Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2240
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 bowling trophies stolen from some famous bowlers called the Logan Brothers; they are rather tough. Downstairs from Bob and Constance live John and Pat, who actually have the trophies, and keep them arranged round Willard, a papiermâché bird. John and Pat are very fond of Willard, always wish him goodnight, and even consider taking him to a Greta Garbo movie; they are rather soppy.
Gosh, that's torn it: I was only explaining the title, and find I've given away the entire plot. But that always seems to be the way with Mr Brautigan's winsome and gruelly fictionettes. I was rather cross, actually, about the Perverse Mystery bit, because thinking up a subtitle is at least one way of using the vacant brain-space which reading Brautigan leaves one. Still, being a conscientious critic, I puzzled genially at the perverse mystery of his staggering popularity. How can it be that whole campuses crease themselves at a humour which seems no more than whacky cuteness? How is it, when others wonder at the 'precise coolness of language' … of this 'born writer' …, that one feels appalled at the glaring and embarrassing bits of 'writing'?… Finally, I wondered, how can anyone bear the pacelessness of it all? You plod through chapterino 8 (a whole page), which tells you how the Logan Brothers are waiting in a dingy hotel for a phone call to tell them where their bowling trophies are, and you are rewarded with this opening to chapterino 9:
Meanwhile—less than a mile away from the tiny dingy hotel room where the Logan brothers waited for a telephone call which would provide them with the locations of the bowling trophies—Willard …
It's like following a strip cartoon every day—one step back for every two forward; terrific, of course, for those with spaced-out memories. (p. 685)
Julian Barnes, in New Statesman (© 1976 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), May 21, 1976.
Richard Brautigan inspired some foolish praise in his time, a time that ended almost as soon as it began, but he never angled for it and that is to his credit. He is a serious writer, certainly, but the mark of his seriousness is in his craft, especially as a stylist; he is not pretentious. Thus his 1971 novel, "The Abortion," is dedicated to someone named Frank, apparently a slow reader: "come on in—/read novel—/it's on the table/in front room. I'll be back/in about/2 hours." And the protagonist of his new book is identified as a "very well-known American humorist." Not novelist or poet, not even writer—just humorist.
For at his best that is what Brautigan is. Compared to Doris Lessing or Frank O'Hara he's a midget, but he stands tall enough next to Woody Allen, or even Robert Benchley or George Ade; on a small scale he has been an original and an innovator. As might have been predicted, however, "Sombrero Fallout" does not represent Brautigan at his best. Not only is it the least funny of his books, but its paucity of humor is intentional, capping a dilemma that would appear to be permanent: he no longer knows what to write about….
Brautigan's reputation is based on a surrealism notable for its grace, its matter-of-fact flow; his narrative technique is so conversational and pellucid that preternatural details and crazy coincidences don't even ripple its surface…. [In his fiction] Brautigan documented a way of life in which his style of surrealism was almost second nature, evoking 60's bohemianism far more intensely than Kerouac ever did that of the 50's. His world was passive and goofy; his voice displayed whimsical (if not coy) amazement at the most banal of events. As he teetered between the edge of comfort and the edge of survival, Brautigan was often sad but never pessimistic.
As the broad attraction of this gentle vision among the literate young became apparent, however, Brautigan was transformed from an impecunious bohemian into a successful popular author…. What's more, after "The Abortion," a bohemian novel much fatter and more perfunctory than the earlier ones, Brautigan tried to do what popular authors do—invent plots and characters. He has not proved to be very good at this, and his failure seems to have cut into his optimism quite a bit.
The full title of the new book is "Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel." The subtitle is ambiguous, the book is dedicated to a Japanese novelist of the respectably perverse whose main similarity to the old optimistic Brautigan is brevity. But if in two previous novels Brautigan has toyed with popular forms, this time he resorts to the most hackneyed of pretentious literary devices: the self-conscious, self-lacerating author/protagonist and his novel within a novel. (p. 4)
Robert Christgau, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 10, 1976.
The subtitle of ["Dreaming of Babylon"], "A Private Eye Novel 1942," should have served as a tip-off. Brautigan, or his publisher, or his editor—or maybe all three in concert—wanted to spell it out for the reader to make sure we got it. The up-front shill announces that the writer is using a genre to display his talent. I have news for them.
On page 1 the shamus-narrator C. Card (to be differentiated coyly from S. Spade) tells us that he was 4-F in World War II, but he wasn't unpatriotic because "I had fought my World War II five years before in Spain and had a couple of bullet holes in my a—to prove it." By using a common anatomical vulgarity, the link with the 1940's is immediately ruptured….
What Brautigan has done is to impose a 60's mentality on what he supposes to be a 40's form. C. Card is our current impotent hero—super schlep….
The "Babylon" reference is to his personal dreamland, where he sojourns from reality. Babylon was first induced when he got beaned by a baseball while trying out for pro ball. In Babylon's exotic clime C. Card has comic-strip adventures with his luscious girlfriend, "Nana-dirat." All this is to engage the 60's heads who hold Brautigan in such high esteem.
Brautigan's book makes the same mistake as Peter Bogdanovich's "nostalgic" movies. Both men think that by surrounding their works with the proper dated artifacts they have captured a period, while all they have caught are the labels. That a philosophic stance existed in the 40's has escaped them. And their efforts can't be defined as parody or homage, since the original material must be understood before one can be contemptuous or affectionate toward it.
So the result in this basically plotless book is cartooning. Brautigan delivers a litany of screwups and lame jokes. It's the ice age seen through Fred Flintstone.
But it should be remembered that Brautigan has graced his public in the past, and all writers have off days. His editor should have served him better. Instead of encouraging him on this caper, he should have sent Brautigan off fishing somewhere in America.
Joe Flaherty, "The Sam Spade Caper," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 25, 1977, p. 20.
It is January 2, 1942, and C. Card [the protagonist of "Dreaming of Babylon"], the sorriest private eye in San Francisco, is down to his last chance. Dead broke, two months behind on his rent, unable even to buy bullets for his gun, he has one thing to look forward to: a meeting at six o'clock this evening with a mysterious client. All he has to do is keep the hunger pangs down, find some bullets, and stop dreaming of Babylon. Babylon is the fantasy world that C. Card escapes to whenever he can, and dreaming of Babylon is a sure way of missing his stop on the bus, losing touch with reality, and messing up in general. The suspense of waiting for that six o'clock meeting—and then of the tricky assignment that C. Card is given—is as mechanically constructed as a toy train, but that wouldn't be so bad if the payoff weren't so flat. Richard Brautigan has mastered all the forms of children's fiction—the short, easy-to-read sentences and paragraphs and chapters, the light touches of fantasy and humor—and children's fiction for adults is what this pretty skimpy book is all about. (p. 230)
The New Yorker (© 1977 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), November 21, 1977.
A private eye novel 1942 as the subtitle says, would mean to this reader Maltese Falcon and Dashiell Hammett, a knock-em-down-set-em-up-in-the-other-alley type of detective novel. Not so [Dreaming of Babylon]. It wallows in the thoughts of the P.I. which have haunted him since childhood, of interest only to himself. When he finally meets the client he set out to meet at the beginning, the book is half over, and all over for interest! One was tempted to quit at that point, but integrity as a critic and fairness to the author kept one going. A direct quote from the P.I. "This whole thing was just like a pulp detective story. I couldn't believe it," is only half right. The only resemblance to a private eye story circa 1942 begins and ends with a P.I. and a beautiful girl. The end of the quote expresses this reviewer's opinion, "I couldn't believe it."
Another direct quote—"a bite out of a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich, the old BLT"—sound more like a 1970's quote from Get Smart!
[Brautigan] does make an attempt to redeem himself at the halfway point by switching to humor (?), but it's too forced to work. All in all, a book to forget. (p. 33)
Rick Davis, in West Coast Review of Books (copyright 1978 by Rapport Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. 4, No. 1 (January, 1978).
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