Brautigan, Richard (Vol. 9)
Brautigan, Richard 1935–
Brautigan is an unconventional American poet and novelist whose work defies easy classification. He has been labeled "beat" and bizarre, or surreal, as well as whimsically humorous, nostalgic. Brautigan's imagery is sharp, his language both inventive and casual. He deals often with the subject of American myth, perhaps most notably in the novel Trout Fishing in America. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56.)
Brautigan's images are always unmaking themselves, calling themselves into question, or being unpredictably dropped. His is a world without permanence. It is barely sustained even by the presence of the writer. (In fact, in In Watermelon Sugar, the artist is a dreamer who lives in a collective called "ideath.") Self-consciously a reaction against the rigidity of cultural symbols and literary language, the parodic art of Brautigan informs us that any metaphor is potentially deadening to the world and the imagination. At most, each individual experience can open the possibility of a deceptively simply flight of fancy.
Yet each metaphor Brautigan creates is, more often than not, a reflection on the state of language systems today. There is no possibility, he feels, of actually reaching a purified, new language; neither is there a possibility for a pure epistemological experience of the world-in-itself. His descriptions of trout fishing in America are never free from the contemporary linguistic and cultural sedimentation in which we are all immersed.
Even recognizing these limitations, however, his images attempt to get closer to the specific experience (especially pastoral) that originally stimulated the images which have now become petrified, false, and deadly symbols of the "American way of life." His style generally works in two ways. Either he assumes a forced naïveté (the devaluation of ego) in order to allow a simple event to manifest itself, just beyond any definite personal frame of reference—but still allowing him to delight in creating a new, if tenuous, image based on that event. Or he parodies an experience as it exists linguistically to us in its absurd mixture of rigid moral valuation and inappropriate technological jargon. For example, Brautigan creates some of the most particularly ungainly metaphors, linking such disparate elements as telephone booths and trout streams, telephone repair men and fishermen. These metaphors call attention not only to the radical newness of the analogy, thus freeing it from a closed system of received meanings, but they also insure, by their very ungainliness, their transitory existence. At most, they may sustain themselves long enough to give birth to another metaphor or variation on themselves. But invariably, they are always discarded to allow a new experience to manifest itself, and with it, a new possibility for improvisation with the world. His stories are in a constant flux of emerging and receding. Frequently the sections appear static because they evidence only a single moment of creation. It is an abortive fiction. His metaphors lead toward little more than themselves. The experiences he describes are evoked for their own worth, and for the value of allowing the mind to play with the possibilities of the imagination. But that imagination is never sustained in absence of the original experience which is forever fleeing from consciousness. (pp. 354-55)
Charles Russell, in Modern Fiction Studies (copyright © 1974, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S.A.), Autumn, 1974.
Recent Brautigan comes equipped with helpfully generic subtitles: after '… An Historical Romance 1966', after '… A Gothic Western', we come to '… A Perverse Mystery' [Willard and His Bowling Trophies]. The perversity is supplied by Bob and Constance, half-hearted bondage kinks whose idea of foreplay is a good browse in The Greek Anthology; they are rather sad and cry a lot. The mystery consists in the whereabouts of a terrific set of...
(The entire section is 2,240 words.)