Farhat Iftekharuddin's essay on 'Revenge of the Lawn'
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The New Aesthetics in Brautigan's Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970

by Farhat M. Iftekharuddin

Literary innovations in the works of the 1960s took diverse forms. Writers continued to challenge on epistemological grounds linear story telling, with causal plots having beginnings, middles, and endings. To an extent these challenges emerged as a result of changes in American political and social thought patterns which necessitated new means of expression, or a different aesthetic. Bradbury states that in the fiction of the sixties:

history is seen not as a haunting progress, but as a landscape of lunacy and pain; the doubting of a rational and intelligent history leads to a mocking of the world's substance, a sense of inner psychic disorder, a cartooning of character, a fantasizing of so-called "facts" or actualities, and a comic denominalization.

He further observed that one direction in which fiction moved was "towards fantastic factuality, attempting to penetrate the fictionality of the real" (Bradbury 158).

One of the major definitions of the aesthetic for the fiction of the sixties can be seen in Barth's essay "The Literature of Exhaustion?" in which he explains that writers faced "the used-upness of certain forms or exhaustion of certain possibilities." His own work, Lost in the Funhouse, seems to provide an alternative to this problem of "used-upness" or "exhaustion of... possibilities." In the "Author's Note," Barth provides a definition for his fiction: "It's neither a collection, nor a selection, but a series... meant to be received 'all at once' and as here arranged." Lost in the Funhouse is to make "something new and valid" (Funhouse 109). To Barth, the major issue is "how an artist may paradoxically turn the felt ultimacies of our own time into material and means for his own work" (Barth "Exhaustion" 32).

Kurt Vonnegut's? fiction of the 1960s demonstrates another way to approach what Barth calls "felt ultimacies of our times." Vonnegut's intentions are to re-order our perceptions of life and of the world and re-evaluate our basis for meaning. In Slaughterhouse Five through the Tralfamadorian viewpoint, Vonnegut reveals his concept of fictional form by means of the Tralfamadorian notion that all time is continuously and eternally present. The description of the form of the Tralfamadorian novel is of course Vonnegut's attempt to describe his own work and that of contemporaries like Barthelme and Brautigan. Jerome Klinkowitz? makes the point that:

the Tralfamadorian novel, with its fragmentary paragraphs defying all traditional conventions and existing outside the continuum of linear time, is nothing other than Vonnegut's description of the appropriate form for fiction in the American 1960s.

Donald Barthelme plays a mathematical game of permutation and combination with language. Language, in essence words themselves, is the theme of Snow White: "Oh I wish there were some words in the world that were not the words I always hear!" Barthelme's primary concern is the way that language is used, and he enforces the way that his works are to be read. Using the techniques of deletion and various forms of combination of language and words themselves, Barthelme successfully represents the fragmentary nature of our contemporary lives. His best known stories, many of which appeared in The New Yorker, "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning?" and "Views of My Father Weeping?," are, as Klinkowitz observed:

^composed of Tralfamadorian-like 'lumps' — independent paragraphs whose principle of relation is more spatial than linear, because their effect depends upon the longer and wider view of the reader who considers them all at once, rather than in a sequential order building to a point. (Klinkowitz 59)^
For Barthelme, structure was the key to ultimate realities, and since fiction is composed of words, Barthelme's focus was almost lexical. Klinkowitz's observation that "fiction breeds its own continuity" clearly defines the structural pattern of Barthelme's works, for this author picks with the delicacy of using chopsticks the structures and the phrases and the words from contemporary diction and arranges them in the fragments that form the collage that creates his new fiction: "The principle of collage," Barthelme explains to Richard Schickel?, "is the central principle of all art in the twentieth century in all media" (Barthelme 15). And in a 1974 interview, he spoke with specific reference to fiction: "the point of collage is that unlike things are stuck together to make, in the best case, a new reality. This new reality, in the best case, may be or imply a comment on the other reality from which it came, and may also be much else. It's an itself." It is this "stuck together" form that gives his works their fragmentary look. It is interesting to note that the words of one of his own characters are so closely associated to being the approach of Barthelme himself:

Here is the word and here are the knowledge knowers knowing. What can I tell you? What has been pieced together from the reports of travelers. Fragments are the only forms I trust. Look at my walls, it's all there.

Through such an approach, Barthelme was able successfully to capture the fragments of contemporary American life. Barthelme's "fragments" and Vonnegut's "Tralfamadorian clumps" are characteristics of the American new fiction. These authors achieved continuity within their works primarily through the exploitation of language and through spatial rather than linear connections between each segment of their works. This form of fictional innovation is characteristic of not only the writing of Barthelme and Vonnegut, but also of another American author, Richard Brautigan. It was the publication of Trout Fishing in America (1967) that gave Brautigan his prominence as a writer. His first published novel, however, was A Confederate General from Big Sur (1969). Brautigan wrote a total of nineteen books, among them nine novels and a collection of sixty-two short stories, Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970.

In 1964, a small magazine, Kulcher?, in its Spring issue gave Richard Brautigan his first national exposure by publishing one of his short stories, "The Post Offices of Eastern Oregon?." This short story revealed several techniques of Richard Brautigan that were to become central to the writer's art. One of the techniques easily identifiable in this story was Brautigan's art of synthesizing basic fancies with elegant poetic images (this technique would ultimately become an energizer of his fiction). "Post Offices of Eastern Oregon" is about a little boy out for a day's hunting with his uncle. As they pass an old farmhouse, the reader encounters the first of multiple images: "Nobody lives there. It was abandoned like a musical instrument"; and immediately following that, another: "There was a good pile of wood beside the house. Do ghosts burn wood? I guess it's up to them, but the wood was the color of years" (Brautigan 91). And when the boy and the uncle stop to look at a couple of dead bears on the front porch of an old house, the narrator informs us that "the house had wooden frosting all around the edges. It was a birthday cake from a previous century. Like candles we were going to stay there for the night" (Brautigan 93). It is not simply the image making power of Brautigan that provides the supercharge to the story; it is the uniqueness of the images also. Jerome Klinkowitz defines a typical Brautigan image as "a thought cast in such unfamiliar shape that no one in the straight culture could be expected to think of it first' (American 1960s 42). Not only are the images startling poetic products, but they are also vehicles of extension. Brautigan achieves his narrative form through the use of such extended images. One is not surprised that he should utilize such a method, since the story itself is generated (or perhaps regenerated), as the narrator informs us, from an image, "a photograph in the newspaper of Marilyn Monroe, dead from a sleeping pill suicide" (Brautigan 96). There are multiple extensions here: a process of actual images creating a series of mental associations — news of the death of the recollection of dead bears to the recollection of a nude image of Marilyn Monroe on a Oregon post office wall to hunting in the Oregon countryside. Such associations are possible because postmodernists like Brautigan operate on the basis that since life in the present culture is non-linear and fragmentary, fiction can best reflect that life by breaking from the traditional linearity of narrative to the non-linear and the fragmentary.

Brautigan covers a wide range in this collection, Revenge of the Lawn. There are stories where the postmodern trait of self-conscious construction of narrative breaks through, as in "The Literary Life in California/l964?" where the narrator, after observing the indecisiveness of a book buyer retrieves the buyer's "reluctance" off the floor: "It was like clay but nervous and fidgeting I put it in my pocket. I took it home with me and shaped it into this [meaning this story], having nothing better to do with my time" (Brautigan 130). Then there are others that are purely metaphysical in experience such as "Blackberry Motorist?." The story begins innocently enough:

^This is not a place you went casually to gather a few blackberries for a pie or to eat with some milk and sugar on them. You went there because you were getting blackberries for the winter's jam or to sell them because you needed more money than the price of a movie. (Brautigan 81)^
As the story progresses, however, the blackberries for jam turn into "black diamonds" and "it took a lot of medieval blackberry engineering, chopping entrances and laying bridges, to be successful like the siege of a castle" (Brautigan 81-82). This is a castle of a blackberry patch where pickers can plummet fifteen feet down. The innocence has turned dark; a simple experience of picking blackberries for pies has turned into a painful reminder of a lost era, and recapturing the lost era requires an out of body experience:

^Sometimes when I got bored with picking blackberries I used to look into the deep shadowy dungeon — like places way down in the vines. You could see things that you couldn't make out down there and shapes that seemed to change like phantoms. Once I was so curious that I crouched down on the fifth plank of a bridge... until my eyes got used to the darkness and I saw a Model A sedan directly underneath me... It took me about two hours to tunnel my way with ripped clothes and many bleeding scratches into the front seat of that car with my hands on the steering wheel, a foot on the gas pedal, a foot on the brake, surrounded by the smell of castle-like upholstery and staring from twilight darkness through the windshield up into green sunny shadows. (Brautigan 82)

This collection is interspersed with stories that at first appear to be simply whimsical accounts. "Pale Marble Movie?" is sparse in content and style till one encounters the surreal simile at the end:
She lay there sound asleep with her wanderings over and mine just beginning. I have been thinking about this simple event for years now. It stays with me and repeats itself over and over again like a pale marble movie. (Brautigan 98)^
For "Pale Marble Movie," the surreal ending acts as a reprieve; however, in "Getting to know Each Other?" surreal images like "she used to lie in bed and pretend that she was still asleep, so as to catch the maid coming in with the morning light folded in her arms" add depth to a story with sinister implications about this girl who "wanted to see who her father was sleeping with" (Brautigan 103). But she knew "it was a little game of hers... kind of silly... because the women that her father went to bed with always looked just like her" (Brautigan 103).

Brautigan's genius lies in his ability to portray age old themes of human alienation, social envy, broken dreams, and loneliness in completely new presentations. Stories like "The Revenge of the Lawn," the title story, and "The World War I Los Angeles Airplane" address the above issues in ways that are unique to Brautigan. "Revenge of the Lawn?" is a hilarious yet dark and horrifying account of the overbearing nature of human violence. The juxtaposition of the lack of emotion on the part of the narrator, a grandson, against the spontaneity of the violence he recounts, creates the disturbing picture of how twentieth-century humanity has become anesthetized by violence. The grandson relates the story of his grandfather, a minor mystic, who:

^prophesied the exact date when World War I would start: June 28, 1914, but it had been too much for him. He never got to enjoy the fruit of his labor because they put him away in 1913 and he spent seventeen years in the state asylum... He believed he was six years old... and his mother was baking a chocolate cake. It stayed May 3, 1872... until he died in 1930. It took seventeen years for that chocolate cake to bake... He had a dark idea that being so short [less than five feet], so close to earth [that] his lawn would help to prophesy the exact date when World War I would start.

It was a shame that the war started without him. If only he could have held back his childhood for another year, avoided that chocolate cake, all of his dreams would come true. (Brautigan 11)^
The grandmother, a bootlegger, then takes a lover, Jack, who had stopped at the house "to sell her a lot just a stone's throw away from downtown Miami, and he was delivering her whiskey a week later. He stayed for thirty years and Florida went on without him" (Brautigan 10). This lover was bent on destroying the front yard that the grandfather so lovingly nurtured, "a place where" the grandfather's "powers came from" (Brautigan 11). But Jack cursed "the front yard as if it were a living thing." He "hated the front yard because he thought it was against him... and he refused to water it or take care of it in any way" (Brautigan 10). The yard, turned barren by neglect, fights back, finding nails to place under his tires, sinking the car during rainy season, and using bees as allies to force Jack into twice driving his car into the side of the house. The hilarity of events come to a grinding halt at the end of the story with the following revelation:

^The first time I remember anything in life occurred in my grandmother's front yard. The year was either 1936 or 1937. I remember a man, probably Jack, cutting down the pear tree and soaking it with kerosene.

It looked strange even for a first memory of life, to watch a man pour gallons and gallons of kerosene all over a tree lying stretched out thirty feet or so on the ground, and then to set fire to it while the fruit was still green on the branches. (Brautigan 14)^
In this nearly epiphanic ending, the point that is gut-wrenching is the information that the first recollections of childhood, those formative years of conceptualization, are of unfettered violence. Brautigan uses violence or death to measure human failures. "The World War I Los Angeles Airplane?" opens with the word dead. From there the narrator catalogs in numerical order one through thirty-three the entire life of the dead man, his wife's father. It is a study in human failure, every success followed by a greater failure. At fifty-nine, the construction company laid him off from his bookkeeping job; "they said he was too old to take care of the books. 'It's time for you to go out to pasture,' they joked" (Brautigan 173-74). So "when his daughter was going to high school he was working there as school janitor. She saw him in the halls" (Brautigan 174). Ironically, the father's life had come nearly a full circle and collided uncomfortably with that of the daughter; and so, "his working as a janitor was a subject that was very seldom discussed at home" (Brautigan 174). If Brautigan was making a serious commentary on social emptiness, he has successfully and artfully done so in this story. The failures and disillusionment of an immigrant parent ironically runs counter to the integral concept of this country, the land of opportunities. Brautigan's people, however, are stoic in their resignation, graceful in their decline, always maintaining a sense of decorum in the face of solitude:

^28. He retired when he was sixty-five and became a very careful sweet wine alcoholic. He liked to drink whiskey but they couldn't afford to keep him in it. He stayed in the house most of the time and started drinking about ten o'clock, a few hours after his wife had gone off to work at the grocery store.

29. He would get quietly drunk during the course of the day... He very seldom made any bad scenes and the house was always clean when his wife got home from work. He did though after a while take on that meticulous manner of walking that alcoholics have when they are trying very carefully to act as if they aren't drunk. (Brautigan 174)

For this hard-working immigrant, dreams have given way to the false security of inebriation. Thus,

30. He used sweet wine in place of life because he didn't have any more life to use. (Brautigan 174)^
Stories like "Revenge of the Lawn" or "The World War I Los Angeles Airplane" are postmodern in form, but they are not games of artifice; they are mirrors reflecting certain realities told with a sense of innocence that is frightening: "Always at the end of the words somebody is dead" (Brautigan 170).

Brautigan's appeal lies in his ability to capture a basic vulnerability, to encapsulate a nakedness and transform that into a sad burlesque. Take for instance the events within "Complicated Banking Problems?." The narrator tells us that he has a bank account because he "grew tired of burying [his] money in the back yard" (Brautigan 44) plus the fact that on one occasion he dug up a skeleton holding a "shovel in one hand and a half-dissolved coffee can in the other hand. The coffee can was filled with a kind of rustdust material that I think was once money, so now I have a bank account" (Brautigan 44). But having an account has its problems. He is always ill-fated to be in a line behind people with complicated banking problems:

^The check in my hand is for ten dollars.

The next two people in line are actually one person. They are a pair of Siamese twins, but they each have their own bank books. One of them is putting eighty-two dollars in his savings account and the other one is closing his savings account.

The last person between me and the teller is totally anonymous looking... He puts 273 checks down on the counter that he wants to deposit in his checking account... [and] also 611 checks that he wants to deposit in his savings account. His checks completely cover the counter like a success snow storm... I stand there thinking that the skeleton in the back yard had made the right decision after all. (Brautigan 45-46)

Almost anything becomes a story in Brautigan's hands, and sometimes his stories may appear to be whimsical, but they are not; there is always a context and a degree of complexity embedded in his stories. Take for instance "The Scarlatti Tilt?." Here is the entire text:

"It's very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who's learning to play the violin." That's what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver. (Brautigan 50)

Through sheer economy of language, Brautigan captures a representative social insanity; "The Scarlatti Tilt" works as narrative only because it is a microcosmic embodiment of twentieth century intolerance and social ennui. "The Gathering of a Californian," a slightly larger piece, acquires its completeness from the same economy of language. The opening and closing paragraphs of this story are only two sentences that capture first, the suffocating and impersonal quality of California and secondly, the transformation into dehumanization of those who were drawn into California:

Like most Californians, I came from some place else and was gathered to the purpose of California like a metal-eating flower gathers the sunshine, the rain, and then to the freeway beckons its petals and lets the cars drive in, millions of cars into but a single flower, the scent choked with congestion and room for millions more...

It's strange that California likes to get her people from every place else and leave what we knew behind and here to California we are gathered as if energy itself, the shadow of that metal-eating flower, had summoned us away from other lives and now to do the California until the very end like the Taj Mahal in the shape of a parking meter. (Brautigan 25)

Synaesthetic similes make this compact and complete story larger than the half a page that it physically occupies. The entire collection is strewn with such synaesthetic images:

The door was tall, silent, and human like a middle-aged woman. I felt as if I were touching her hand when I opened the door delicately like the inside of a watch. ("1692 Cotton Mather Newsreel?" 17)

Like some strange vacuum cleaner I tried to console him. As the radio gently burned, the flames began to affect the songs #1 on the Top-40... dropped to #13 inside of itself... #9 became #27 in middle of a chorus... They tumbled like broken birds. Then it was too late for all of them. ("Pacific Radio Fire?" 29)

There was the jar of instant coffee, the empty cup and the spoon all laid out like a funeral service... When I left the house ten minutes later, the cup of coffee [was] safely inside me like a grave. ("Coffee" 35)

She makes all his dreams come true as she lies there like a simple contended theater in his touching. ("An Unlimited Supply of 35 Millimeter Film?" 49)

I smelled like the complete history of America. ("The Auction?" 123)^
The subtle wit involved in these and other images soften the harshness of the anger, the pain and the loss that permeates these stories.

"Corporal?," a tightly constructed story, contains vivid examples of frustration and disillusionment. A poor school boy during World War II enters a paper drive designed like "military career"; he had "visions of being a general." He realized early that it took "tons of paper to be a general," but he had also concluded that it would be "simple to gather enough paper to be a general" (Brautigan 118). After painfully accumulating piles of paper, he realized it was just enough to move him from a private to a corporal. Broken and frustrated he "takes his God-damn little private's stripe home in the absolute bottom of [his] pocket" (Brautigan 119). He realizes that he failed in his entrepreneurship because:

^the kids who wore the best clothes and had a lot of spending money and got to eat hot lunch every day were already generals. They had know where there were a lot of magazines and their parents had cars... The next day, I brought a halt to my glorious career and entered into the disenchanted paper shadows of America where failure is a bounced check or a bad report card or a letter ending a love affair and all the words that hurt people when they read them. (Brautigan 119-20)

This epiphanic summation points not simply to the failed young entrepreneur, but also to a failed society.

Almost each story in Revenge of the Lawn works toward awakening us to a recognition of ourselves, but they do not jolt us into that awakening like a huge pill does as it asserts its presence in its slow descent through the esophagus; on the contrary, these stories are coated with the gentle voice of the author and tempered with a human sensibility that, while drawing our attention to the painful world around us, does not drown us in sentimentality. Brautigan accomplishes his task by means of brilliant uncommon images, subtle wit, and magically apt metaphors such as in "Lint":

I'm haunted a little this evening by feelings that have no vocabulary and events that should be explained in dimensions of lint rather than words.

I've been examining half-scraps of my childhood. They are pieces of distant life that have no form or meaning. They are things that just happen like lint. (Brautigan 121)^
This kind of frugality of language magnifies the complexity of each of the stories.

Writing counter to the conventional form, Brautigan creates a new dimension for his fiction, and that dimension belies rational order. Thus, the reader has to find cohesion in his stories through imaginative discourse. This is Brautigan's new aesthetic — spontaneous fiction that expands the vision and the experience through multiplicity, synaesthetic similes, juxtaposition of images and extraordinary metaphors. A long time ago Emerson asked a very relevant question, "Why should we not have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition?" Brautigan's stories show that we can. Although his fictional form veers from the traditional, his thematic concerns on the whole do not. It has often been noted that Brautigan is akin to Ernest Hemingway? in his treatment of human conditions in relation to nature, and in his very sensitivity to nature itself: "tracking the ghost of his childhood through the Pacific mist, Brautigan tends to sound like the Hemingway of the Nick Adams stories." (Duberstein

How far any author stretches from the conventional depends on where one sets the conventional. Brautigan is no iconoclast — his deviation may be from the conventions of the thirties, but he is definitely in line with the conventions of the sixties and the seventies. Brautigan's major deviation, like those of his contemporaries, is in the area of form — especially a deviation from the plot lines. Using the synthesizing power of the imagination Brautigan's intent is to create a "modern text, dissolving old natural narrative" (Klinkowitz, The American 1960s 44). Malcolm Bradbury rightly stresses the factor that Brautigan writes about the

^ironizing of the world, the waning of pastoral myths of innocence and of escape from social constriction into nature; he shows the power of old images and then of the endeavors of the imagination to dissolve them, both through the struggle of his fictional outsiders, and of the poetic imagination itself. If the world wanes, the writer's exuberant comic imagination thrives; form in its collapse promises recovery, the fixities of time, space, and ideology dissolve. (Brautigan 170)^
What evolves is a revitalized form of the genre itself where the reader comes to grips with the idea that Brautigan's works do not merely mirror life, that they are not pseudo-realistic documents, and that the value of his works cannot be judged simply on the basis of their social, moral, political, or commercial value, but that they should be judged, if they must be, for what they are and what they do as an art form.

Critics have argued that the works of postmodern writers such as Brautigan revealed the language crisis of the times. They comment on the collapse of the traditional format and blame it on the late twentieth-century historical, moral, and political condition. Of course, it is always debatable whether postmodernism is actually the dominant style of the times as it is with other forms of styles of other genres, but what is a surety is that the works of postmodernists have raised initial questions regarding formal structure. Although many may disagree with the forms created by postmodernists, what is undeniable is a striking vitality in their works. Some American writers as Bradbury states, "are self-conscious fictionalists, others playful or serious users of fantasy and grotesquerie; some are writers of intense historical preoccupations, others primarily concerned with the formation of text" (Brautigan 163). Works of novelists like Pynchon are marked by excess and mass; works of Barthelme are marked by reductive economy of language, dwelling on lessness and fragmentation; and there is Richard Brautigan whose works cover a variety of styles including parody, self-conscious fictionality, grotesquerie, and fantasy. Uniqueness of images often created with the greatest economy of language is a mark of Brautigan's linguistic fortitude. Brautigan offers the notion that depth of observation, the creation of magical images out of trivial, mundane, everyday objects combined with the frugality of language and presented with stylistic ease within an open-ended free flowing structure are the ingredients of a new aesthetics.

Creative and Critical Approaches to the Short Story
Lewiston, KY: Edwin Mellon Press, 1997: 417-430

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