Brautigan, Richard (Vol. 5)
Brautigan, Richard 1933–
Brautigan, an American poet and novelist of the counter-culture, writes witty, fanciful, parabolic fiction. His best known work is Trout Fishing in America. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56.)
All of Brautigan's techniques [in In Watermelon Sugar]—repetition, juxtaposition, fragmentation of time and setting, use of strange lyricism and elements from fantasy and science fiction—come to us through the point of view of the nameless narrator and gradually accumulate toward characterization for negative effect. We obtain the final clue to Brautigan's intention for the novel as a whole when we come to the society's one claim to pure pleasure: communal pride. The narrator repeatedly tells us that he and the others like living in watermelon sugar, that it does suit them; or, in a more defiant vein, "there must be worse lives"…. Indeed not. 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. Life in watermelon sugar may be literally the same as dying, since we are told of only one birth … to "balance" twenty-two suicides.
Seen in this way, In Watermelon Sugar is more than a fad book. It is not a description of "the students' way of life" or a lyric description of a successful counterculture. Brautigan judges his utopian commune and finds it wanting, and the "curious lack of emotion" is the very reason for the negative judgment. Brautigan reminds us that a worse thing than violence and death could be a life without pity or joy. (p. 16)
Patricia Hernlund, "Author's Intent: 'In Watermelon Sugar'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1974), Vol. XVI, No. 1, 1974, pp. 5-17.
On first reading Richard Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar, one senses that something extraordinary has happened to the form of the novel, to the intellectual and aesthetic conventions to which we have become accustomed. Brautigan's work is jigsaw puzzle art that demands more than close reading; it demands an active participation by the reader, a reconstruction of a vision that has been fragmented but warmed by a private poetic sensibility. Three avenues of accessibility, the novel as a utopian instrument, the analogues to the Garden of Eden, and natural determinism converge and create a frame for Brautigan's novel.
Brautigan has created the utopian dream for the post-industrial age of affluence, beyond IBM, and finally beyond curiosity. His longings, unlike other utopian ideals, have no claim on progress, no uplifting of the material condition of man, no holy wars to redistribute the physical wealth, no new metaphors for survival based on the securing of human necessities, and no emotional nirvanas. Other utopian dreamers have responded directly to the events of their age, but Brautigan is responding to the cumulative ages of man, and no response can be significant for him that does not place the entire past on the junk heap (the forgotten works). Nothing will do but a fresh start, with a fresh set of assumptions; In Watermelon Sugar takes us back to the beginning for this is Eden, with its syllabic and accented soul mate iDEATH, reconstructed.
The phrase from which the book draws its title is the initial indicator of Brautigan's reconstructed garden, for "In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again." We enter the novel during the "again" stage, man's second great attempt to obtain an earthly paradise; the unnamed narrator implies the failure of the past and indicates the social purpose of his creation when he states on the first page, "I hope this works out." Although we shall not attempt here to discover all of the Biblical analogues, we should point out that the narrator of the novel gives us a list of...
(The entire section is 5,283 words.)