In Watermelon Sugar takes place in a world where life is lived simply and everything is made from watermelon sugar, a substance refined from both the watermelons grown on the commune and Brautigan’s considerable imagination. The central character, another of Brautigan’s gentle narrators, is the only writer in what seems to be the only settlement left on the planet. In fact, intellectual and artistic pursuits are allowed but not encouraged in the commune called iDEATH. Most of the residents live their lives on a more literal, physical plane: making stew for the gang, turning watermelons into building materials, and constructing transparent underwater tombs. Life at iDEATH moves at a leisurely, idyllic pace.
The novel consists of three books. In book 1, the reader is introduced to the gentle lives of most of the main characters. Pauline, whom the narrator describes as “his favorite,” spends the night with him. When he was a child, a band of speaking, ironic tigers ate his mother and father—after sending him outside to play. Book 1 ends with the narrator wishing his former girlfriend Margaret would leave him alone.
Book 2 is both a dream and a flashback. In the narrator’s dream, a band of misfits led by inBOIL, who seethes internally, rummages through the debris in the Forgotten Works, a place that seems to represent the remains of a demolished culture that placed its primary value in things instead of people. In its profusion of objects and its physical complexity, the Forgotten Works resembles a demolished twentieth century America. The residents of iDEATH seem to represent a postmodern settlement that has survived some great catastrophe by placing values where they rightfully belong: on simple living, friendship, and love. In Watermelon Sugar, more strongly than any other of Brautigan’s books, espouses the ideals of the youth movement of the 1960’s.
The drunken gang that follows inBOIL believes that they represent the real iDEATH. In an effort to prove this, they cut off their fingers and noses and consequently bleed to death. The residents of the commune watch this bloodletting with more relief than honor, finally collecting the dead and burning them in their cabins close...
(The entire section is 916 words.)
In Watermelon Sugar is difficult to discuss in the language of ordinary rational discourse. For example, one cannot speak of time and space separately. If the novel is set in the present or in the distant past, then it must be operating in some remote civilization, perhaps someplace else in the galaxy or on some world of spun sugar and dreams. If the novel is set in the distant future, then it is possible that it takes place on earth, perhaps after a holocaust of such terrible dimensions that the historical past has become an alien memory. More likely, time and place are to be accepted as a combination of all possibilities, forming a montage in the mind such that boundaries between present, past, and future, the concrete and the abstract, and the denotative and connotative remain malleable, in constant and fluid motion, transitory and ephemeral. The name of the community where the action is set is a case in point. It is unclear whether one should pronounce iDEATH emphasizing “death” or emphasizing “idea.” Only the mind can create the montage that enables a reader to hear both sounds at the same time.
In iDEATH, the historical memory extends back only one hundred and seventy-one years. The remnants of a civilization, apparently very similar to the real world, are relegated to “The Forgotten Works,” which “go on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on.” The people of the community have no idea how old “The Forgotten Works” are, but they reach into distances that the people will not travel. A sign above the gate to “The Forgotten Works” warns the curious: “Be careful. You might get lost.”
The narrator heeds the warning, but Margaret does not. As spokesman for the village, the narrator is not only the chronicler of a society that proceeds day by day as words follow one after another, not necessarily related in terms of cause and effect of fixed meaning, but also a poet-seer through whose eyes “reality” is reflected and through whose subconscious meaning is provoked. For, despite the fact that the narrator insists that he lives a gentle and satisfying life, he is restless, troubled, and insecure. Margaret’s forays into “The Forgotten Works” serve to pique her continuing curiosity but, for the narrator, are the stuff of which nightmares are...
(The entire section is 949 words.)