombs, so they glow at night and we can appreciate what comes next” (p. 60). However, the community must pay a great price for this anxiety-free life. The shutting down of self practiced in Watermelon Sugar has reduced tremendously the scope of human response-ability. Moreover, the elaborate defensive armor forged here is not without chinks: unpacified dissidents like inBOIL; unhappy, ostracized souls like Margaret; and the restless, nameless narrator as well. Not only does the narrator see behind the shared illusions of iDEATH (“We call everything a river here. We're that kind of people,” p. 2); he has written a book (“I wonder what his trouble was”): a book very different from the others written in Watermelon Sugar; a book that builds toward the suicide of iDEATH's latest dropout and ends on the day of the black sun; a book that implicitly gives the lie to the utopian triumph over death this world seems to represent by showing Watermelon Sugar as the restricted, dehumanizing, hopeless, and deadly place it finally is.
The Abortion continues Brautigan's interest in characters attempting to retreat from life. The narrator, again nameless, appears in the novel's first two books as a recluse operating a library to which San Francisco's lonely, frustrated residents can bring manuscripts to be recorded in the Library Contents Ledger, shelved (but never borrowed or read), and eventually moved to caves for permanent storage (where “cave seepage” will insure their destruction). Life, the narrator confesses, “was all pretty complicated before I started working here,”19 but now, safe within the library—tellingly described as a prison, a church, a funeral parlor, an asylum, a time machine, a monastery (pp. 71, 77, 84, 85, 105, 178)—the ritualized, isolated life he leads in this building he has not left once in three years insulates him from history, time, and change. As he remarks upon finally emerging, “Gee, it had been a long time. I hadn't realized that being in that library for so many years was almost like being in some kind of timeless thing. Maybe an eternity” (p. 70).
The cause behind the narrator's re-entry into life is Vida, a relentlessly beautiful girl who arrives one evening with a book for the stacks. She also is in retreat from life; as she tells the narrator, “I can see at a glance … that you are something like me. You're not at home in the world” (p. 51). Vida's unease centers upon her body, not despite but because of its beauty: “My book is about my body, about how horrible it is to have people creeping, crawling, sucking at something I am not,” she explains (p. 45).
If the library represents a refuge from life, Vida (Spanish for life) enters as a threat to the narrator's innocent defenses: mechanical activity, petty pleasures, muted feeling. “‘Yes,’ I said, feeling the door close behind me, knowing that somehow this at first-appearing shy unhappy girl was turning, turning into something strong that I did not know how to deal with” (p. 49). The narrator rightly feels such qualms, for Vida's beauty—the terrible beauty of life—is a perilous thing capable of wrecking havoc wherever it reveals itself. A middle-aged man, for instance, spotting Vida in the airport, “stood there staring on like a fool, not taking his eyes off Vida, even though her beauty had caused him to lose control of the world” (p. 117). And Vida's beauty can conjure death anxieties even more directly: “The driver continued staring at Vida. He paid very little attention to his driving. … I made a mental note of it for the future, not to have Vida's beauty risk our lives” (p. 177).
Yet Vida's beauty does risk their lives. The narrator finds himself far from the library riding in a taxi because Vida's appearance has caused life to enter his world in one particularly troublesome fashion: she has become pregnant, and the two must seek a Tijuana abortion, endangering Vida in obvious ways (and through the very source of her existential dis-ease), endangering the narrator insofar as this fall into physicality constitutes the immediate cause for his forced return to the world. “It looks like our bodies got us,” Vida concludes, to which the narrator replies, “It happens sometimes” (p. 67), seeking comfort, like Jesse, in the assumption of a lighthearted attitude.
Indeed, although the narrator's good-natured stoicism falters momentarily as he waits in the doctor's office for the abortion to begin, for the most part he and Vida respond splendidly to life's sudden eruption in their midst. Just as Vida drags the narrator from his womblike existence to “live like a normal human being” (p. 189), so he more than reconciles her to her body. By novel's end, Vida is in fact supporting him by working in a North Beach topless bar (p. 191).20 Similarly, the narrator's outlook changes during the course of his adventure. Flying to San Diego en route to Tijuana had left him green with nausea and desirous of a return to timelessness (p. 120). However, by the time of his return flight, mere hours later, he can remark cavalierly, “From time to time the airplane was bucked by an invisible horse in the sky but it didn't bother me because I was falling in love with the 727 jet, my sky home, my air love” (p. 183). And even earlier, only minutes after leaving the abortionist's, he finds it hard to keep a straight face when the hotel desk clerk reveals his belief that “People should never change. … They are happier that way” (p. 173). Returning to find he has lost his library position, the narrator adjusts quickly, moving into an apartment with Vida, Foster (his only other friend and a former library employee), and Foster's girlfriend and raising money for the library at a table across from Sproul Hall at Berkeley, where he becomes the hero Vida had assured him he would be (pp. 113, 192).
But in what sense is the narrator a hero? And how have he and Vida made their rapid transition from passive withdrawal to active participation in the world? The answer to the first question usually involves the narrator's personality. Beatle-like in appearance, gentle, caring, tranquilized, the narrator embodies, ostensibly, the virtues of heroism as redefined by the counterculture. Thus Malley describes him as a “strange, passive, low-keyed hero of our time” desiring an escape from the American experience, and Charles Hackenberry, plugging into the story's allegorical possibilities, sees in Brautigan's romance a “portrait of the peace movement's heroism and efficacy, its solution to the unwanted pregnancy of American intervention in Asia.”21 But I would suggest that the narrator considers himself heroic because he has triumphed over death. This feat accounts as well for his and Vida's altered attitudes toward the world, attitudes that in fact begin to change when they decide to seek an abortion, for this decision seems to place control over death (choosing its time and means) and so over life in their hands.
Although Hackenberry illustrates that The Abortion enacts the archetypal heroic quest, he carefully notes that the book is as much a parody of the romance as it is a romance-proper. It is parodic for the same reasons the narrator's control over death fails as a liberating, dignifying, and hopeful life-enhancing illusion. Like Lee and inBOIL, The Abortion's narrator has attempted to control life and death by becoming the agent of death (in this case, the indirect agent). But his triumph is ephemeral. He has not seized control of his life; he has not even severed his connection with the library. But more to the point, his triumph lacks heroism, involving as it does a Foster-financed, antagonist-free trip to Tijuana for a relatively guiltless, untroubling termination of his girlfriend's pregnancy. The hotel clerk's wish may cause the narrator to smile, but the object of his quest is the fulfillment of this wish: to remain the same, to deny life and change: “Vida's stomach was flat and perfect and it was going to remain that way” (p. 133). The abortion was inexpensive and painless, and one gets what one pays for: in this case, a cheap, temporary illusion that will be obsolete in a few years.
A Confederate General, In Watermelon Sugar, and The Abortion present searches for illusions capable of allaying death anxiety and of controlling the life that awakens this anxiety by overwhelming us self-conscious animals with the knowledge of our inherent finitude and biological enslavement. These searches end no more successfully than the search in Trout Fishing for pristine trout streams or for the continuance of traditional American myths and ideals, and one might conclude that Brautigan holds no hope of discovering a saving illusion that does not necessitate shutting down the self, smothering emotion, limiting human possibility. Yet stepping back, so to speak, beyond these stories and their narrators to the level on which both become components of Brautigan's imaginative acts, one returns to the sphere of art as life-enhancing illusion. In “Tire Chain Bridge,” a brief, three-page stop along the route of The Tokyo-Montana Express (1980), Brautigan presents in small compass a paradigmatic exploration of the possibilities and limits of art as death-defying illusion.
“Tire Chain Bridge” takes the form of a parable about the Sixties. It begins:
A lot of people remember hating President Lyndon Baines Johnson and loving Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, depending on the point of view. God rest their souls.
I remember an old Indian woman looking for a tire chain in the snow.22
The story, set in 1969, is quickly told. Its narrator and his girlfriend are driving across New Mexico after a snowfall, looking for “some old Indian ruins.” They find them, after a fashion, in the persons of an old Indian man and his sister. The man is encountered first, “standing patiently beside a blue Age-of-Aquarius pickup truck parked on the side of the road.” He is not in any trouble; in fact, “Everything's just fine”: he only waits for his sister, who is a mile or so down the road looking for a lost tire chain valued at three dollars. The narrator is pleased to learn that road conditions improve ahead but has trouble believing someone is really “out there,” searching in such wintry weather beneath the indifferent mesas for a used tire chain. But driving on, he soon finds her and asks foolishly if she has found the chain yet. Glancing “at the nearby 121,000 square miles, which is the area of New Mexico,” she answers simply, “It's here someplace.”
“Good luck,” I said, ten years ago in the Sixties that have become legend now like the days of King Arthur sitting at the Round Table with the Beatles, and John singing “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
We drove down the road toward the Seventies, leaving her slowly behind, looking for a tire chain in the snow with her brother waiting patiently beside a blue pickup truck with its Age-of-Aquarius paint job starting to flake.
So the story ends. Although brief, seemingly artless, and lightly told in a style matching the content's superficial slightness, “Tire Chain Bridge” means more than meets the casual eye, but what? Surely one must push beyond Edward Halsey Foster's opinion that the story illustrates an ability to laugh good-naturedly at the world's left over hippies.23 True, the narrator's retrospective glance back does appear to offer a biting (though hardly acerb) assessment of the decade's foibles and delusions. Its heroes and villains, once as large and seemingly eternal as the New Mexican mesas, barely survived the decade, and—like the narrator's road, which disappeared into “a premature horizon”—they have already vanished into legend. Yet what sort of legends have they left us? Is the Age of Aquarius a fit substitute for Camelot? Are the Beatles the best the period could serve up in the way of heroes worthy to sit beside Arthur and his knights? Is “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” what we have in lieu of Morte d'Arthur?
If a parable, the lesson of “Tire Chain Bridge” would seem to be that the Sixties was a time of hopeless searching and of passive complacency: both inadequate responses to a cold world in which life exists, like this story, between death and dissolution. Further, these quests, however solemn and sincere, were worse than hopeless: they were so absurd as to be unbelievable (“‘What?’ I said, not quite hearing or maybe just not believing …”). The boon sought was trivial, the seekers caricatures of knights errant capable of mistaking a used tire chain for the Holy Grail. But if the searches were ludicrous, the alternative response was an exercise in misguided smugness: to wait beatifically in the assurance that “everything's just fine” while another conducts one's search, seeks one's solutions. Hoping to salvage a three-dollar investment but oblivious to his truck's slow corruption, the brother would seem to be the man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Similarly, the Age of Aquarius itself—self-satisfied, commercialized, soon bogged down in trivialities and (like the Beatles) in internal feuding—was already beginning to chip and fade even as it was being proclaimed a fait accompli.
Such a reading follows Brautigan's recent critics in their efforts to free his work from a too-narrow and perhaps spurious identification with the counterculture.24 But I think the reading just offered does not tell the entire story. In the first place, metamorphosis into legend is not necessarily a shameful fate; to seat the Beatles beside Arthur may be a means not of undercutting their stature but of enhancing it. And with its acid-induced celebration of wonder, of emancipation from an overly repressive and joyless sense of reality, “Lucy in the Sky,” the lay of Woodstock Nation, may be in its way a fitting successor to the songs of the troubadours, an appropriate anthem for the Children's Crusade of the Sixties.
But in terms of a close reading of Brautigan's story, it is perhaps more important to note that the Indian couple is heading not out of but into bad weather, and so the tire chain is well worth looking for: it could save their lives. To see the chain only in terms of its meager monetary worth discloses not only a faulty but a dangerous value system, just as it is wrong to fault the brother for worrying more about the chain than about his pickup: for want of the chain, the truck may be lost. Moreover, direction of motion is problematic here. Although the Indians seem to be dawdling “in the middle of nowhere” and the narrator ostensibly heading toward better weather, the road he travels is, like the year in which the story is set, a bridge into the Seventies, a decade equated in the opening and closing paragraphs with death—Joplin in 1970, Morrison in '71, Johnson in '73—and with disintegration: the flaking paint, the Beatles' death as a group in 1970, the evaporating sensibility of the Sixties. This dissolution hits closer to home for the narrator in that he and his “long since gone girlfriend” broke up after their travels together; and it is emphasized structurally by the girlfriend's disappearance into an infrequent “we” after paragraph six, the only paragraph in which she is spoken of.
Yet looking back to tell his tale, the narrator recalls as his talismanic figure not his girlfriend, not the mesas, not the Indian ruins he was looking for and presumably found, not the decade's dead or disbanded culture heroes, but a woman “looking for a tire chain in the snow.” It is she who orients his perspective on the past. The narrator, apparently, cannot recall this woman without the accompanying thoughts of death and deterioration framing her story, yet in recollection her eyes “[echo] timelessness,” placing her symbolically among those mesas that “had been witnesses to the beginning of time.” Just as she stands alone in the snowy landscape—her patient searching akin to neither her brother's inertia nor the narrator's heedless forward progress into the Seventies and the end of the road—so she stands apart from the decade's famous dead and their failed heroics.
Tire chains are, of course, a means of controlling one's movement along dangerous routes. The woman's search becomes, then, a defiance of death, a search for control in a deadly environment. There is no reason to suppose she enjoys her cold, lonely task, undertaken possibly only to please her brother, who lingers metaphorically closer to the Seventies, content to let whatever will be, be. Yet unlike him, she acts, purposefully if hopelessly, her actions sounding a small triumph of life over death, her conviction that the chain is “here someplace” becoming, however unconvincingly or absurdly, a denial of death: a denial echoed by the story's surface tone, which implies that nothing terribly fearful or serious is here at issue.
However, a sorrow underlies the story's placid surface. This sadness derives not so much from the narrator's necrology or wistful recounting of things past as from his recognition of the futility of the woman's paltry stay against destruction (and, by extension, of the limits of his own death-defying art). Her seeking may bridge the loss surrounding her, but the narrator has located these structurally peripheral memento mori at the story's thematic center. He has anchored his story-proper—of the salvific bridge the woman's action erects—in death at both ends: in the physical deaths with which “Tire Chain Bridge” begins and in the symbolic, spiritual death with which it ends. This latter anchorage involves the extinction of a way of seeing, of imagining the world: possibilities flatten out and dead-end, like the mess-topped horizon behind the narrator's forward-fleeing Jeep. Structurally, then, “Tire Chain Bridge” gives in to death. And so it is no wonder that the narrator's style has been affected by his acknowledgment of death's centrality, of the limits of control, of the losing battle recollection as an artistic method wages against entropy. And consequently, it is no wonder that the story should sound so flat and artless, that beneath its surface calm should be heard a “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.”
The story, in fact, would seem to deflate its own implicit pretensions as a stay against decay, just as and because it undermines the promise of the woman's seeking. Yet if seeming to succumb to the death it argues is inescapable, “Tire Chain Bridge” acts upon us as it does only by virtue of its remaining an accomplished fact even while proclaiming itself a fading, futile, gesture. The story's telling establishes a small, coherent world of order, and, through its direct engagement of death, “Tire Chain Bridge” permits the “fruitful yearning” that alone allows newness and hope to come.25 Perhaps Becker is correct when he writes that, in the face of death's inevitability, “The most that any one of us can seem to do is to fashion something—an object or ourselves—and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force” (p. 285). The woman has fashioned herself; the narrator, his story. It would seem that, like his creator, he cannot do otherwise.
Several years ago John Clayton complained that Brautigan's “politics of imagination,” with its implied hope of “salvation through perception,” was not only insufficient but dangerous because its vision might seduce readers into abandoning the struggle to make this world a better place.26 One can understand Clayton's objection, yet he is wrong to dismiss Brautigan's work as unrebelliously or merely escapist, as lacking a social consciousness. Clayton's error lay in missing the centrality in Brautigan's fiction of death and the anxiety an awareness of death engenders. This awareness is ineradicable; as the narrator of one short story observes, “you cannot camouflage death with words. Always at the end of the words somebody is dead.”27 Death-obsessed, Brautigan's characters find they must dissociate themselves from a culture that both throws death constantly in their paths and fails to give it meaning. These characters typically retreat into private life-enhancing religions, but habitually this ploy does not, as in Trout Fishing or “Tire Chain Bridge,” engage life-and-death fears head-on and fruitfully; rather, it intensifies that hopelessness and numbness that make death so fearsome within the establishment. A year ago, Richard Brautigan committed suicide; why, I would not presume to say. His work, however, continues to forward an especially severe critique of American society, one that moves beyond politics into prophecy, implicitly sounding a call for repentance, for a turning from death toward life.
Notebooks 1914-1916, 2nd ed., trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, ed. G. H. von Wright and G. E. M. Anscombe (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 75e.
The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1973). Further references are to the paperback edition (New York: Free Press, 1975) and are included parenthetically within the text.
See, for example, Tony Tanner, City of Words: American Fiction 1950-1970 (New York: Harper & Row, 1971); Ihab Hassan, Contemporary American Literature: 1945-1972 (New York: Ungar, 1973); and Jack Hicks, In the Singer's Temple: Prose Fictions of Barthelme, Gaines, Brautigan, Piercy, Kesey, and Kosinski (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1981).
Brautigan's characters as dropouts have been the subject of much commentary. See one example, John Clayton, “Richard Brautigan: The Politics of Woodstock,” New American Review, 11 (1971), 56-68; Terence Malley, Richard Brautigan, Writers for the Seventies (New York: Warner, 1972); W. T. Lhamon, Jr., “Break and Enter to Breakaway: Scotching Modernism in the Social Novel of the American Sixties,” boundary 2, 3 (1975), 289-306 and Manfred Pütz, The Story of Identity: American Fiction of the Sixties (Stuttgart J. B. Metzlersche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1979).
My discussion here is much indebted to Becker; see pp. 198-99 particularly.
“The Wherefores of How-To: Pascal, BASIC, Call Up a Literary Tradition,” Harper's, March 1984, p. 92
A Confederate General from Big Sur (1964; rpt. New York: Delta / Seymour Lawrence, 1979), p. 18. Further references are included parenthetically within the text.
Trout Fishing in America (New York: Dell, 1967). Further references are included parenthetically within the text.
See, for example, Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1967) and Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (New York: Knopf, 1984).
“Rembrandt Creek,” in Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970 (New York: Pocket Books, 1972), p. 42.
According to Frederick Hoffman, fictions positing no hopes for an afterlife often, in attempting to articulate their “mortal no,” work to convert time into space. See The Mortal No: Death and the Modern Imagination (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1964).
Brueggemann develops the notion of prophecy sketched here in his book The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978).
See Kermode, p. 17.
Brueggemann, p. 113.
Malley, pp. 104-09.
In this quotation, Becker is summarizing Alfred Adler. See Adler's The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology (London: Kegan Paul, 1942), chap. 21.
Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1969), p. 136.
In Watermelon Sugar (1968; rpt. New York: Dell, 1973), p. 65. Further references are included parenthetically within the text.
The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 (1971; rpt. New York: Pocket Books, 1972). p. 53. Further references are included parenthetically within the text.
Even earlier, Vida had mellowed to the point where Foster (keeper of the caves and arranger of the abortion) could make her laugh by swearing, “My God, ma'am, you're so pretty I'd walk ten miles barefooted on a freezing morning to stand in your shit” (p. 78). That Vida can laugh at such a remark is particularly revealing, for as Becker explains, “excreting is the curse that threatens madness because it shows man his abject finitude, his physicalness, the likely unreality of his hopes and dreams” (p. 33).
Malley, p. 75, and Charles Hackenberry, “Romance and Parody in Brautigan's The Abortion,” Critique, 23, ii (1981-1982), 34.
In The Tokyo-Montana Express (New York: Delacorte / Seymour Lawrence, 1980), p. 94. Because the story is so short (running from p. 94 to p. 97), I will not include page references in the text.
Richard Brautigan (Boston: Twayne, 1983), pp. 120-21.
The two most recent book-length studies of Brautigan, for example, assert among their principal intentions the desire to free the novelist from the critical error of reading him primarily in terms of Sixties concerns. Foster in his Preface claims that “Brautigan's best works were in fact never quite what they were alleged to be. Although they certainly do reflect a special time in American history, the time they reflect has little to do with America in the late 1960s and early 1970s.” Marc Chénetier, Richard Brautigan (New York: Methuen, 1983), offers the thesis that Brautigan “has always been much more akin to the metafictionists of the seventies than to the naive flower-children of what I should like to call the pre-Nixapsarian sixties” (p. 16).
The phrase is Brueggemann's, p. 113.
Clayton, pp. 56, 59.
“The World War I Los Angeles Airplane,” in Revenge of the Lawn, p. 169.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1590
SOURCE: Boyer, Jay. “Trout Fishing in America.” In Richard Brautigan, pp. 19-24. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1987.
[In the following excerpt from his short study of Brautigan, Boyer discusses the ways in which Trout Fishing in America is an attempt to transcend reality through the use of the imagination.]
Rendering experience in self-contained little sections, and relying upon the cumulative power of these sections for dramatic effect, would be a technique Brautigan would become identified with, but one he used to greatest advantage in his first novel, Trout Fishing in America. Like his stories and poems, each of these sections relies upon voice and tone and the appeal of the speaker for its charm. And there's often a “serial” quality to be found here as well. The degree to which we can appreciate what's going on has to do with how willing we are to allow the speaker his unique path of logic. For instance, “Knock On Wood (Part One),” the second section of the fifty that make up the novel, begins in this way.
As a child when did I first hear about trout fishing in America? From whom? I guess it was a stepfather of mine.
Summer of 1942.
The old drunk told me about trout fishing. When he could talk, he had a way of describing trout as if they were a precious and intelligent metal.
Silver is not a good adjective to describe what I felt when he told me about trout fishing.
I'd like to get it right.
Maybe trout steel. Steel made from trout. The clear snow-filled river acting as foundry and heat.
A steel that comes from trout, used to make buildings, trains and tunnels.
The Andrew Carnegie of Trout!
(Trout [Trout Fishing in America] 3)
There is a sense throughout the novel of a mind-in-progress, a mind that would like to, as the speaker says here, get it right, and too a reminder that no matter how casual and familiar the writing may seem, communicating with people is no simple matter. The world is always elusive—When did I first hear about it? From whom?—and accounting for it is always a tentative business, as in the speaker's caveat above, I guess it was. Then too, what's real often has little to do with what's actual. The time and place (recalled here only in the broadest terms, Summer of 1942), as well as the people involved (a stepfather, apparently one among several, one described here no more completely than the old drunk), are of less importance than what the mind of the speaker can do with the material.
The last line of this section, The Andrew Carnegie of Trout!, is meaningless in and of itself; but that's not true once we're aware of the process of the mind which works its way toward this conclusion. Trout, to the speaker's stepfather, are currency, of value only in terms of what they can buy. But that bit of profanity can be reworked until it takes on almost magical qualities. A precious metal leads the speaker to think in terms of silver, to reject silver as the word he would choose, to move from silver to steel, from steel to the city that boasts of itself as the steel center of the world, to move from the industrial wastelands of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to the making of a civilized America, and from that to Pittsburgh's Andrew Carnegie—acquisition personified.
None of this imaginative word association dilutes the fact that the speaker's stepfather was “an old drunk,” nor that his notion of trout is ill-conceived and distasteful; nor does it deny that Andrew Carnegie may have been one of the great robber barons of his time. What it does instead is to suggest a thaumatropic and idyllic vision which can emerge when the mind is given a chance, an ordering—or perhaps re-ordering—of the cold hard facts, when cold hard facts are understood to be of less importance than the person who would wrestle with them.
Trout Fishing in America, Brautigan said, was “a vision of America,” and that seems to be as good a way of putting it as any, for he was holding out the possibility of transcending the world before us. Transcending the day-to-day realities of modern life through the use of imagination seems to be the structuring principle of the novel, in fact. As the novel gradually develops through its individual passages, simple comparisons seem to become metaphors, and these metaphors finally take on a life of their own. As many critics have noted, it's as if the speaker's imagination becomes more powerful and more transcendent as the novel progresses.
But it's a mistake to become too trusting of the speaker's gentle voice and manner and his pastoral vision in general. Let's look at two of the most often quoted—and most often compared—sections of the novel, the first, “Knock On Wood (Part Two),” an early one, and the other, “The Cleveland Wrecking Yard,” from among the final sections.
One spring afternoon as a child in the strange town of Portland, I walked down to a different street corner, and saw a row of old houses, huddled together like seals on a rock.
Then there was a long field that came sloping down off a hill. The field was covered with green grass and bushes. On top of the hill there was a grove of tall, dark trees. At a distance I saw a waterfall come pouring down off the hill. It was long and white and I could almost feel its cold spray.
There must be a creek there, I thought, and it probably has trout in it.
At last an opportunity to go trout fishing, to catch my first trout, to behold Pittsburgh.
It was growing dark. I didn't have time to go and look at the creek. I walked home past the glass whiskers of the houses, reflecting the downward rushing waterfalls of night.
But when he returned to fish the trout stream, equipped with fish hook made from a bent nail and white bread from which to make dough balls for bait, the stream was not the same.
But as I got closer to the creek I could see that something was wrong. The creek did not act right. There was a strangeness to it. There was a thing about its motion that was wrong. Finally I got close enough to see what the trouble was.
The waterfall was just a flight of white wooden stairs leading up to a house in the trees.
I stood there for a long time, looking up and looking down, following the stairs with my eyes, having trouble believing.
Then I knocked on my creek and heard the sound of wood.
I ended up by being my own trout and eating the slice of bread myself.
In the later passage, “The Cleveland Wrecking Yard,” the speaker goes to a junkyard and discovers that a trout stream—with insects and animals and foliage available at an extra charge—is being sold off as scrap. The similarities between the two passages are obvious. In both we're dealing with a trout stream situated in a city, in both we're dealing with streams which do not physically exist, and in both the climax of the scene takes place when the speaker puts his hand to the stream and tests it against his own existence. But the climaxes are also distinctly different—as the lines from the end of “The Cleveland Wrecking Yard” clearly witness.
O I had never in my life seen anything like that trout stream. It was stacked in piles of various lengths: ten, fifteen, twenty feet, etc. There was one pile of hundred foot lengths … I went up close and looked at the lengths of stream. I could see some trout in them … It looked like a fine stream. I put my hand in the water. It was cold and felt good.
The central difference here has to do with the way the speaker's vision functions. In the earlier section, the vision of the child transcends the world before him, if only for a few hours, as a stairway becomes what he would wish it to be, a trout stream, one in which he can catch the trout that his father has told him about earlier. This is a child's magic, pure Piaget. But it's not any more than that. The powers of the child's imagination transport him temporarily beyond the limits of Portland and his blue-collar life—that's all. Finally that magical thought is testable against a world of very real dimensions: touch the stream and it turns back into stairs; hear your mother call, and it's time to go home.
That isn't true in the second passage. Here the speaker's vision doesn't just transcend reality. What begins as one more playful examination of the potential of America (trout fishing in America) being tested against its modern condition (a wrecking yard) assumes literal—and troubling—dimensions: conjure a trout stream in your mind, and there will be water that's cold to the touch.
Rather than reality determining the metaphor, then, here the metaphor determines the speaker's reality. And what we seem to be witnessing may well be less significant as a demonstration of the powers of the imagination, albeit they're impressive throughout the novel, than it is as a warning that the speaker is in danger of losing touch, both literally and figuratively, with the world all around him.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4249
SOURCE: Abbott, Keith. “Shadows and Marble: Richard Brautigan.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 8 (fall 1988): 117-25.
[In the following essay, Abbott discusses the critical neglect of Brautigan's work and attempts a reevaluation of his skill at dialogue and narrative.]
“What I desired to do in marble, I can poke my shadow through.”
—Richard Brautigan, from an unpublished short story “The F. Scott Fitzgerald Ahhhhhhhhhhh, Pt. 2”
Since Richard Brautigan's death, his reputation has hardly been cast in marble. His writing has been relegated to the shadowland of popular flashes, that peculiar American graveyard of overnight sensations. When a writer dies, appreciation of his work seldom reverses field, but continues in the direction that it was headed at the moment of death, and this has been true for Brautigan. Even during Brautigan's best-seller years in the United States, critical studies of his work were few in number. What there were never exerted a strong influence on the big chiefs of the American critical establishment.
Since he was both a popular and a West-Coast writer, his work has been easy to ignore. There are no critical journals on the West Coast which can sustain a writer's career, as there are on the East Coast. His popularity among the young dumped his work with literary lightweights, such as Richard Bach or Eric Segal, and counterculture fads as Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, or Charles Reich.
Curiously, a critical climate of open hostility to Brautigan's work prevailed on the eastern seaboard and his work was perceived as a threat. From the first, it was an object of ridicule, receiving much the same treatment as Jack Kerouac's novels did in the 1950s. Brautigan's literary position for his generation also was similar to the one Kerouac provided for the Beats: Brautigan became the most famous novelist for a social movement whose literary constituency was almost solely poets. Speaking politically, most poets have little recourse to effective literary power, lacking steady income, steady publication and/or reviewing positions. Brautigan did not have the safety of a group of novelists or a regular circle of reviewers friendly to his aesthetics; consequently, he had few defenders. Brautigan did not write reviews himself, or even issue manifestos. He was perceived as the stray, and so to attack his work risked no reply. In the Vanity Fair article published after Brautigan's death, the playwright and poet Michael McClure acknowledged this hostility and offered this reevaluation: “His wasn't a dangerous voice so much as a voice of diversity, potentially liberating in that it showed the possibilities of dreaming, of beauty and the playfulness of the imagination.”
With the burden of a ridiculed sociological movement attached to his work, positive literary criticism was sparse. Often what commentary there was tried to talk about both the hippie community and Brautigan's fiction, and failed at both. Ironically, his first four novels were written before the hippie phenomenon, and the relationship between the two was an accident of chronology at first, and then a media cliché.
While his prolific output generated plentiful newspaper reviews, these usually functioned as simple indicators of his perceived fame. Most echoed previous prejudice that he was a whimsical writer for cultural dropouts, and neither his writing nor his supposed subjects were to be considered important. What has to be remembered about criticism is that even serious critics seldom create much lasting literature themselves, and most newspaper reviewers are inevitably trafficking in fishwrap.
The true test of a creative writer is whether the literature is remembered by good writers and begets more excellent work. Other authors have acknowledged Brautigan's influence. Ishmael Reed applauded Brautigan's courage in experimenting with genres in his later novels and claimed this had an effect on his own experimental and highly acclaimed novels of the 1970s. In 1985, the popular and respected novelist W. P. Kinsella published The Alligator Report, containing short stories which he dubbed “Brautigans.” In his foreword he spoke of how this work arose directly from Brautigan's fictional strategies, stating, “I can't think of another writer who has influenced my life and career as much.”
The spare early stories of Raymond Carver have always seemed to me to show a strong connection, stylistically and culturally, to Brautigan's first two novels and short stories. Both writers create a similar West-Coast landscape of unemployed men, dreaming women, or failed artists trapped in domestic and economic limbos while attempting to maintain their distinctly Western myths of self-sufficient individuality.
Implicit in most negative criticism of Brautigan is the charge that he wrote fantasies about cultural aberrations, such as the hippies, with little connection to important levels of American life. I think this is mistaken. A strong cultural reality can be found in his work, that of people on the bottom rungs of American society, living out their unnoticed and idiosyncratic existences. Traditionally this class has been one of the resources for American literature. While discussing Huckleberry Finn, V. S. Pritchett writes that one of America's cultural heroes is “a natural anarchist and bum” and called the book “the first of those typical American portraits of the underdog, which have culminated in the poor white literature. …” Many of Brautigan's works are rooted in this underclass and his people are, in Pritchett's words, the “underdog who gets along on horse sense.”
It is often the fate for writers of American popular culture that their work is not taken seriously here, and they find an audience in foreign countries. During his lifetime, Brautigan's writing was translated into seventeen languages. Internationally, Brautigan's work commands respect and continues to generate comment. In Japan, where twelve of his books have been translated, he is considered an important American writer. (And it is of interest that Carver's fiction now enjoys an equally high level of popularity in Japan.) In Europe, West Germany continues to publish his work and a television documentary on him is under way. In France, Marc Chénetier's excellent book-length study was published with accompanying translations of three Brautigan novels. This critical work was later translated into English as part of Methuen's excellent Contemporary Writers series.
In the America of the 1980s, Brautigan's work is treated only as an object for nostalgia, and confined to rehashes of the love generation. When roll calls of fictional innovators are published in critical articles, his name has been dropped off the list of Ishmael Reed, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, and others.
Brautigan's work remains the best way we have to regard him, other than as an historical figure. As a writer, I have to think the work is what really matters. Whatever follies, sins or beauties a writer might be said to possess, they are secondary considerations to the complete body of writing.
In a useful observation on Brautigan's poetry, Robert Creeley commented, “I don't think Richard is interested in so-called melopoeia, he said he wants to say things using the simplest possible unit of statement as the module.” Simple sentences and minimal rhythms occur in Brautigan's fiction, too, but they work with his metaphors to obtain a more complex effect than in his poetry. By controlling the colloquial sound of his prose. Brautigan developed a strategy for releasing emotion while utilizing the anarchic and comical responses of his imagination.
“The Kool-Aid Wino” chapter in Trout Fishing in America provides an example of this strategy:
When I was a child I had a friend who became a Kool-Aid wino as the result of a rupture. He was a member of a very large and poor German family. All the older children in the family had to work in the fields during the summer, picking beans for two-and-one-half cents a pound to keep the family going. Everyone worked except my friend who couldn't because he was ruptured. There was no money for an operation. There wasn't even enough money to buy him a truss. So he stayed home and became a Kool-Aid wino.
What can be said about this? First, except for the fanciful notion of a Kool-Aid wino, this paragraph has the sound of the English plain style. Brautigan wrote in a colloquial voice, but sometimes it had a curiously unmelodic and muted quality. The voice sounded as if the speaker were talking, but not always consciously aware of being heard. This might account for what other people have dubbed the naive quality of Brautigan's fiction: the tone of a child talking to himself. And for all his colloquial rhythms, slang or common nursery-rhyme devices, such as alliteration and internal rhyme, are carefully rationed, because both require that the reader hear them. In the paragraph, two incongruous states, being ruptured and being a wino, are joined, but the last has a rider attached, modifying it with a fairy-tale quality of special powers derived from common objects:
One morning in August I went over to his house. He was still in bed. He looked up at me from underneath a tattered revolution of old blankets. He had never slept under a sheet in his life.
“Did you bring the nickel you promised?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “It's here in my pocket.”
While the scene is being set, Brautigan slips in the metaphor of the blankets, but in a sentence that has the same declarative rhythm as the sentences just before and after it. This blanket metaphor sounds rhythmically no more important or remarkable than the lack of an operation or the absence of a truss, but the metaphor is, in this context, spectacularly surreal.
He also used very little rhythmic speech in his dialogue. Often his dialogue is even more uninflected than his narrative passages. As Tom McGuane writes, “His dialogue is supernaturally exact.” Muting rhythm in dialogue and in narrative passages dampens down the emotional content. This has an interesting effect because hearing a voice calls for a much more emotional reaction than silent narrative passages. This is why “dialect” novels are so exhausting to read. They require much more concentration and emotional response. First-person narrative calls for more effort from the reader than third-person because we are listening and responding to one person. Brautigan often got a third-person objectivity while writing in first person.
Brautigan's strategy was to control and minimize the reader's responses until he was ready to tap into them. For both his dialogue and narrative, Brautigan habitually tried for emotionally neutral sentences. While still maintaining a colloquial tone, the narrative sentences sound normal, the dialogue sounds minimally conversational, so they may slide by unchallenged by a reader's emotional response. What is crucial to Brautigan's style is that both dialogue and narrative strike a similar sound and that a neutral equality be created between them.
Once Brautigan establishes this pattern in a work, then simple statements of fact could be followed by a simple sentence bearing a fantastic and imaginative statement. The strategy is, accept A, accept B, therefore accept off-the-wall C. The poet Philip Whalen explains the effect of Brautigan's style this way, finding “in Brautigan for example complete clarity and complete exact use of words and at the same time this lunatic imagination and excitement all going 100 miles an hour.”
To change to a biological metaphor, what happens in Brautigan's prose is that the parasitical imagination invades and occupies the host of precise, orderly prose, subverting, disrupting and eventually usurping the factual prose's function.
He was careful to see that the jar did not overflow and the precious Kool-Aid spill out onto the ground. When the jar was full he turned the water off with a sudden but delicate motion like a famous brain surgeon removing a disordered portion of the imagination. Then he screwed the lid tightly onto the top of the jar and gave it a good shake.
To give a realistic base for his fiction, Brautigan often started with mundane social situations and built from there, carefully placing one rhythmically neutral sentence on top of another. This lulls the reader into a false sense of security, and a false sense of security is a good first step for comic writing. By doing this, Brautigan sensed the emotional vibrations that are inevitable in the simplest sentences, so he could then upset these and introduce that lovely sense of comic panic.
Of course, there is a problem with this strategy. No matter how short, factual, or laconic sentences may be, writing always carries some shade of voice. The human voice resonates feeling and Brautigan knew this. By creating a kind of equal neutrality between the factual sound and fanciful content through the use of similar sentence structures, Brautigan tried to solve the problem of how to return to a realistic narrative once he had disrupted it with his metaphors. At times he simply alternated between the two, giving the fantastic equal time with the mundane.
“Hello,” said the grocer. He was bald with a red birthmark on his head. The birthmark looked just like an old car parked on his head. He automatically reached for a package of grape Kool-Aid and put it on the counter.
“He's got it,” my friend said.
I reached into my pocket and gave the nickel to the grocer. He nodded and the old red car wobbled back and forth on the road as if the driver were having an epileptic seizure.
Or, at times, he would let the metaphor grow from a single sentence about a commonplace until it took over the paragraph. In this example from Confederate General, the rhythm speeds up as the metaphor expands.
Night was coming on in, borrowing the light. It had started out borrowing just a few cents worth of the light, but now it was borrowing thousands of dollars worth of the light every second. The light would soon be gone, the bank closed, the tellers unemployed, the bank president a suicide.
Fiction must have drama, however minimal, but given this strategy in Brautigan's prose, often the drama is on the surface of the writing itself. The tension between the two poles of Brautigan's style, the plain and the metaphorical, creates the conflict in his fiction. In the passage quoted above, the first-person character/narrator is so hyped up about visiting his eccentric Kool-Aid wino friend and witnessing his rituals that his imagination runs wild. But no one in the story notices this, so this potential conflict is confined to the prose itself. Just as the “I” character remains undercover in the mundane tale of buying Kool-Aid, the fantasy remains undercover in a plain prose.
Brautigan's writing has been called undramatic, because in a conventional sense it is. His style provides what drama there is more often than his characters. His metaphors function as dramatic resolutions, if subversion of common reality with imaginative thought can be called a resolution. (One of Brautigan's themes is that ultimately this strategy subverts and disrupts the very act of writing fiction.) The fanciful notion of a Kool-Aid wino provides the impetus to continue reading, not any drama between the characters. The Kool-Aid wino will nowhere insist on the strangeness of his behavior while the narrator will provide the tension with his perceptions of that behavior as being very special in a magical world. Often the rhythms do not insist that this is a special occasion any more than does the Kool-Aid wino. The sentences chart a rather unremarkable exchange between the two characters but this exchange is seen by a quite metaphorical intelligence, and so the prose itself enacts the eventual theme of the piece, that illumination comes from within: “He created his own Kool-Aid reality and was able to illuminate himself by it.”
Besides a plain, slightly colloquial style, Brautigan also favored the structure of facts to give a neutral tone to his sentences. Facts are meant to be understood, not heard and savored on their own. Brautigan loved to infiltrate and sabotage them. Here's an example from the opening chapter of A Confederate General From Big Sur.
I've heard that the population of Big Sur in those Civil War days was mostly just some Digger Indians. I've heard that the Digger Indians down there didn't wear any clothes. They didn't have any fire or shelter or culture. They didn't grow anything. They didn't hunt and they didn't fish. They didn't bury their dead or give birth to their children. They lived on roots and limpets and sat pleasantly out in the rain.
During this masquerade of historical prose, the manipulation of a catalog style develops a strange emotional equivalency between the sentences which their content quietly disrupts. One source of this technique comes from the Western tall-tale, where a narrator, disguised as an expert, mixes the fantastic with the normal in equal portions. This passage somewhat reminds me of Twain in his role as the seasoned traveler in A Tramp Abroad:
The table d'hote was served by waitresses dressed in the quaint and comely costume of the Swiss peasant. This consists of a simple gros de laine trimmed with ashes of roses with overskirt of sacre blue ventre saint gris, cut bias on the off-side, with facings of petit polanaise and narrow insertions of pate de foie gras backstitched to the mise en scene in the form of a jeu d'espirit. It gives the wearer a singularly piquant and alluring aspect.
In both Twain and Brautigan's paragraphs, an anarchy is hatched inside the standardized English. Twain's prose has the trotting rhythm of standard fill-in-the-blanks travel or fashion writing. Brautigan's prose creates his bland rhythms through the careful alternation of “and”s and “or”s in factual sentences designed to be read and forgotten. Twain's intent is burlesque, while Brautigan's opts for a quieter anarchy. But the strategies for both seem similar.
A more complicated example of Brautigan's technique with this factual sound can be found in his short story “Pacific Radio Fire.” The opening paragraph begins: “The largest ocean in the world starts or ends at Monterey, California.” There's no sense of who is saying this. Since the story title has a radio in it, the voice could be someone on the radio, but it doesn't have to be, it could be anybody. Then Brautigan adds the next fact: “It depends on what language you are speaking.” These two statements are acceptable, reasonable, and dispassionate. Nothing in their rhythm seems emotional or unusual. Put them together and they enact only a slightly different way of viewing the universe: “The largest ocean in the world starts or ends at Monterey, California. It depends on what language you are speaking.” However, one thing has changed. With the use of you, the reader is now addressed, and his presence is acknowledged, giving a slightly more colloquial edge to the second sentence than the first, an intimacy. Then the third sentence plunges us into an emotional, very intimate situation—but without any corresponding passionate rhythm: “The largest ocean in the world starts or ends at Monterey, California. It depends on what language you are speaking. My friend's wife had just left him.” Now, these three sentences present a fact followed by another fact followed by a third fact, but the last one is wildly removed from the reality of the first two. More importantly, the third sentence is colloquially factual. The first two have the tone of the mundane media facts that wash over us daily, while the third sentence belongs to the everyday world of emotional distress. The third sentence is something that any private person could say, just as any public commentator could say the first two.
This sequence establishes what I call an equal neutrality between the three sentences. The shift cracks the emotionless facade that the paragraph starts with and abruptly releases humor. While the language remains low-key, its arrangement yields the drama.
This linguistic shift is also curiously realistic, and I mean realistic in the manner that these verbal traumas occur. To my ear, this shift mimes the kind of dislocations that result when someone is trying to tell you how something bad happened, but doesn't know how to start. Instead they talk about the weather, the scenery, and then suddenly blurt out their distress without any rhythmic or emotional buildup. A familiar “out-of-the-blue” quality to the rapid shift from impersonal to personal occurs. Here, it works as comic timing:
The largest ocean in the world starts or ends at Monterey, California. It depends on what language you are speaking. My friend's wife had just left him. She walked right out the door and didn't even say goodbye. We went and got two fifths of port and headed for the Pacific.
What makes this more than a mere joke is that there is a vibration set off by the word “language” in the second sentence and the fact that the wife left without using any language. Brautigan at his best discovers a taut, underground humor in his prose by suppressing connections that other writers might make obvious. Someone else might have written, “and didn't even use language to say goodbye.” One of the strengths of Brautigan's style is that he leaves the right things unsaid and trusts the placement of his language to supply the emotions.
When Brautigan tries to reverse this progression, going from the colloquial emotional truth to the dry facts, from the fantastic to the mundane, the humor sometimes is less natural, a tad more bizarre. Here are the opening paragraphs from a chapter in A Confederate General From Big Sur, “The Tide Teeth of Lee Mellon”:
It is important before I go any further in this military narrative to talk about the teeth of Lee Mellon. They need talking about. During these five years that I have known Lee Mellon, he has probably had 175 teeth in his mouth.
This is due to a truly gifted faculty for getting his teeth knocked out. It almost approaches genius. They say that John Stuart Mill could read Greek when he was three years old and had written a history of Rome at the age of six and a half.
The reverse doesn't work as humor quite as well as the previous example because the neutral sentences are not part of the set-up, but are used to finish the joke. There's a deadpan humor to this strategy, of the bizarre masquerading as the everyday, but the implied connection between the historical fact of John Stuart Mill's genius and the asserted “genius” of Lee Mellon's losing his teeth either seems funny or it doesn't. At his best, Brautigan doesn't allow that much leeway for the reader's responses.
Timing was an essential ingredient in Brautigan's finest writing, and he understood the virtues of the simple buildup. According to his first wife, and Brautigan's own account of his early apprenticeship as a writer, he worked for years on writing the simple sentences of his prose. In a notebook located in Brautigan's archive at UC Berkeley, an early draft of the chapter “Sea-Sea Rider” in Trout Fishing showed how he divided the prose into lines of verse, carefully trying to isolate each of the phrases by rhythm, by their cadence, revising for the simplest sound possible. Accompanying this draft is an aborted journal, written in 1960 and titled “August.” In a rare moment of self-analysis, Brautigan wrote: “The idea of this journal is I want to make something other than a poem. … One of the frustrations of my work is my own failure to establish adequate movement. … I want the reality in my work to move less obviously, and it [is] very difficult for me.” What Brautigan means by movement is, I would guess, the switch from his metaphorical intelligence in and out of his mundane situations. In order to be less obvious, the transition between the fantastic and quotidian had to be eased by giving both the same rhythms.
His poetry sometimes forced the connection between the mundane and his imaginative fancies by combining them in one sentence. The effect was artificial and clever, and so it lacked the careful, timed setups of his prose. What made his prose remarkable was his ability to sense those moments when his imagination could occupy the larger factual rhythms of his paragraphs. This might be what he meant by “adequate movement.” When he strayed too far from the mundane and/or factual setups, the cleverness had only itself to sustain, and his fiction suffered from the same defects as his poetry.
His fiction has its own peculiar vision and a sometimes satori-like sharpness. There's a humanity to Brautigan's discoveries that sets them apart from mere humorous writing. The opening paragraphs of the chapter “Room 208, Hotel Trout Fishing in America” serve as a final example of Brautigan's skills as a writer, how in a few words he could blend a prosaic vision of the world and at the same time infiltrate it with his own imagination and turn the mundane into something quicksilver, moving and alive:
Half a block from Broadway and Columbus is Hotel Trout Fishing in America, a cheap hotel. It is very old and run by some Chinese. They are young and ambitious Chinese and the lobby is filled with the smell of Lysol.
The Lysol sits like another guest on the stuffed furniture, reading a copy of the Chronicle, the Sports Section. It is the only furniture I have ever seen in my life that looks like baby food.
And the Lysol sits asleep next to an old Italian pensioner who listens to the heavy ticking of the clock and dreams of eternity's golden pasta, sweet basil and Jesus Christ.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2735
SOURCE: Blakely, Carolyn F. “Narrative Technique in Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar.” CLA Journal 35, no. 2 (December 1991): 150-58.
[In the following essay, Blakely analyzes the narrative technique in one Brautigan novel, asserting that Brautigan has more literary worth than many critics have admitted.]
Richard Brautigan, one among many contemporary writers who have been either ignored or brushed aside by numerous critics as passing fads or as transitory appeals to the fancies of the young generation, should not be dismissed so lightly. One may not assume from a cursory reading of his work that he is shallow or that he has no message to convey. On the contrary, it seems that his message is just as profound and valid as that of more established writers, in spite of the fact that his prose style is revolutionary and that his ideas are couched in a language which is frequently implied rather than overt in its statements. It is sometimes necessary to go beyond what is said in In Watermelon Sugar and concentrate on what is not said, for that is where the statement seems to lie. Some critics ignore this possibility, however, casually dismissing Brautigan as possessing no literary worth but seeing him instead as the response to the Beat Generation's need for a vehicle through which to vocalize its cynical outlook on life.
Michael Feld explains Brautigan as being a writer who is “namedropped in most places where there's lots of sensitivity and modernity and drugs and no common sense going on, where cool languid personalities slump about passing joints like sweaty kisses, speaking of power to the people and freedom and the plight of gipsies [and who] displays above anything else … a distaste for work.”1 Jonathan Yardley's estimation of Brautigan is no higher than Feld's because he says that “sooner or later … Brautigan is going to go the way of many minor literary figures, and even some bigger ones … who appeal to the peculiar needs of later adolescence.”2 Apparently these critics see Brautigan as only a response to the younger generation's radical cry for a return to nature in order to get it all together. They think that his style is casual and offhand, but in vogue, creating a certain charm for these youthful readers. In the opposite camp is Neil Schmitz, who labels In Watermelon Sugar a pastoral myth with
all its objectives in fiction: the denial of history, its passion for loveliness (all those exquisite suns), its desire to represent the normative life, the “natural” way. And yet it is wrong, this perfected world. The balance that suits them also stylizes them and the result is a disfiguring of their humanity.”3
Indeed, the perfected world of this novel does not work. Brautigan's silence speaks loudly as he presents what seems to be a parody of the pastoral. This society may represent what modern man might wish it to be—an answer to or a substitute for the mechanistic, profit-seeking, inhumane world of social and moral decadence in which he finds himself, but the distortion in the new society is also obvious and just as unattractive. Viewing this book, then, as a parody of the pastoral, one might consider the ideas that are implied by the silence and attempt to determine what Brautigan's attitude is toward this “perfect” society.
Admittedly the novel does present some of the images of the pastoral tradition when one observes its characters engaged in happy labor, in solitary walks along the river, and in contented existence in little shacks in the hills. Pauline, for example, is the healthy, happy maiden who is delighted to whip up hearty stews for the communal workers; and the schoolmaster who leads his pupils into a meadow to study nature is reminiscent of Goldsmith's portrait of the schoolmaster in the pastoral setting of The Deserted Village. These images, however, seem to camouflage the weaknesses in a society which is a fantasy or a postholocaustal world set in some idyllic future tense. Initially, this appears to be a nostalgic yearning for a pastoral America which has disappeared or has been destroyed by such elements as crime and violence until we realize that the reality of the past America has been replaced by a dream that is inadequate. Tony Tanner says that it is “a pastoral dream in which the dominance of fantasy and imagination over the Forgotten Works and the wrecking yard is perhaps too effortlessly achieved.”4 A summary of the novel reveals the pastoral dream:
The narrator lives in a happy commune in an unlocated realm called, mysteriously, iDeath. The prevailing material there is watermelon sugar … which may be food, furniture, or fuel. More generally it is the sweet secretion of the imagination. There is still death in iDeath, but it has been made into something mysterious and almost beautiful: the dead are buried in glass coffins which are laid on the riverbed. Foxfire is put inside. … There was once a more violent time—the time of the tigers—but they have been killed off. More recently there has been a defection from iDeath by a drunken foul-mouthed figure called inBoil. … He and his gang have gone back to live in an ugly place called the Forgotten Works … an endless panorama of all the machines and things which made up a vanished way of life. … But inBoil returns to the commune insisting that the tigers were the real meaning of iDeath. … He and his followers say that they will bring back the real iDeath. They do this by gradually cutting themselves to pieces in front of the disgusted members of the community. Afterwards their bodies are taken down to the Forgotten Works, burned up, and forgotten. Everyone is relieved. Except for … Margaret who had started to show an inquisitive interest in the things heaped up in the Forgotten Works. … She commits suicide. But after the funeral the community gathers together for a dance, and the musicians are poised with their instruments.5
And so the book ends, but the problem remains; this perfect society is void of emotions and as such Brautigan implies that there is much to be desired in this fantasy also. In the delineation of this less-than-perfect society, he uses the techniques of fragmentation, repetition, and juxtaposition in order to establish the prevailing sense of loss. Although it is utopian in atmosphere, it offers no notations of progress, neither materialistically nor emotionally.
In discussing the structure of In Watermelon Sugar, Patricia Hernlund argues that the book has a fragmented time scheme which focuses on three deaths and that this organization permits the revelation of the narrator's (and his society's) responses to negative elements. The first of these time sequences is the distant past where the Forgotten Works began. The second time sequence concerns the major portion of the narrator's life. The third occurs during the narrator's present years but before the present time and is presented in a flashback to the first sign of trouble indicated by the rumor that inBoil is plotting some scheme, which is almost simultaneous with the beginning of trouble between the narrator and Margaret. Finally, the fourth sequence is the present time of the novel which covers about three days.6
Obviously the book does not adhere to a linear, chronological plot, but if it is put to the test, this fragmented time scheme seems to work. In the first sequence the narrator says, “Nobody knows how old the Forgotten Works are, reaching as they do into distances that we cannot travel nor want to.”7 But one can speculate, however, that they mark the beginning of this new society that replaces a rejected past society which was plagued by the tigers and which was also the time of the birth of Charley, inBoil, and Old Chuck—a time before the narrator.
The second sequence is a time of the narrator's, Margaret's, and Pauline's childhood and young adulthood, when inBoil told them stories and when the tigers killed his parents and were eventually killed themselves. It is also a time when inBoil drew away from iDeath and turned to the Forgotten Works, when Margaret and the narrator became lovers, and when he began making statues.
It is during the third period that inBoil dies and that the narrator implies some connection between inBoil and Margaret which is suggested to him by her inquisitive delving into the Forgotten Works. He says, “Sometimes Margaret went down into the Forgotten Works by herself. It worried me. She was so pretty and inBoil and that gang of his were so ugly. They might get ideas. Why did she want to go down there all the time?” (p. 90). Later, specifically questioning Margaret about inBoil's scheme, Charley asks, “What do you know about this, Margaret? You've spent a lot of time down there lately” (p. 95). Although this implied connection is denied by some of the characters, the narrator allows his suspicions to overwhelm him, severs his ties with Margaret, and starts his relationship with Pauline.
In the fourth and final sequence we see Old Chuck recounting a dream about the tigers and the narrator remembering their killing his parents. It is here, too, that Margaret commits suicide, and the citizens prepare for her funeral and a dance immediately after sunset.
The instances of repetition in the novel promote the suggested lack of emotion, sense of boredom, and feeling of loss. The only real sign of emotion of any major kind occurs in the chapter that describes the suicide of inBoil and his followers. The narrator's description of Pauline's rage at their messing up the hatchery with their blood places her in a peculiar light: “Pauline did not act like a woman should under these circumstances. She was not afraid or made ill by this at all. She just kept getting madder and madder. Her face was red with anger” (p. 113). There is a total absence of human sympathy or of any type of positive feelings, and this impression is emphasized by Pauline's methodical mopping up blood and wringing it out into a bucket.
In the two-page chapter entitled “My Name,” the narrator repeats the sentence “That is my name” twelve times, establishing a hollowness and a situation that allows him to become whatever the reader wishes him to be. Harvey Leavitt suggests that the narrator is a part of a society in which the individual self is unimportant (I Death), in which the psychological is suppressed by the physiological (Id Death), in which knowledge is no longer desirable (Idea Death), and in which “the first person pronoun is dead in a social order that makes itself conscious of the interdependency of its parts. …”8
The almost total absence of emotion is even more obvious in the chapter entitled “Arithmetic,” where the narrator describes, with alarming and disquieting calmness, his lack of response to the killing of his parents by the tigers. This startling attitude is strongly emphasized as the youth repeats and stresses the importance of learning his arithmetic rather than the tragic death of his parents. In the middle of the disaster he says to the tigers, “You could help me with my arithmetic” (p. 39) and continues to reiterate in the rest of the chapter how helpful the tigers were with his arithmetic. To cite a further example of this emotional void and atmosphere of boredom created through the device of repetition, one might note the conversation in the “Meat Loaf” chapter:
“Today's special is meat loaf, isn't it?” Doc Edwards said.
“Yes, ‘Meat Loaf for a gray day is the best way,’ that's our motto,” she said.
“I'll have some meat loaf,” Fred said.
“What about you?” the waitress said. “Meat loaf?”
“Yeah, meat loaf,” I said.
“Three meat loaves,” the waitress said,
Here the boring routine is established: on every “gray day” the special is meat loaf.
The sense of loss is also apparent in other instances. In the chapter “Statue of Mirrors” the narrator describes the visions that he has in the mirrors and the emptiness that he feels as he stands for hours allowing his mind to drain. When the visions begin to occur, he describes them in a repetitive pattern. Half of the sentences in that chapter begin with the same sentence structure, establishing the loss and emptiness that lead up to the climactic ending of the chapter: “I saw Old Chuck on the front porch …, I saw some kids playing baseball …, I saw Fred directing his crew …, [and] I saw Margaret climbing an apple tree beside her shack. She was crying and had a scarf knotted around her neck. She took the loose end of the scarf and tied it to a branch covered with young apples. She stepped off the branch and then she was standing by herself on the air” (p. 135). Even then the narrator displays no emotion, in the very next chapter he says simply, “I stopped looking into the statue of Mirrors. I'd seen enough for that day” (p. 136).
In what she sees as another of Brautigan's negative statements about his society, Hernlund says that “pleasure is negated by sudden introduction of an opposing emotion.”9 One may point to many instances in which the pleasant is juxtaposed with the unpleasant. In one of those instances the narrator speaks of how beautiful the tigers were in the same sentence in which he mentions the fact that they ate his parents; in another, Fred praises Pauline's good stew and the pleasure he derives from eating it in the same breath that he quietly hints at the displeasure of eating carrots; and in the middle of the whole idyllic scene describing Pauline's prettiness and pleasant watermelon sugar aroma, one is suddenly and unexpectedly told how most of the citizens did not like Margaret anymore because they thought that she might be involved in a conspiracy with inBoil and his gang.
In a society where the narrator insists that its citizens take pride in their communal life style, it seems that this style is peculiarly static. It refuses whatever is different from itself, as evidenced by the failure to name the “beautiful” things that Margaret finds in the Forgotten Works. Schmitz thinks that “Margaret's curiosity is the first step toward wisdom … but wisdom that is destructive of the innocence the writer strives to sustain.”10
Leavitt, in a very extensive analogy, labels iDeath as “an Eden without the built-in supremacy order that was established for Adam I [He sees the narrator as Adam II] and Eve. Classification begets power, and power begets pride, and pride is an emotion.”11 Since emotion is considerably absent from iDeath, inaction is created through the mundane tasks of existence. Life in iDeath is void of such emotions as pity and joy, the absence of which could be presumed to be worse than anything that could be imagined in the old society. On this same issue, Hernlund concludes that “the delicate balance in iDeath is the delusion that they can maintain a neutral position disjunct from violence and death without also cutting themselves off from life's fullness. The basic error results in boredom, ritual, and sterility devoid not only of pleasure but of all feeling and thus all real curiosity, vitality, or a reason for existence.”12
Life in the new utopian society is a farce and does not represent a satisfactory escape for man from his tainted, modern world. At the extreme, however, one might view life here as being equal with death. Certainly the one birth recorded in the novel does not offset the twenty-two suicides. At any rate, Brautigan must be reckoned with, not dismissed lightly. He recognizes the problem inherent in society, and this may be his shock therapy to awaken society itself to that problem, much the same way that Jonathan Swift did in “A Modest Proposal.”
Michael Feld, “A Double with Christina,” London Magazine (August-September, 1971), 150-51.
Jonathan Yardley, “Still Loving,” New Republic, 164 (20 March 1971), 24.
Neil Schmitz, “Richard Brautigan and the Modern Pastoral,” Modern Fiction Studies, 19 (1973), 120.
Tony Tanner, City of Words: American Fiction, 1950-1970 (New York, 1971), p. 413.
Ibid., pp. 412-13.
Patricia Hernlund, “Author's Intent: In Watermelon Sugar,” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, 16 (1974), 5-8.
Richard Brautigan, In Watermelon Sugar (New York: Delacorte, 1968), p. 82. Subsequent references to this novel will be to this edition and page numbers will be noted parenthetically.
Harvey Leavitt, “The Regained Paradise of Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar,” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, 16 (1974), 23.
Hernlund, p. 15.
Schmitz, p. 120.
Leavitt, pp. 23-24.
Hernlund, p. 16.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4372
SOURCE: Pietralunga, Mark. “Luciano Bianciardi Translates Richard Brautigan: Rebellion at Big Sur.” Romance Languages Annual 10, no. 1 (1998): 345-49.
[In the following essay, Pietralunga compares Brautigan's Confederate General from Big Sur to some of the work of its Italian translator, finding biographical and literary similarities between the two writers.]
In his “Diario americano 1959-60,” Italo Calvino writes about his impressions of Northern California and, in particular, of those scenic locations near the Monterey peninsula where a number of well known writers had established their residences. In the section entitled “Questi paradisi terrestri,” Calvino observes:
dove viv ono gli scrittori americani, non ci starei morto. Non c'e' altro da fare che sbronzarsi. Un giovanotto che si chiama Dennis Murphy o qualcosa di simile che ha scritto un best-seller, The Sergeant, che ora gli ha tradotto Mondadori nella Medusa gli e' arrivata proprio ora la copia e me la mostra e crede che sia un piccolo editore—arriva al mattino con tutti i polsi feriti. La notte si e' sbronzato e ha spaccato a pugni le vetrate della sua villa. Di Henry Miller che vive qui a Big Sur sappiamo gia' che non riceve piu' nessuno perche' sta scrivendo. L'ultrasettantenne scrittore che ha sposato da poco una moglie diciannovenne dedica tutto il resto delle sue forze allo scrivere per finire prima di morire i libri che ancora vuol scrivere
(Eremita a Parigi 103).
It is here in this so-called Pacific paradise where Richard Brautigan sets his 1964 novel Confederate General from Big Sur. A lengthy exchange of letters between the work's main characters, the narrator Jesse and his charismatic friend Lee Mellon, captures the tone of the novel and seems to corroborate Calvino's impressions of this haven of American writers. In these letters the lovelorn Jesse, who is unable to cope with big city life in San Francisco, hopes to join Lee Mellon at his makeshift retreat in Big Sur. Upon hearing of Jesse's wish to follow him to Big Sur, Lee Mellon replies: “Great! Why don't you come down here? I haven't got any clothes on, and I just saw a whale. There's plenty of room for everybody. Bring something to drink. Whiskey!” (54). Farther along in their correspondence when Jesse asks Lee Mellon how he keeps alive at Big Sur, the latter responds: “I've got a garden and it grows all year round! A 30:30 Winchester for deer, a.22 for rabbits and quail. I've got some fishing tackle and The Journal of Albion Moonlight. We can make it OK. What do you want, a fur-lined box of Kleenex to absorb the sour of your true love Cynthia, the Ketchikan and/or Battle Mountain cookie? Come to the party and hurry down to Big Sur and don't forget to bring some whiskey. I need whiskey!” (60). Jesse and Lee Mellon had met in San Francisco. Lee had just hitchhiked up from Big Sur where, along the way, he steals some money, a watch, and the keys to the car of a wealthy homosexual who had wanted him “to commit an act of oral outrage” (23) but was nevertheless quite content with a blow to the head with a rock from the “good looking, dashing, toothless raider” (24). After a series of unconventional experiences, including Lee's “siege” of Oakland and a “daring cavalry attack” to tap a gas line of the Pacific Gas & Electric Company for light and heat, Lee resumes his wanderings, this time to Big Sur, where he settles in a ramshackle cabin that he had built with yet another disturbed friend. Jesse, after finally letting himself be convinced to join Lee Mellon, learns that life in Big Sur is far from being the Pacific paradise that he had been led to believe, particularly when money is lacking and you are constantly being hounded by the nightly croaking of thousands of frogs in a nearby pond. However, they soon come into some money ($6.72), which Lee Mellon takes from two teenagers whom he catches attempting to steal gasoline from his truck. With their “riches,” Lee proposes to hitchhike to Monterey to get drunk. In a small bar in Monterey, with Lee “passed out underneath the saloon” (89), Jesse meets the lovely Elaine, and the two are soon off to the young woman's place. The next morning the couple retrieve Lee, still “under a saloon covered with cardboard” (93), and return to Big Sur, bringing with them two alligators purchased by Elaine in order to take care of the frog problem. Back in Big Sur Elaine decides to set up house with Jesse, while Lee Mellon finds himself being comforted by the enchanting Elizabeth—a beautiful free spirit who works three months a year as a high-priced call girl in Los Angeles.
Their seemingly idyllic world is soon disrupted by the arrival of Jonathan Wade (of the “Johnston Wade Insurance Company”), a psychotic middle-aged millionaire, who has run away from his greedy wife and children, convinced that they are determined to put him in a mental hospital. After directly experiencing the aggressions of Lee Mellon, Wade, appearing to regain his sanity, suddenly feels the urge to return to his routine and sets off for a business appointment. The two friends and their girlfriends “go down to the Pacific and turn on and go with the waves” (152) with Jesse unable to perform during a sexual encounter initiated by Elaine. The novel concludes by offering more and more endings unraveling faster and faster, leading to what Brautigan calls “186,000 endings per second” (160). These endings are the only real revolution that takes place in the novel.
In his book-length study of Brautigan, Terence Malley places Confederate General from Big Sur within a category of American literature that has been broadly defined as American Pastoral. The stories that belong to this pattern, writes Malley, deal with “a man going off alone (or two men going off together), away from the complex problems and frustrations of society into a simpler world close to nature” (93).1 As Calvino's opening observations remind us, Brautigan is not the first American writer to locate his “Paradise Regained” in Big Sur. Malley makes reference to two works about Big Sur that bear an important relationship to Confederate General: Henry Miller's Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch (1957) and Jack Kerouac's Big Sur (1962). In fact, in Confederate General we catch a glimpse of Henry Miller, sitting in his old Cadillac near his mailbox, waiting for his mail to be delivered. In this casual observation, one intuits a general indifference on the part of Brautigan's characters toward Henry Miller and his literary reputation. Nevertheless, as Malley accurately notes, Miller's presence in this environment is unavoidable: “The gigantic figure of Henry Miller casts its long shadow across Confederate General […] In some respects, Brautigan's Big Sur corresponds closely to Miller's—a place of beauty and privacy and freedom and (that word and quality Miller likes so much) ambience. For the most part, Jesse and Lee act out the advice that Miller repeats to himself and to us in the first section of his Big Sur: ‘Stay put and watch the world go around!” (96). However Malley is quick to note that, while Miller has served, if only partly, as Brautigan's literary guide to Big Sur, “Brautigan's depiction of Jesse and Lee Mellon's Eden is ultimately very different from Miller's (or anyone's)” (96). Instead, in Confederate General everything is built on, and perceived through Lee Mellon's “wonderful sense of distortion” (83) to which Jesse has religiously ascribed. After all, Lee Mellon, observes Jesse, is “the battle flags and the drums of this book” (20). This “sense of distortion” is most evident in Mellon's claim that his great grandfather was a courageous Confederate general at the Battle of Wilderness, a battle which proved to be a turning point in the Civil War. Even after Lee and Jesse fail to find any references to a Confederate General Augustus Mellon in Ezra J. Warner's Generals in Grey, this fact does not prevent Lee Mellon, as Marc Chenetier writes, “from living in the imagination of his descendent and acting as a control on the wild antics the text will perform in its claims to freedom”(23). That freedom, or what Chenetier calls a “wilful violation of reality”(23), dictates the entire course of the novel.
As Edward Halsey Foster notes, Confederate General from Big Sur is “about people who cultivate an attitude of emotional and intellectual detachment that was to be found at the very center of the existential, alienated culture characteristic of the hipsters and the beats of the 1950s”(5-6). At Big Sur the ultimate awareness, rebellion, and resignation take place on the farthest extreme, geographically and intellectually, of contemporary America. Confederate General from Big Sur offers a vision, concludes Foster, “in which there is no historical progress, but in which all possibilities can be realized”(47). From this perspective, Lee Mellon's ability to live the life of a Confederate general one hundred years after the South has been fought and lost is beside the point. As we have mentioned, his life seems to be a strange series of echoes from American literature and myth, particularly the literature and myth of rebellion. For the beats, rebellion was a personal matter. A man did not change the system he changed himself. Together with a distrust or loss of faith in historical progress, what the beats shared was their individual horror at what a nation in the name of economic progress had done to itself.
In an essay written not long after his return from America in 1960, Calvino analyzes Italy's so-called “miracle years” and argues that there was a scarcity of rebels in Italian literature.2 He points out that Italy had nothing comparable to the “beat generation,” the “beatniks,” or England's “angry young men;” instead, the Italian writers expressed quite differently their lack of faith in history: “I libri che escono e che hanno piu' fortuna portano anch'essi come segno dell'epoca un accentuarsi della sfiducia nella storia, ma ad affermarlo non sono voci di arrabbiati o di nichilisti, ma caso mai sono le quete ragazze casalinghe di Carlo Cassola” (78). The successful novels in the period of the late 1950s and early 1960s were written by authors who turned their backs from an Italy that bathed in the euphoria of its modernity. For Cassola, it was a withdrawal to the traditional myths of the provinces and to characters, like Mara of La ragazza di Bube, who possess such positive qualities as a strength of spirit and a genuineness of feelings. This return to the traditional values of the provinces is accompanied by a stylistic return to traditional narrative forms.
Luciano Bianciardi's La vita agra is one of the few “angry” voices of protest to come out of the “miracle years.” Although those same traditional myths of the provinces are operative in Bianciardi's 1962 novel, the world of “buoni sentimenti” exists as part of a distant place of memory and salvation, which enables the protagonist, a self-proclaimed anarchist who has come to Milan to execute a hostile mission against the chemical giant Montecatini, to survive in the grim, inhuman metropolis. Unlike Cassola, Bianciardi felt the need to leave the security of the provincial life and to seek some connection with the world of the Insiders, for he believed this was the only way possible to expose the depressed state that lie hidden under the mask of progress. He hoped to prevent the miracle that was taking place in Milan from infecting the rest of the country. La vita agra is a novel of protest against this miracle and the angry statement of his failure to defeat it. Both the protest and failure are depicted by the protagonist's attempt to undermine the capitalistic system that ultimately consumes him. His reluctant but eventual integration into the consumer society is accompanied by the complete disintegration of the self. At the novel's conclusion, the narrator, who is lost in the chaos of words, is totally deprived of the self. The mechanical routine of his job as translator, at a time when translators found themselves inundated by the new consumer's demand, has affected his most intimate actions (his loss of a sexual drive) and forces him to seek refuge in sleep.
In drawing comparisons between Bianciardi's “angry” novel and the “beat” writers, critic Giuseppe Nava has written: “Come i ‘beat,’ il protagonista di Bianciardi vive tutto nel presente, ormai scisso dal passato e reso incapace di progetti per il futuro dalla condizione in cui e' murato. Non gli resta, per sentirsi vivo, che la rabbia come reazione istintuale ed estrema difesa: una rabbia che e' impotente pratica e sogno consolatorio di un futuro utopico di vita rurale e di libera azione sessuale, quale appunto nella letteratura ‘beat” (17). In the midst of the confusion of voices between his world and that of the languages and lives of the characters of his translations, such names as Jack Keruoac and Henry Miller appear and, like all else in this Babel, are distorted.3 Prompted by Bianciardi's reference to Miller and Keruoac, Rita Guerricchio writes:“La ricorrenza di questi ultimi due assicura la consapevolezza da parte dell'io narrante di indubbie suggestioni subite da parte di entrambi, afflitto anch'egli, come in particolare l'io esorbitante dei Tropici, da un'ansia predicatoria di grana moralista proprio laddove piu' smodata si fa la proposta oscena, piu' anarchica e ribelle l'avversione alla civilta' meccanica. Non c'e' dubbio che sull'inarrestabile fluire del monologo della Vita agra abbiano agito anche altri modelli del cote' ‘bitinicco’ e arrabbiato, autori tradotti nello stesso giro d'anni come Kerouac e Burroughs […] e Patchen e Donleavy e Behan, tutti portatori di un anarchismo protestatario variamente modulato fra provocazione e sberleffo, e sopratutto affidato a un io personaggio ribaldo e guastatore” (79).4 Bianciardi's attraction to works that question, mock and rebel against the status quo and the acceptance of majority values, explains, in many ways, his decision to translate Brautigan's Confederate General from Big Sur. It is important, however, to keep in mind that Bianciardi translated A Confederate General from Big Sir after La vita agra, which is one man's failed attempt to change the system from within. After the experience of La vita agra, Bianciardi sees himself transformed from a rebel with a cause to a rebel without a cause. In a letter to his friend Mario Terrosi, Bianciardi wrote about his attempt to oppose the system by writing a novel of protest: “Quel che potevo l'ho fatto, e non e' servito a niente. Anziche' mandarmi via da Milano a calci nel culo, come meritavo, mi invitano a casa loro e magari vorrebbero … Ma io non mi concedo …” (99). Subsequently, Bianciardi, artistically and personally, retreats from the “real” world, opting for a self-imposed exile at Rapallo. Alberto Gessani describes this point in Bianciardi's life: “non ha il cinismo autentico del pennivendolo, e quello d'intrattenere la gente con la letteratura facile del boom non e' stato mai e non puo' essere il suo mestiere. E allora, chiuso ogni conto con il presente e con il futuro, non gli rimane che il passato: il passato storico piu' o meno lontano, vissuto o no, che sfuma insensibilmente nella fantasia e si fa mito: mito evocato come luogo nel quale far parlare l'anima e come fuga momentanea dal ‘labirinto di griglie scure’ in cui si deve pur vivere” (57-58). By evoking once again the ghosts of the Risorgimento and Garibaldian campaign, Bianciardi attempts to cope with the present and give vent to his anger. In the introduction of his personal interpretation of the Risorgimento, Daghela avanti un passo!, Bianciardi describes the events and human passions of this historical period as “eroicamente festosi, coloriti, un poco matti persino”(8). Inherent in the term “matti” is that element of rebellion against organized authority and a spirit of freedom that attracted Bianciardi to such writers as Henry Miller and Jack Keruoac, who infused their poetic world with an irrationality, linguistic or otherwise, as well as a sense of anarchy. These are the same characteristics that Bianciardi brought to his very personal treatment of history.5 Through a sense of irony and a great deal of fantasy, Bianciardi's vision of history acquires an unreal quality enabling him to mix characters and events of the present and past. Bianciardi's strong interest in popularizing, as well as fictionalizing, Italian history and his desire to raise the Risorgimento to the same epic level as the American Civil War are, one can deduce, other reasons behind his eventual decision to translate Confederate General from Big Sur. An affinity between Bianciardi's own phantasmagoric view of history, best depicted in his final novel Aprire il fuoco and Brautigan's treatment of the historical past, is immediately evident in the novel's Italian title Il generale immaginario. In his brief preface to the novel, Bianciardi poses the following questions: “Tanto per cominciare, il problema e' questo: credere o non credere che fra gli stati confederati ci fosse anche il Big Sur? Chilometri di rocce, sabbie, gabbiani, patelle, nuvole, flutti, ranocchi, e in piu' certi indiani cosi selvaggi che non coltivavano la terra, non cacciavano, non raccoglievano bacche, non si riparavano dalle intemperie: possibile che tutto questo fosse un giorno uno Stato, capace di mandare al fronte i suoi volontari, agli ordini del favoloso generale Mellon?”6 Bianciardi concludes this short introduction with an observation that further explains his attraction to the work: “C'e' persino Henry Miller, fermo ad aspettare il postino nella sua vecchia Cadillac. E c'e' infine l'autore, che e' un matto, anzi un poeta. La letteratura che chiamiamo beat ha trovato il suo umorista.” Perhaps following the trails of their mythic mentor Henry Miller, both Brautigan in the Confederate General from Big Sur and Bianciardi in Aprire il fuoco, have their main characters escape from the city and seek refuge (or freedom) near the sea. By merging, or distorting, the present and the past in their respective works each author appears both to exalt the past from a nonconformist perspective (Brautigan: “while all around them waged the American Civil War, the last good time this country ever had,” 148; Bianciardi: “il piu' grandioso avvenimento [the Risorgimento] della storia italiana moderna,” Terrosi, 93) as well as to emphasize history's failings in changing the present. Brautigan's present day general is a “Confederate General in ruins” (20), while Bianciardi's adaption of the historical Five Days of Milan in 1848 to a contemporary setting of 1959 is viewed as a “Rivoluzione che ando' fallita” (170). In both works, past ideals which motivated the events like the Civil War, the desire to explore new frontiers, and the Risorgimento are now lost, distorted, or misdirected in a confused present, where freedom is more a state of mind, often induced by drink or other forms of drugs, rather than a reality. Ultimately, watching the whales at Big Sur in Confederate General or waiting for the dolphins to appear at Nesci7 (fictitious name for Rapallo) in Aprire il fuoco reflect the sense of resignation and futility that pervades each novel. Consequently, both novels conclude with the narrator's recognition that paradise or freedom have not and cannot be regained, that the good world or the glorious past are unattainable. In the Confederate General, this is reflected in the feeling of vacancy or tedium that overwhelms Jesse at the novel's conclusion (just a few short days after his arrival) as he is unable to find an authentic identity in an illusory world. The fact that he is ultimately more attracted to Elizabeth, the beautiful call girl from Los Angeles, who is on hiatus in Big Sur, than to the rebel Lee Mellon seems to imply that he still feels an urge to drop back into that society in which he felt so alienated. In other words, Big Sur is not, he learns, a long-term solution to his feeling of alienation. Similarly, from his exile in Nesci the revolutionary professor in Aprire il fuoco, having been deprived of a cause, sees no values in which to believe. The fact that he sees himself as a permanent “inquilino” confirms his sense of alienation and a feeling of not belonging. Having failed to re-ignite the mythical passions of the past, his only solution is death. In fact, the signal the revolutionary is waiting for to “aprire il fuoco” is really a presentiment of death. The bottle of grappa, always “a portata di mano” (22) of our “professor” in exile, is perhaps a momentary solution but not a conclusive one. On this note Maria Clotile Angelini writes: “l'alcol, che negli anni precedenti era stato la ‘carica’ necessaria per affrontare le conseguenze dell'isolata ribellione di ‘formica’ indocile, e' divenuto poi la droga e lo strumento di morte con cui annullare il fallimento di un'esistenza e lo scacco” (109). Henry Miller's advice “Stay put and watch the world go around!” does not seem to work any longer for either novelist. Miller, who inspired a literary spirit of rebellion in both Brautigan and Bianciardi, like the myths of the Civil War and the Risorgimento, seems to be a thing of the past and no longer a place to turn for solace. In fact in a letter dated February 23, 1968 Bianciardi writes about Miller: “sto traducendo un volume di saggi di Henry Miller, il quale invecchiando e' diventato mistico, e parla di continuo di Cristo, dicendo oltre tutto delle solenni fesserie” (“Brani di lettere inedite” 30). Similarly, the “beat's” life-style of drink and “dropping out” leads to a moribund existence, dictated by a deadening routine, as Bianciardi eloquently demonstrates in Aprire il fuoco. Calvino's description of Big Sur during his visit to the United States in 1959 appears to be prophetic, at least for Bianciardi. The latter's escape to his Big Sur in Liguria ultimately leads to drink and death. Calvino's observation that Henry Miller, a type of father to the beat generation and to Bianciardi “non riceve piu' nessuno” and that he [Calvino] “non ci starebbe morto” in Big Sur confirm his own rejection of isolation as the intellectual's way of combatting the system. In fact, Calvino further substantiates this conviction at the conclusion of his essay “I Beatniks e il ‘sistema”: “Vi diro' solo che non vorrei che la nuova generazione fosse una beat generation, ma vorrei che ereditasse insieme al nostro atteggiamento positivo verso la vita anche la nostra insopprimibile, amareggiante, sacrosanta insoddisfazione” (81). While Bianciardi clearly shares Calvino's dissatisfaction with the system, he, as an outsider, chooses to fight the battle alone. Bianciard's own experience, as depicted in La vita agra and Aprire il fuoco, tells us that his connection with the “Insiders” has been short-circuited. Consequently, Calvino's letter to Bianciardi of September 7, 1962, in which he expresses his dismay in the latter's choice of publishers for La vita agra, captures both Bianciardi's spirit of freedom as well as his inability to live within the system: “Caro Bianciardi, vedo il tuo libro annunciato nella pubblicita' di Rizzoli. Sei diventato matto?” (I libri degli altri 105).
Malley refers to Leslie Fiedler's study Love and Death in the American Novel in which the latter notes that this theme of man/men fleeing society is at the heart of many American literary classics. Malley writes: “In fact, Fiedler finds the legend of ‘Rip Van Winkle’—the man who cops out of his domestic duties by boozing off to sleep in the mountains—to be the central myth of our literature” (93).
This discussion of Bianciard's novel as an “angry” novel within the context of Calvino's essay “I beatniks e il ‘sistema” was previously included in my essay “The Emotional Deterioration of an Ordinary Man: Luciano Bianciardi and the ‘Miracle’ Years in Milan.” See 140-42.
In La vita agra, Bianciardi writes: “L'avrei pensata e l'avrei scritta come un bitnicco arrabbiato, dieci anni or sono, quando il signor Jacques Querouaques forse non aveva nemmeno imparato a tirarsi su i calzoni […] Provero' l'impasto linguistico, contaminando da par mio la alata di Ollesalvetti diobo,' e ‘u dialettu d'Ucurlais, il Molinari Enrico di New York […] (33-34).
We are reminded that Bianciardi translated both Tropic of Cancer (1962) and Tropic of Capricorn (1962), which resulted in legal battles and scandals due to content and language. In addition, Bianciardi translated in 1961 the anthology The Beat Generation and The Angry Young Men, choosing as his title Narratori della Generazione Alienata, just a year before the publication of La vita agra.
In his introduction to the novel Aprire il fuoco, Oreste Del Buono describes Bianciardi's non-conformist treatment of historical events and, in particular, to those related to the Risorgimento: “Il protagonista [of the novel], infatti, si dice in esilio per avere partecipato in Milano all'insurrezione armata del 1959. Del marzo 1959. Gia' perche' Bianciardi rifa' la storia delle cinque giornate care alla retorica risorgimentale spostandole, pero,' in tempi piu' prossimi, e confondendo e rimescolando personaggi di allora con personaggi di ora. Il risorgimento, lo studio non conformista, ma appassionato del risorgimento, costante della carriera di scrittore di Bianciardi” (iv-v).
Bianciardi's introductory comments to his translation of Il generale immaginario appear in the edition's back cover.
Zolita Louise Vella notes that Nesci is a “play on the Latin verb ‘nescio:’ to know not, to ignore, and a commonly used word in the Ligurean dialect that means idiot, stupid, ignorant” (154).
Angelini, Maria Clotilde. Luciano Bianciardi. Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1980.
Bianciardi, Luciano. La vita agra. 1962. Milan: Rizzoli, 1980.
———. Aprire il fuoco. 1969. Milan: Rizzoli, 1976.
———. Daghela avanti u passo! 1969. Milan: Longanesi & C., 1992.
———. “Brani da lettere inedite.” Confronti 3 (October 1972): 29-33.
Brautigan, Richard. Confederate General from Big Sur. New York: Grove Press, 1964.
———. Il generale immaginario. Trans. Luciano Bianciardi. Milan: Rizzoli, 1967.
Calvino, Italo. “I beatniks e il ‘sistema.” Una pietra sopra. Turin: Einaudi, 1980.
———. I libri degli altri. Ed. Giovanni Tesio. Turin: Einaudi, 1991.
———. Eremita a Parigi. Milan: Mondadori, 1994.
Chenetier, Marc. Richard Brautigan. London: Metheun, 1983.
Feldman, Gene and Max Grettenberg, eds. The Beat Generation and The Angry Young Men. New York: The Citadel Press, 1958.
———. Narratori della Generazione Alienata. Trans. Luciano Bianciardi. Parma: Guanda, 1961.
Foster, Edward Halsey. Richard Brautigan. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983.
Guerricchio, Rita. “La vita agra.” Luciano Bianciardi tra neocapitalismo e contestazione. Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1992.
Malley, Terrence. Richard Brautigan. New York: Warner, 1972.
Nava, Giuseppe. “L'opera di Bianciardi e la letteratura dei primi anni Sessanta.” Luciano Bianciardi tra neocapitalismo e contestazione.
Pietralunga, Mark. “The Emotional Deterioration of an Ordinary Man.” Italiana IV: Literature and Society. West Lafayette: Bordighiera, 1992.
Vella, Zolita Louise. Luciano Bianciardi: His Life and His Works. Image of a Dilemma. Diss. Columbia University, 1976. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1976. 76203998.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6988
SOURCE: Hume, Kathryn. “Brautigan's Psychomachia.” Mosaic 34, no. 1 (March 2001): 75-92.
[In the following essay, Hume analyzes the aesthetics of Brautigan's narratives, noting that he consciously used Zen principles to evoke a special kind of reader response.]
Richard Brautigan's novels rouse readerly uneasiness. Now accustomed to the gigantism of Don DeLillo's Underworld and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, we wonder whether slender books can offer anything but wispy charm. The violent emotional substrate is also disquieting, tainted ex post facto by the author's suicide. Add to that the strangeness: Brautigan offers no authorial guidance on how we should respond to a trout stream described as a series of horizontal telephone booths. Is this a bizarrely accurate simile, or does it physicalize the metaphor of wilderness being commodified and reshaped by technology?
The current critical picture reflects our difficulties. In addition to readings of individual novels, we have many attempts to relate Brautigan to the American tradition, as if this will make his weirdness safer because more familiar. William L. Stull and Edward Halsey Foster derive a genealogy from Thoreau. Ancestor status is granted to Melville (Stull; Vanderwerken), Hemingway (Vanderwerken; Locklin and Stetler), and Fitzgerald (Locklin and Stetler; Willis). Terence Malley identifies beat precursors, Kerouac in particular. Marc Chénetier, more concerned with unique than derivative elements, makes the case for Brautigan's experimentalism. Psychological approaches explain the strange by other means. Josephine Hendin's observations on repressed anger in the early works could be extended to all the novels, and Brooke Horvath traces Brautigan's fear of death throughout the corpus. Revealing and persuasive though these psychological approaches are, they tend to read the books as by-products of neurosis and emphasize the implicit author at the expense of his or her literary effects.
In this essay, I construct Brautigan as an aesthetician and writer, as a conscious artist who used Zen principles rather than simply becoming the victim of psychic furies. Overall, I ask, What is the nature of his narrative enterprise? I disentangle the artist from characters and view what he does as a series of narrative experiments in portraying emotions and in working out the philosophical and political dimensions of certain strong feelings that interested him. The emotions that fascinate him naturally stem from his own experience, but my concern is what he constructs from them artistically. The eleven novels (the last one published posthumously) constitute a series of battlefields in which he sets up emotional conflicts and tries to find narrative forms appropriate to his vision. Hence my term psychomachia, for in formalized schema he tests certain feelings and kinds of narrative much as medieval writers formalized into allegory the temptations besetting a Christian soul. In the course of tracing the artistic projects that Brautigan sets himself, I show how he invites an unusual sort of reader response modelled upon Zen observation and why two radical shifts take place in his method of plotting stories.
Brautigan's name flared vividly into national popularity in 1967, the publication of Trout Fishing in America: A Novel coinciding with media curiosity about hippies and the Haight-Ashbury phenomenon (Abbott, ch. 1). The first four novels constitute a group defined by several shared features: dissatisfaction with America, passive male protagonists, Zen as a philosophy for handling emotions, and an unusual kind of reader response provoked by deliberate lack of affect.
America's shortcomings surface in Trout Fishing in America (published second, in 1967, but written first, in 1961). Like trout, however, those faults do not hang around to be analyzed to death. The narrator of the novel occasionally implies an opinion—as he does about the hungry being given spinach sandwiches (2)—but that deadpan description is demonstrably judgemental only because he invokes Kafka immediately thereafter. Most of his musing observations are delivered without overt evaluations. He ponders poisoned coyote bait and deformed trout, winos and wilderness hermits. He mentions drawbacks of being poor. Vignettes like these provide a largely unarticulated rationale for the narrative movement in the following three novels, for in these books Brautigan imagines three forms of withdrawal from America. A Confederate General from Big Sur is a late beat reprise of Walden (E. Foster 63-64) and of Leslie A. Fiedler's American pastoral involving two men together in the wilderness (Malley 93). In Watermelon Sugar tests a communal group retreat. In The Abortion: An Historical Romance, 1966, the librarian retreats within the social structure rather than outside it.
The lack of overt emotion in these four books has been explained as neo-Transcendentalist (Pütz 105-29), but Chénetier (86-98), Claudia Grossmann (90-104), Edward Halsey Foster (16-24), and Jeffrey M. Foster (89-90) all persuasively link it to Brautigan's interest in Zen. Zen masters claim that defining Zen in words is impossible, but, as part of Brautigan's aesthetic, Zen can be said to provide a habit of meditative observation applied to everyday experience. The person meditating centres on the here and now and observes emotions and thoughts that ripple through the mind but does not try to control them (Suzuki 31-34). Guilt or desire to change have no role in this dispassionate observation. Maintaining an analytic focus empty of judgement can protect one from being overwhelmed by the emotions being observed, and Brautigan seems to have embodied versions of this detachment in his main characters because it seemed to him a philosophically helpful approach to emotion. Brautigan as writer can be flashy—as he is when imagining trout streams stacked in a wrecking yard—but his narrator remains calm throughout this fantasia.
Readers become uneasy when the narrator observes but offers no guiding response. Robert Adams, for instance, complains that Brautigan's “art lies in making things out of a scene, and the things he chooses to make aren't moral judgments, they're not even compatible with moral judgments” (26). Implicit is the question, Why read the works at all? Ideally, by contrasting their own response to that of the disturbingly bland focal figure, readers could learn something about their own motives and beliefs. This is the reader response I think Brautigan was aiming for. What critics have done, though, is pour their own reactions into the carefully constructed voids rather than analyze their responses against the neutral ground.
An episode in Trout Fishing in America will illustrate what happens when Brautigan's neutral narrator offers readers no guidance. The narrator describes Worsewick Hot Springs without showing any response to the green slime attached to the edges and bottom of the pool, the orange scum growing in the hot-water stream, the dead fish, the relaxing warmth, and the aquatic act of coitus interruptus (43-44). The narrator accepts what he finds, but unsanitized nature goads critical rejection. Gretchen Legler (68) invokes a passage from Walden in which “crystals” and “pure” and “fairer” serve to denigrate these springs. However, the dead fish have died from swimming too close to a natural hot spring, not from morally troubling pollution. Pulling out rather than risking an unwanted pregnancy need not be discredited as “fertility gone sour” (Tanner 408). The description of the swirling spermatic fluid satisfies idle curiosity as well as the demands of painstaking observation. Distortions in critics' analyses of the seminal event betray the acute uneasiness caused by lack of narrator response. Tanner calls the springs a “lake coated with dead fish and green slime” and the sperm a “stringy mess” (408), although a wide spot in a stream is no lake, the slime does not coat the water, and the narrator also reports the sperm to be “misty” and “like a falling star” (44). Neil Schmitz places the lovemaking “beside” the creek, which has been “carelessly” dammed, and the sperm hangs in the “green scum” “beside” the dead fish, none of the terms being accurate (123). Because the narrator refuses to relieve readerly uneasiness by displaying his own emotions, the critics reflexively pour theirs into the vacuum and thereby relieve the pressure of their judgemental reactions rather than study those feelings.
Responses to In Watermelon Sugar are more diverse. The passive narrator and his commune are condemned for creepy inhumanity (Blakely; Hernlund; Horvath; Schmitz) or hailed for flower power serenity or Zen detachment (Clayton; Leavitt; Grossmann). Michael L. Schroeder grants both interpretations and explains the contradictions as reflecting Brautigan's divided personality. The so-called Confederate general, Lee Mellon, is sadistic, a borderline psychopath (Horvath 441, 435), cruel but true to his own nature (E. Foster 30, 41) and unneurotic (Tanner 406). When Brautigan gives us a trout stream being sold by the linear foot in a wrecking yard, Clayton enjoys the bravura vision (57); Kenneth Seib latches onto the adjacent plumbing fixtures and identifies the scene as a satiric critique of the American pastoral (70); and Tanner identifies this and other junkyards as signifying the end of the American dream (410).
All these readings are worth considering, but they reject the narrator's careful voids. Critics who find the emotional blankness most repulsive are those who show no awareness that detachment has been considered culturally and psychologically admirable. Classical Stoics, Christian monks, and Zen meditators need not be rejected as neurotic for distancing themselves from frantic emotions, desires, and obsessions. In Brautigan's case, the philosophical justification comes from Zen, and the aesthetic experiment involves creating such voids to initiate a reader response. In their haste to assume the universal humanity of certain attitudes and emotions, critics lose the chance to compare their own reaction analytically to the neutrality of Brautigan's presentation and learn to understand their own assumptions better.
If we consider the novels as a loosely linked psychomachia, the first novel written shows the writer attempting to present a narrator who is detached from emotions, many of those emotions provoked by America. Brautigan achieves his effect by focussing his narrative on individual observations and by projecting as neutral and unjudgemental a stance as possible. The next three novels (in order of writing) continue to explore dissatisfactions with life in America, and in each a different social configuration for detaching oneself is tried out. In A Confederate General from Big Sur (actually the first published), Lee and Jesse hang out in a hut on the California coast. One might expect that the emotional payoff for abandoning society would be ecstasy (the beat/hippie reading). If Walden is the prototype, then the hermits ought to enjoy their labours and self-sufficiency. Should they not soar mentally when they throw hundred-dollar bills into the Pacific, a ritual shown in one of the alternative endings? In fact, that moment is carefully emptied of any such feeling, and so are many other moments where the reader might anticipate elevated emotions—sex on the wild beachscape of Big Sur, for instance. Transcendence seems called for by the narrative conventions, but the characters refuse to cooperate. We expect serenity, but Jesse only registers confusion and unhappiness. His multiple endings seem calmer and emptier than earlier adventures, though hardly serene. Withdrawal from America did not produce detached stability, and the withdrawal itself does not settle the discontent over America. The two men are no more truly independent of society than Thoreau was, as Manfred Pütz notes (127), so, philosophically and emotionally, the book resists closure.
Individual retreat to the primitive offers only short-term sanctuary, so the next novel investigates communal withdrawal. Can one avoid the pressures from American society to enslave oneself to work, family, and suburban life? Most of the tranquil characters in the commune of iDEATH achieve a very even-tempered life and feel no need for bourgeois marriage, split-level ranch, and nine-to-five job. Those whose possessive and aggressive emotions are stronger commit suicide. Such narrative brutality correlates with the emotional substructure of the novel. Hendin (48) argues that the narrator's uncanny calm in the face of tigers eating his parents represents Brautigan's angrily visiting upon parental figures the pain they inflicted upon him. Whatever his plot's source in hot anger, Brautigan tries to transmute such feelings to something else. The narrator shows us the attractions of the tigers as well as their dangers; like romanticized outlaws or gangsters, they do not war on children and do what they must to survive, and they make endearing mistakes with their arithmetic. The setting of iDEATH suggests that the prior civilization, evidently urban America now lost through some catastrophe, has in a sense committed suicide, as do those whose temperaments make them prospect through its ruins. Many readers do not like the Zen ego-death of “I”-DEATH, but the alternative lifestyle of churning emotions and alcoholism leads to gruesome suicide through slicing off one's own extremities.
In the last of these four interrelated novels, the passive narrator tries withdrawing from the pressures and expectations of American life by working and living in an eccentric library. The exigencies of befriending someone who subsequently becomes pregnant by him force this narrator to emerge from his den. His managing to manoeuvre in the big world makes this novel a transition piece toward the next four novels, all of which devote themselves to action. This protagonist gets to keep his gorgeous girlfriend, and he gains a strange reputation as a hero, evidently analogous to Brautigan's own fame as writer, and described here in 1971, just when Brautigan's actual acclaim was waning and he was seeking new ways to attract readers. Critics dispute whether the narrator's heroic status is ironic (Cabibbo) or straight (Hackenberry), but that question is difficult to answer when the puzzle has been carefully emptied of all clues. As usual, all we can really assess is our own reactions.
As I turn to Brautigan's action plots, the next distinct phase in his writing, let me make a point about the politics of his passive protagonists. Their extreme passivity is not necessarily identical to masochism, but such submissiveness and lack of visible affect in a male protagonist runs completely counter to American notions of male individualism, which are based on a man's pursuing male passions and aggressions (Rotundo 5-6). The passivity disquiets readers accustomed to culturally sanctioned patterns. In her article on male masochism, Carol Siegel argues that, by laying aside claims to the power of the phallus, the male masochist undercuts patriarchy and unsettles “the dominant discourse on masculinity. […] The man who could be king but ‘would prefer not to’ is potentially powerfully disruptive” (2). Brautigan's experiment with passive protagonists has political implications, and, insofar as America is one evident target for his disaffection, the protagonists are part of that critique. They reject American cultural patterns. While they fail to change America, America also fails to change them, thanks to their quiescence.
What happens when someone who has cultivated Zen detachment and passivity takes up action narration? We get a strange hybrid, in which the plot line matches those of various fast-moving popular genres—gothic, western, mystery, love story, war story, hard-boiled detective story—but Zen-like observation produces a series of observed tableaux that freeze motion. Brautigan focusses on non-significant frames, thus rendering the action aimless. In The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western, the narrative rush to kill the monster is interrupted by seemingly endless chatter about burying a butler or about gravy at supper.
Anyone who reads these novels as un-ironized examples of their genres will be repelled by the freeze-frame effect. As Keith Abbott puts it, “Violence, irrational hate, grief, and loss of innocence via the modern sexual diseases—[…] [these] themes demanded either psychological characterization or bold dramatic action, neither of which [Brautigan] could use effectively, given his style” (123). If we accept irony and absurdity, then we can enjoy the slippery play of our responses to the disparity between genre-fiction clichés and what actually happens. Some of the momentum of a monster-killing plot normally derives from the monster: we understand the pull exerted by dragons on knights, or murderers on detectives. We are balked of such known narrative tensions by a monster consisting of conscious light followed by a stumblebum shadow, both of which arise from a mixture of chemicals. Even if we accept Gordon E. Slethaug's theory that the chemicals represent recreational drugs (144), we cannot anticipate the form that a fight with conscious chemicals might take, yet the urgency of genre fiction derives from our having such expectations. The gothic and western elements are also rendered absurd by the kaleidoscopic description of the main characters' later lives.
By making his focal figures his men, whose profession demands lack of feeling, Brautigan has simplified the narrative challenge facing him in this first attempt to change his style and win back his audience. He could work on the action plot, so different from the pacing in his previous novels, without having to find narrative forms for representing feelings as well. Having found the ironized perspective on action that felt right to him, he was ready in future works to add roiling, violent emotions and play them off against action. In each of the next three novels, he sets up interlace structures consisting of the same three elements: an unhappy plot, a happy plot, and an action plot. Brautigan draws on his Zen focus for short, vibrant scenes, and in these novels he explores the links between unhappy plots and action plots, and he tries to see where the happy option might fit in. Must happiness be forever beyond one's reach? Or can it become narratively as well as psychologically and philosophically assimilated?
Brautigan applies his own powers of unjudgemental observation to capture the experiences of his characters, but they, themselves, are no longer presented as detached. They seethe with volatile emotions. In Willard and His Bowling Trophies: A Perverse Mystery, the action strand is a vendetta. Robbed of their bowling trophies, the Logan brothers vow vengeance and become criminals to support their search. The unhappy narrative concerns Bob and Constance as their marriage collapses under guilt and venereal warts. The happy story describes the cheerful, sexy marriage of John and Patricia, who have found the bowling trophies in an abandoned car and have installed them as ornaments in their little flat. Narrative tensions rise in both the unhappy and the action plot, and Brautigan releases these by having the Logan brothers mistakenly murder the unhappy couple.
Can actions blot out unhappiness? In a sense, yes. Narrative tensions are released, but characters' emotions are not. Stolen bowling trophies are a poor excuse for murder, let alone murder of anyone but the original thieves, and part of what Brautigan does is render the vendetta action absurd. If one compares this novel to the next two, one sees where it has failed to solve a narrative problem to Brautigan's satisfaction. He does not manage to create significant connection among the three plot lines. Nothing relates the unhappy couple to the Logan brothers. Nor does the brothers' anguish invoke any larger issue—the failure of the American Dream, for instance. Since Brautigan goes on to link his subplots more closely, one deduces that rendering everything absurd was not an aim that satisfied him.
Since E. Foster despises Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel as the worst of Brautigan's novels (103), and since almost no one else has written on it, I may seem perverse in calling it arguably his best and most polished performance. True, it is less experimental than Trout Fishing in America and less poetic than The Tokyo-Montana Express. For humour, effective resonance between the plots, and devastating satire, however, this novel seems to me uniquely successful in solving Brautigan's problems of linking action and emotion. A writer of humor suffers agonies from the breakup with his Japanese lover. One hour in an evening of woe is his contribution to the novel, his every rippling change of emotion carefully observed without judgement by the implied author—this is the unhappy plot. The action narrative derives from his tearing up the start of a story and tossing it in the wastebasket. The characters described on that paper, like the characters of Flann O'Brien and Gilbert Sorrentino, take control of their own lives and go on without the author. Their wastebasket activities turn into an absurd and explosive riot that kills thousands in an American town. The contrasting happy strand of action consists of the former girlfriend, Yukiko, and her serene dreams during that same hour. The dreams are suffused with the spirit of her dead father, who had committed suicide in anger over his wife's infidelity but who offers a benign presence here. Not only is Yukiko relaxed and at peace, but also we see atonement with a parental figure, a highly significant motif coming from Brautigan's pen.
In contrast to Willard and His Bowling Trophies, Sombrero Fallout manages to make the three strands resonate meaningfully together. When the writer in one plot cries copiously, two men in the wastebasket world start crying uncontrollably, and their unmanly behaviour arouses such uneasiness in bystanders that it triggers a cascade of violent events that embody the writer's repressed anger. The psychological and political construction of the Orient by America, present in the writer's love for a Japanese woman who caters to his sexual and emotional needs, has its echoes in an invocation of Vietnam in the wastebasket action plot. The guns that fall into townspeople's hands are the “finest collection of hardware outside of Indo-China during the great Vietnam War days” (132). The writer's agonies abate when he turns his experience into a country-and-western lyric. The banality of the lyric's wording is paralleled in the wastebasket President's speech, whose thundering clichés provide rhetorical quietus to the insane massacre. In contrast to this intertwining of emotion and violence, Yukiko sleeps, enjoying oneiric rapprochement with her father. Like her cat, she is efficient and serene, and her cat's purr is the motor that runs her dreams. Her serenity makes us understand both why the writer wants her back so badly and also why his behaviour drives her to break off the relationship. All three strands thus achieve an emotionally logical lessening of tensions both in the action and in the characters' minds.
Another improvement over Willard and His Bowling Trophies is the re-emergence of America as a significant issue. The Logan brothers' loss is idiosyncratic, whereas the wastebasket town, inflamed by riot, resonates with American inner-city violence—as the fictional foreign newspaper headlines make clear. The Americanness of the wastebasket mop-up is brilliant satire. The insane mayor who chants his license plate number is transformed by suicide into a hero, that being easier for the public to assimilate than absurdity. The sombrero that falls from the skies and starts the riot (violence “at the drop of a hat”) turns from black to white, a bad-guy to good-guy shift in television western codes. By the time the media are through, everyone and everything has been recast as tragically heroic and typically American, and watchers can congratulate themselves on America's greatness. Norman Mailer, ideologue for macho violence, makes an amusing cameo appearance as a war correspondent to tell the great American public what it should think. Brautigan never renders America with more satiric gusto than in this novel, and he puts similar enthusiasm and skill into portraying the emotions of the writer. Untouched by all the explosive tensions are Yukiko's harmonious slumbers and her cat's elegant sufficiency. As readers, we can enjoy and approve the fashion in which the writer laments her departure, but the novel's creator allows us to see that she was right to reclaim her independence. The book manages both hysterics and even-handed fairness.
Having succeeded in representing emotions and action, and having managed to connect the two, why launch another three-strand novel? What aesthetic problems remained unsolved in Sombrero Fallout? I suggest that the synthesis that Brautigan worked out at an artistic level did not entirely satisfy him emotionally because of Yukiko's being female, oriental, and asleep and therefore withdrawn from the other actions. Her serenity and her gender make her unsatisfactory as a narrative conduit for the tensions over America and parents that so clearly obsess Brautigan as writer. Her atonement with her father is promising, but only as a first approximation toward releasing oedipal tensions between son and father. Hence, the next book faces a male protagonist with parental problems and life in America.
In Dreaming of Babylon: A Private Eye Novel, 1942, we again find the three narrative strands. The unhappy strand is the miserable, guilt-filled parental relationship in which Card as a child has accidentally caused his father's death and is still nagged about it by his mother. The violence-filled action plot involves Card as a private eye stealing a corpse. The happy material consists of Walter Mitty-like daydreams in which Card imagines himself the best baseball player or general or private eye in Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon. The parental plot is obviously responsible for the life-destroying power of the daydreams; as Mark Hedborn puts it in Lacanian terms, “We can postulate that Card forecloses the Name-of-the-Father when his father dies. From that point on whenever he tries to enter fully into the Symbolic realm he cannot, because the Imaginary (Babylon) intrudes to ruin his opportunity” (108). Significantly, Card's action story ends with his hiding the stolen body of a dead whore in his refrigerator. Brautigan has physicalized metaphors since Trout Fishing in America, and this one reifying frozen passion reminds us of the importance of ice caves of the Hawkline house, the iciness of the sombrero that started the wastebasket riot, and the chilly calm of trout in their streams.
What distinguishes Dreaming of Babylon from Sombrero Fallout is the failure of the plot lines to integrate emotion with action. The gumshoe story is just parody (analyzed by Grimaud and Grimes). It takes on a literary form, but no grander issue, such as America. The unhappy childhood and happy daydreams are technically all part of the one man's life, but they dis-integrate rather than integrate his mentality. Both operate to render him accident prone in the real world, and he achieves no Zen-like ability to contemplate them with detachment. At this point in his narrative development, Brautigan is coming to realize that trying to make his characters act rather than be passive has not helped them achieve freedom from their emotional baggage. Action does not cancel out unhappiness. The Zen observations that he as author brings to describing them and their emotions does not trickle down to the protagonists and help them gain perspective. Only in Sombrero Fallout does he manage to make action and emotion correlate effectively, and obviously what he is doing is sufficiently unusual that it does not communicate to many readers.
Having failed to integrate action with the emotions that matter most to him, Brautigan shifts his narrative strategies yet again. His final two lifetime novels do not resemble each other on the surface, but both hark back to the early experiments in passive Zen observation, both are structured about contrasts, and both conjoin his original affectlessness with the emotional extravagance that grace the action plots. Pure neutrality and undiluted emotionality—the modes of the first four and next four novels respectively—have not worked separately, so Brautigan the narrative experimenter tries combining them.
The reliance upon Zen is easier to document for The Tokyo-Montana Express than for any of his other books. In trying to describe Zen values to me, colleague John Whalen-Bridge remarked that the observer experiences the death of Princess Diana as a ripple in the mind, and that ripple is of no more importance than the ripple caused by the naked lunch on the end of one's fork. This value judgement does not apply to the personage and food but to the perceptions of each in the meditator's mind. Brautigan makes just such a comparison when the emotions caused by the death of President Kennedy are equated with those that the narrator feels about pancakes at a restaurant. Another echo of Eastern thought is Brautigan's reducing barriers between ego and the rest of the world when he says the “I” of the book is the voice of the stops on the Tokyo-Montana Express; he diffuses his narrator into the dual landscape. The novel is emotionally warmer than any of the earlier texts. While the narrator himself expresses little feeling directly, other characters with whom he interacts to display their emotions. The narrator also offers readers something other than emotional void at every scene. He presents opportunities to feel obviously acceptable emotions, such as sympathy for the woman whose life's savings have disappeared with her unsuccessful Chinese restaurant, for the discarded Christmas trees cluttering the cityscape, for the caged wolf. Occasionally his meditations are pleasant: his experience with the shrine-of-carp cab and the fantasy on orange trees in Osaka, for instance. The dominant trope, though, is the “alien being.” The classical musician Francl, who came to the American west in 1851 and died in the snow in 1875, is one such alien. So are the live eels imprisoned in a kitchen bucket, the domestic pets abandoned by the road, the various suicides, the makers of pizza in Japan, the centuries-old intelligence serving time in Ancona, the woman searching the snow for a tire chain, and the mid-winter crows trying to eat bits of rubber tire in the road. All these creatures are isolated. They operate as if they had been plucked from their home world and dropped into one that is indifferent or hostile. The narrator feels just as alien in Montana as he does in Japan.
Episode by episode, the sense of not belonging to this world remains bearable, although the cumulative effect is fairly oppressive for emotional readers. Zen perspective does encourage dispassionate detachment, though, so the narrator neither invites us to get greatly roused, nor does he do so himself. As in the earlier novels, he mostly avoids telling us what to think, making us view our own emotions and understand them. In the chapter devoted to the death-row menu, for instance, he tells us that he and friends are upset by the menu but never explains why. We are left to mull over possibilities. Is he bothered because this high-calorie complex menu is served to murderers while poor children go hungry? Is it the contrast between the state's hypocritical solicitude and its intention to execute the men? Is it gourmet revulsion at what an institutional cafeteria considers fancy food? Is it the irony that the prisoners have been eating this last-meal food for years because they inhabit death row? Are we meant to liken the prisoners to the penned chickens who get fed exotic leftovers, Italian and Chinese? We must grope our own way to appropriate emotions. The feelings in The Tokyo-Montana Express are not resolved, but they do not get out of hand as they did in Dreaming of Babylon.
Having achieved a much greater degree of literary calm in The Tokyo-Montana Express than in Dreaming of Babylon, Brautigan once again takes up explosive feelings, in So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away. He sets up three tranquil, passive portraits and contrasts them with Whitey growing up and coping with frenzied guilt over shooting a friend. The narrator, Whitey as an adult, says he is describing the calm people as if understanding them could help him understand himself; if he could reach their state of mind, he could come to terms with his past.
The three have indeed achieved notable serenity in their lives. The alcoholic watchman seems placidly if cynically at peace with the world. The old man with the elaborately carved dock and boat has achieved monk-like serenity. He is a gas-injured veteran of World War I, living on a tiny pension. His minuscule shack is tidy, and he makes no unnecessary movements. He grows most of his own food. Despite the years of work that have gone into the ornamental carving on his dock and boat, he accepts that some day a sheriff will run him off the land because he is a squatter. His ability to face the probability that an ungrateful society will deprive him of his modest squat and his extraordinary handiwork indicates an admirable measure of detachment. The eccentrics portrayed in most detail are the bovine couple who set up their entire living room (down to National Geographics and doilies) on the bank of a pond every evening where they fish. The Depression has uprooted this couple, but they have created a compensatory world for themselves.
The three portraits all echo earlier Brautigan creations from his first, passive, affectless phase. The watchman, with his trick postcard of a catfish, has some of the serenity of various trout fishermen. The dock carver resembles Old Charley from iDEATH. The couple's ritual act of world creation links them to the “Kool-Aid Wino” in Trout Fishing in America who similarly makes his reality by an act of will. Brautigan thus draws on the calm creations of the early books to balance or contain Whitey's frenzies, similar in their roiling intensity to the emotions of Brautigan's second, action, phase of writing.
Whitey does not achieve complete serenity, although some atonement between himself and his mother takes place. His early comments on her are very negative. She “just barely tolerated my existence. She could take me or leave me” (44). She is responsible for his being exposed to a number of unsatisfactory stepfathers. Her panic over being lodged in a flat with a gas stove reduces family life to shambles. Nevertheless, when Whitey has spent months obsessing over the hamburger he nearly bought instead of the fatal bullets that he did purchase, she enters his obsession and agrees that maybe he should have bought a hamburger. Almost magically, as sometimes happens when an outsider enters a fantasy, it loses its hold on Whitey, and he is able to burn his compulsive writings. He observes a caged coyote and bear in a neighbourhood zoo. They appear outwardly tranquil, if not precisely happy. Their endurance seems a more liveable state of mind to him than his orgies of guilt. With his emotional temperature thus lowered, Whitey ponders the couple by the pond and imagines their commenting on his having disappeared. He becomes invisible in the dusk, and they remain, placid amid their furnishings. Brautigan almost seems to be trying a cinematic fade-out from Whitey to them, from his unhappiness to their acceptance of what is. In terms of the technical portrayal of Whitey's emotions, this is a highly successful novel, in part because emotions and action are so tightly conjoined. The happy and miserable elements mingle enough to lessen the misery, though not yet enough to reach complete equilibrium.
Brautigan's daughter has issued a posthumous novel by her father, entitled An Unfortunate Woman: A Journey. In this, Brautigan largely eschews action and avoids giving his characters dramatic emotions. The narrator (who is either Brautigan himself or a very Brautigan-like writer) admits to being depressed (57-58, 86-90). To counter that anomie, he focusses on the minutiae of lives and emotions around him. He notes out-of-place creatures and objects such as a brand-new woman's shoe in a Hawaiian intersection and a spider in the hairs on his arm. His thoughts repeatedly return to the death from cancer of a thirty-eight-year-old female friend and the suicide of a woman whose house he rented. The narrator opines that in describing weather and thunderstorms he is describing himself (99). This narrator, the two dead women, and the alienated objects all seem projections of Brautigan's own melancholy. The narrator's plan to record daily experience (1-2, 107) resembles that of Scheherazade: he puts forth words to avoid being engulfed by death. In this novel, Brautigan's observations are as sharp as always, but he finds no actions that can block awareness or create a distance between himself and the temptation of nothingness.
Brautigan has lapsed into critical oblivion. Why attempt resurrection? Does he have a place in the canon of American literature? His early books once seemed to chime with 1960s flower power, but most critics realize that the 1960s ethos is not very central to his endeavour. As experimenter, he is interesting, but many more radical writers have succeeded him. His angers, directed at parental figures and America, put him right in the mainstream. A man's search for his father is the Maxwell Perkins ticket to writing the great American novel, and it hardly matters whether one wishes to find or kill the father.
Brautigan's whole novelistic output is an ongoing experiment in which intense emotion is channelled into plots whose surface concerns only glancingly reflect the causes of the emotion. The characters are not allegorical as they were in the medieval psychomachia, but the emotions well up at a distance from those characters and flow through them as their actions or their Zen observations attempt to contain the psychic energies. To this inner dynamic Brautigan adds his own aesthetic, a certain wry charm, acutely observed detail, an occasionally dazzling sense of vision, a spare efficiency of means, and a vein of high fantasy. He also invites an unusual reader response; the unjudgemental narrative stances or characters play foil to readers' reactions and invite self-analysis.
How should readers respond to Brautigan outside the 1960s' context? We find strong feelings swirling about recurrent issues, expressed in economically sketched vignettes. Like soap bubbles, their form is simple, their tension, immense. In novels, we perhaps expect powerful emotions to be the province of sprawling books. Norman Mailer novels reverberate with vivid feelings. However, Mailer is producing a fictional equivalent to Géricault's famous painting “The Raft of the Medusa,” while Brautigan gives us the Chinese master's perfect frog in one continuous brush stroke. The one works on heroic scale with heroic bodies in torment, while the other is postcard sized, with very subtle variation in the shades of gray and black on the background paper. It looks simple. Simplicity rarely is, though. Formally, Brautigan's novels strive for the compressed simplicity of haiku. They are sparely poetic and small scaled, if not actually miniature. In the land where bigger is better, he has tried looking at life from a different angle and has reflected that perspective in his art.1
I owe thanks to John Whalen-Bridge, University of Singapore, for introducing me to Zen and for reading more than one draft of my argument.
Abbott, Keith. Downstream from Trout Fishing in America: A Memoir of Richard Brautigan. Santa Barbara: Capra, 1989.
Adams, Robert. “Brautigan Was Here” [an omnibus review of the first four novels and a volume of poetry]. New York Review of Books 22 April 1971: 24-26.
Blakely, Carolyn F. “Narrative Technique in Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar.” CLA Journal 35.2 (1991): 150-58.
Brautigan, Richard. A Confederate General from Big Sur. 1964. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
———. Trout Fishing in America: A Novel. 1967. New York: Dell [Delta ed.], 1980.
———. In Watermelon Sugar. 1968. New York: Dell [Laurel ed.], 1973.
———. The Abortion: An Historical Romance, 1966. New York: Simon and Schuster [Touchstone ed.], 1971.
———. The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western. 1974. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
———. Willard and His Bowling Trophies: A Perverse Mystery. New York: Simon and Schuster [Touchstone ed.], 1975.
———. Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel. New York: Simon and Schuster [Touchstone ed.], 1976.
———. Dreaming of Babylon: A Private Eye Novel, 1942. 1977. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
———. The Tokyo-Montana Express. 1980. New York: Dell [Delta ed.], 1981.
———. So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away. 1982. New York: Dell [Delta ed.], 1984.
———. An Unfortunate Woman: A Journey. New York: St. Martin's, 2000.
Cabibbo, Paola. “The Abortion: An Historical Romance, 1966, di R. Brautigan, ovvero, l'aborto dell'eroe.” Sigfrido nel Nuovo Mondo: Studi sulla narrativa d'iniziazione. Ed. Paola Cabibbo. Rome: La Goliardica, 1983. 209-16.
Chénetier, Marc. Richard Brautigan. London: Methuen, 1983.
Clayton, John. “Richard Brautigan: The Politics of Woodstock.” New American Review 11 (1971): 56-68.
DeLillo, Don. Underworld. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Fiedler, Leslie A. Love and Death in the American Novel. Rev. ed. New York: Stein and Day, 1966.
Foster, Edward Halsey. Richard Brautigan. Boston: Twayne, 1983.
Foster, Jeffrey M. “Richard Brautigan's Utopia of Detachment.” Connecticut Review 14.1 (1992): 85-90.
Grimaud, Isabelle. “‘Stranger than Paradise’: Dreaming of Babylon: A Private Eye Novel, 1942, by Richard Brautigan.” Caliban 23 (1986): 127-35.
Grimes, Larry E. “Stepsons of Sam: Re-Visions of the Hard-Boiled Detective Formula in Recent American Fiction.” Modern Fiction Studies 29.3 (1983): 535-44.
Grossmann, Claudia. Richard Brautigan: Pounding at the Gates of American Literature: Untersuchungen zu seiner Lyrik und Prosa. Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1986.
Hackenberry, Charles. “Romance and Parody in Brautigan's The Abortion.” Critique 23.2 (1981-82): 24-36.
Hedborn, Mark. “Lacan and Postmodernism in Richard Brautigan's Dreaming of Babylon.” Literature and Film in the Historical Dimension. Ed. John D. Simons. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1994. 101-10.
Hendin, Josephine. Vulnerable People: A View of American Fiction Since 1945. New York: Oxford UP, 1978.
Hernlund, Patricia. “Author's Intent: In Watermelon Sugar.” Critique 16.1 (1974): 5-17.
Horvath, Brooke. “Richard Brautigan's Search for Control over Death.” American Literature 57.3 (1985): 434-55.
Hume, Kathryn. American Dream, American Nightmare: Fiction since 1960. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2000.
Leavitt, Harvey. “The Regained Paradise of Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar.” Critique 16.1 (1974): 18-24.
Legler, Gretchen. “Brautigan's Waters.” CEA Critic 54.1 (1991): 67-69.
Locklin, Gerald, and Charles Stetler. “Some Observations on A Confederate General from Big Sur.” Critique 13.2 (1971): 72-82.
Malley, Terence. Richard Brautigan. New York: Warner, 1972.
Pütz, Manfred. The Story of Identity: American Fiction of the Sixties. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1979.
Rotundo, E. Anthony. American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era. New York: Basic, 1993.
Schmitz, Neil. “Richard Brautigan and the Modern Pastoral.” Modern Fiction Studies 19.1 (1973): 109-25.
Schroeder, Michael L. “Rhetorical Depth or Psychological Aberration: The Strange Case of Richard Brautigan.” Mount Olive Review 3 (1989): 45-49.
Seib, Kenneth. “Trout Fishing In America: Brautigan's Funky Fishing Yarn.” Critique 13.2 (1971): 63-71.
Siegel, Carol. “Postmodern Women Novelists Review Victorian Male Masochism.” Genders 11 (1991): 1-16.
Slethaug, Gordon E. “The Hawkline Monster: Brautigan's ‘Buffoon Mutation’.” The Scope of the Fantastic: Culture, Biography, Themes, Children's Literature. Ed. Robert A. Collins and Howard D. Pearce. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985. 137-45.
Stull, William L. “Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America: Notes of a Native Son.” American Literature 56.1 (1984): 68-80.
Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. 1970. New York: Weatherhill, 1996.
Tanner, Tony. City of Words: American Fiction, 1950-1970. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Edited and with an introduction and notes by Stephen Fender. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.
Vanderwerken, David L. “Trout Fishing in America and the American Tradition.” Critique 16.1 (1974): 32-52.
Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest: A Novel. New York: Little Brown, 1996.
Willis, Lonnie L. “Brautigan's The Hawkline Monster: As Big as the Ritz.” Critique 23.2 (1981-82): 37-47.
Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 374
Barber, John F. Richard Brautigan: An Annotated Bibliography. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 1990, 236 p.
Detailed overview of primary and secondary works, annotated and organized by type. Also includes chronology and a brief biography.
Boyer, Jay. “Selected Bibliography.” In Richard Brautigan, pp. 51-2. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1987.
Selected list of primary and secondary works.
Abbot, Keith. Downstream from Trout Fishing in America: A Memoir of Richard Brautigan. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1989, 174 p.
A readable, chronological account of the author's eighteen-year friendship with Brautigan.
Chénetier, Marc. Richard Brautigan. London: Methuen, 1983, 96 p.
Short biographical-critical study which stresses the self-referential and “metafictional” aspects of Brautigan's work.
“Fishing for Truth.” People Weekly 53, no. 23 (12 June 2000): 73.
Profile of Brautigan and his daughter Ianthe, also a writer.
Kerouac, Jan. Trainsong, pp. 154-57. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1988.
Account of a 1983 meeting with Brautigan in Amsterdam, written by the daughter of Jack Kerouac.
“Blame It on Brautigan.” Harper's 281, no. 1684 (September 1990): 42-5.
Excerpts from the catalogue for the Brautigan Library of unpublished works in Burlington, Vermont—an institution suggested by a Brautigan novel.
Morton, Brian. “How Hippies Got Hooked on Trout Fishing in America.” The Times (London) Literary Supplement (16 November 1984): 12.
Discussion of Trout Fishing, In Watermelon Sugar, and The Tokyo-Montana Express, emphasizing that too many critics have incorrectly labelled Brautigan an ephemeral writer.
Schroeder, Michael L. “Rhetorical Depth or Psychological Aberration: The Strange Case of Richard Brautigan.” Mount Olive Review (spring 1989): 45-9.
Schroeder attempts to resolve the coexistence of gentleness and violence in Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar, suggesting that Brautigan's own divided personality accounts for the tone of the book.
Wright, Lawrence. “The Life and Death of Richard Brautigan.” Rolling Stone (11 April 1985): 29ff.
Offers a memoir of Brautigan's life with some commentary on his works.
Additional coverage of Brautigan's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56, 113; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 34; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 5, 9, 12, 34, 42; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 5, 206; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1980, 1984; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Reference Guide to American Literature; St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers; and Something about the Author, Vol. 56.
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