Trout Fishing in America

by Richard Brautigan

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What is the definition of "Trout Fishing in America" in the book?

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Your debate for categorizing this book probably comes down to three choices. Is it a novel? A collection of quick and unrelated short stories? Or an oddball sort of memoir, recounting random events and encounters that somehow really happened?

The first clue for defining the work comes on the title page. Right after the title, the book declares itself to be “A Novel by Richard Brautigan.” Now the reader can approach the book with certain assumptions. Many of the forty-seven vignettes are told in the first person, seemingly by the same individual. (You may want to make a list and count them and compare them to those chapters that offer just information.) We assume that he is the main character and the person that the novel focuses on—the one we should pay the most attention to. His experiences and how he reports on them tell us a lot about himself. They also present a perception of the state of both civilization and nature along the US West Coast in the 1950s and 1960s. Does this character change, grow, or learn anything valuable in his journey? Or do we change our opinion of him, from front cover to back? These would also be the marks of a novel.

The dictionary that I use defines a novel as

A relatively long fictional prose narrative with a more or less complex plot or pattern of events about human beings, their feelings, thoughts, actions, etc.

Does Trout Fishing in America fit this description? I think you can make the case that it does, for each element listed in this definition.

If we were told at the beginning that these forty-seven chapters were “stories,” then we readers would probably wonder if the consistent narrator was supposed to be the same person throughout the book. Maybe he is; maybe he is not. How would you read the chapters differently, if they weren’t assumed to have some cohesion? Wouldn’t you search for common ground anyway?

If we assumed these encounters to be true and to be a memoir of the author, would you believe them? Would you take them at face value? Or would you want to do follow-up research and check to see if what the narrator presented was really true? Would you believe that there could be a person named Trout Fishing in America? Or that this phrase would show up as much as it does in the main character’s life?

You may consider a compare-and-contrast exercise that poses Trout Fishing in America against Norman Maclean’s autobiographical story “A River Runs Through It.” Both use fishing as a background that ties the storylines together but to obvious varying degrees.

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