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Jaroslav Kusnir's essay on Brautigan
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Richard Brautigan's Exiled Worlds

by Jaroslav Kusnir?

Richard Brautigan has been referred to on the one hand as an author closely associated with the Beat Generation?, with "counter-culture" and with the cultural, intellectual and social revolution of the 1960's, on the other as an author dissociated with with it (Foster 13).

However, this mere social and historical fact does not find explicit representation in his novels. Brautigan in most of his novels does not use conventional realistic thematic, compositional or narrative patterns, although, as I will argue further, in spite of certain experimentation with language and style (especially in his novels A Confederate General from Big Sur and In Watermelon Sugar), he cannot avoid certain conventionality (in The Abortion, for example). In addition, Brautigan seems to indulge in fantasy, irrationality, and imagination, although not always quite successfully (Foster 102-103). These literary devices, in my view, together with experimentation with narrative voices and imagery are suitable for the creation of certain "exiled worlds", or "exiled communities", exiled not only socially, physically, but also spiritually, morally and emotionally. Such communities do not represent either active rebellion, or active protest against the institutionalized social order, but through the establishment of alternative worlds where different sensibility works and where different criteria to understanding of reality must be applied, Brautigan expresses his vision of the world which is, to a certain degree, romantic. Such romantic vision does not only manifests itself at Brautigan's depiction of such a romantic, almost pastoral atmosphere (library in The Abortion; or iDeath community in In Watermelon Sugar) or solitary, isolated or displaced protagonists. The common ground of such protagonists and alternative communities is fantasy, imagination and irrationality which goes counter the authoritarian and rationalistic rules of the materialistic society. As Boyer suggests, for Brautigan "...the human imagination seemed to be the last uncorrupted frontier, one that offered not simply a momentary escape from modern living, but the capacity to transcend it"(Boyer 14). Brautigan's protagonists representing these worlds can also be found in the three above-mentioned novels. These include Jesse and General Mellon from A Confederate General from Big Sur, an unnamed narrator, and the imagined community of iDeath in his In Watermelon Sugar, as well as the unnamed librarian narrator, outcast characters of Vida or Foster in The Abortion. Besides the above-mentioned features, these novels' main protagonists have the following features in common:

  • 1. the main protagonists' rejection or neglect of the contemporary society's materialistic values
  • 2. their alienation, separation and escape from this society
  • 3. their establishment of an alternative way of existence and its certain idealization representing different approach to and vision of the world than the official and institutionalized

In the following lines I will attempt to investigate the manifestation of these common features in the above-mentioned three novels, Brautigan's representation of the society and alternative "exiled worlds".

1. Rejection of the Contemporary Institutionalized Society


Brautigan's novels A Confederate General from Big Sur and The Abortion take place at particular location, which is the United States, particularly the West Coast, in contrast to In Watermelon Sugar where any direct identification of the American reality is impossible unless it is read as allegory. In addition, the latter novel indulges in fantasy, irrationality, figurativenness and fictitiousness.

Although in A Confederate General from Big Sur and in The Abortion the novels' setting is explicitly depicted and is the USA, Brautigan's emphasis is not on depiction of American reality, but on the evocation of particular atmosphere and sensibility, especially through his depiction of the main protagonists, their way of life, to point out their difference from "the mainstream", institutionalized or "central" way of life and its social and moral conventions. Although in a slightly different context, J. Derrida argues : "The center is at the centre of totality, and yet, since the center does not belong to the totality (is not part of the totality), the totality has its center elsewhere"(Derrida 150). In Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar the author' s "Forgotten Works" support these ideas as for him the centre barely exists, and thus could be "elsewhere", either in the imagined community of iDeath, Forgotten Works or in watermelon sugar itself, which is a transmutable image of Brautigan's fantasy and basis for his imagery and artistic techniques.

If we take Derrida's words "the center can be elsewhere" for granted, however unconventional are the lives lived by pseudo-general Lee Mellon, narrator Jesse, Susan, Elaine, Elisabeth or Johnston Wade in Brautigan's novel A Confederate General from Big Sur, the unnamed narrator, Foster or Vida in his The Abortion, or the world full of fantasy and imagination in In Watermelon Sugar, for Brautigan these uncoventionalities are not marginalized; they stand in the centre of his attention as an alternative space to the existing reality. Jesse, the narrator and his friend, Lee Mellon, are reminiscent of Kerouac's travellers from his novel On the Road, and Brautigan's emphasis is not on the explicit depiction of his protagonist' rebellion against the society, but through his depiction of their hedonistic way of life he creates a feeling of different "sensuous" sensibility which is in opposition to spiritual and moral corruption of the "politically correct" society. Absorbed in time motion, they are indulging in love, alcohol, drugs, sex or dreaming. Brautigan lets the reader learn about the outer/other or "the mainstream world" in this novel through other protagonists entering such a hedonistic and idealized world (Jesse), but also Jonston Wade, a rich businessman from San Jose, through the girls Susan and Elaine, Mellon's girlfriends and daughters of respectable parents. Susan's father, as a respectable banker, is even willing to pay Lee Mellon for leaving her daughter alone and for her abortion. Nevertheless, this alternative world, this "strange" character of Mellon, and the way of existence is attractive for respectable protagonists representing different moral values. Johnston Wade finds living with Jesse and Mellon an escape from his family's greed for money and their lack of emotional and spiritual concerns, Susan finds it an escape from their parents' middle-class materialistic tyranny , and even an old couple, going to visit their children and grandchildren stopping near Mellon and Jesse's place to ask for the way, for a moment contemplate their kids' emotional alienation and intend to give them a lesson in parental love:"It's just as well", she said. "Having them worry a little bit about Granny will be good for them. They've been taking me for granted about ten years now. It'll do them a world of good."(Brautigan 67a). As J. Hendin argues "Brautigan people fade away from competitive strife, from those wars for power and position that churn out losers ever more cruelly. And withdrawal and protection are their only answer to American aggression"(Hendin 45-46). Through Brautigan's establishment of such commune in Big Sur where spiritual and physical freedom is always accessible and more important than materialistic/financial security and success, he creates physical and mental space where different criteria for survival must be applied than those in "the politically correct" society. This is rather an indirect, humble, and non-aggressive response, this is "an escape through imagination"(Baštín 136)

Similarly as in A Confederate General from Big Sur, Brautigan's emphasis in his novel The Abortion is on the depiction of alternative way of life, or at least emphasis on a community represented by an unnamed narrator, Vida, and Foster, the main protagonists of the novel. This world is limited to the "strange" library run by the above- mentioned narrator, a library where everybody can bring a book written by her/him which has never been and will never be published. The library represents the security for the excluded, displaced and marginalized people and their books however strange form a certain sterile asylum for them in the very centre of the victimizing institutionalized and materialistic society. The rejection of the institutionalized society manifests itself in two ways - on the one hand it is the status of the library itself which rejects all the institutionalized rules such as opening time, bringing (not borrowing) of the books, and its nature itself, which seems to be useless (nobody reads the books).Thus it stands counter the pragmatic and rationalistic organisation of the social institutions and the basic principles of the modern society, on the other hand it is the acceptance of such "irrational", "illogical" rules by the main protagonists - a librarian, Vida, and Foster. The outer "mainstream society" is even more aggressive in this novel than in A Confederate General from Big Sur; The outside vulgarily materialistic world represented mainly by Tijuana abortionist's approach to the act of abortion as a pure commercial activity, and negative effects of popular culture (erotic magazines) stand in opposition to almost a pastoral world of the library. According to Malley this library "...seems to be a kind of metaphor for the loneliness of American experience and for the need to communicate somehow - last stop, right across the streets from the Gulf, from the void that separates losers from winners"(Malley 67). Vida and her companion refuse the expected child as Vida argues:"I love children, but this isn't the time. If you can't give them the maximum of yourself, then it's best to wait. There are too many children in the world and not enough love."(Brautigan 71b). Quite paradoxically, Vida's partner is able to perceive this corrupted materialistic world, even saves Vida by providing her with a shelter and escape from this world in his library, but in spite of his critique of such a world's values, or, more particularly, abortions themselves, which had a negative impact on him, he is passive instead and does not do anything to prevent Vida from having an abortion. E. Foster argues:"... his protagonists are....rather emotionally hollowed, unable to love or hate with any great subtlety, depth or passion."(Foster 99). Such passivity concerns the narrator himself, Vida and Foster, the three main protagonists of the novel. The narrator as a saviour fails, and his encounter with a real external world through Vida has a negative effect on him (he accepts and supports abortion) and is eventually punished by losing his job, his library, or, in other words, his previous "exiled innocence". The rejection of the values he had supported so far (spontaneity, passivity, imagination) through his abandoning of such a world and his acceptance of the materialistic world values (commercial abortion) and artificiality/violence (the act of abortion itself) standing against these values bring him punishment - he is got rid of the secure job on the one hand, on the other one symbolically of the world and values he had supported. As Malley argues "Vida's literal abortion has a strange parallel in the narrator's final expulsion from his library asylum...He has become, as it were, the unwanted fetus expelled from the snug library womb. Actually, though, the process is more like a premature birth in which he's somewhat untimely ripped - before he feels ready to give up the library - than like an abortion. It's necessary for the narrator to come out of his monastery and continue coping with life, as it was necessary for Vida to come out of the prison castle of her body."(Malley 79). On the other hand, the act of abortion seems to have a purifying effect and symbolically represents the main protagonist's transformation from the world of sterility, passivity, security and dream to the world of physical spontaneity, social activity and thus also a new sensibility of the forthcoming period. Passivity does not seem to be a way out for either narrator or Brautigan at the end of the novel; the narrator is found actively involved in political campaigning, Vida becomes a topless dancer and Foster gets a job at Betlehem Steel. Such transformation reminds a reader a "myth" of a "regeneration through violence" of the captivity narrative tradition, although the main protagonists have to cope with the violence of a different kind that is violence associated with the commercial and rationalistic character of the modern society.

The nature of Brautigan's novel In Watermelon Sugar provides the reader with a game with his/her imagination and fantasy. Society is hardly referred to at all; An allegorical reading of the novel can show "Forgotten Works"(a place the entrance to which is forbidden) as symbolically representing a denial of contemporary civilization, material and technical progress. The "real" world is most explicitly referred to by Brautigan' s depiction of a village community near the Forgotten Works where life seems to have got stuck in the past and where time has no significance. The life within this commune has a nostalgic atmosphere where people travel on horses, but it is rather sterile and different from the commune named iDeath, which is full of fantasy, life and vitality, where everything is possible, colourful and transmutable, especially through Brautigan's use of the dominant image of watermelon sugar. Watermelon sugar status is ambiguous, it is a building material, place, narrator, life: "In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar."(Brautigan 1c) As Schmitz argues "iDeath is above all a mythological language composed of those clear and immediate signs which constitute (to use Barthes' term) an "interpellent speech", an appeal for a set response."(Schmitz 117). This example of Brautigan's suppression and rejection of explicit depiction of reality and "contemporary society" only confirms his indifference to and rejection of mainstream society's rationalistic values based on reasoning in favour of his preference for different existence, different alternative or way of life through different imagination.

Alienation, Separation and Escape


Alienation, separation and escape in the above novels are not, perhaps with the exception of A Confederate General from Big Sur, a direct and continuous process since the reader is not presented explicitly with a conflict of the protagonists with society or its values. The conflict in these novels is mostly simply rejected, neglected or absent. The reader can never learn why a librarian narrator or Foster from The Abortion have escaped from the routine way of life, or why the Forgotten Works, a symbol of dead civilization, were closed, although from the allegorical and parodical nature of the book In Watermelon Sugar it can be assumed that this "dead civilization" based on the rationalistic principles of social and economic life is in contradiction with the playful, imaginative, free fantastic world represented by the commune of iDeath. Thus Brautigan implicitly criticizes such a way of life, such organization of the society as represented by Forgotten Works. The protagonists from The Abortion and In Watermelon Sugar are placed directly in either idealized (library) or fantastic (iDeath) settings which, through Brautigan' s use of imagery, are based on different principles than the world they stand in opposition to. These settings, these worlds thus represent an alternative existence where different values are preferred and in this way they evoke an indirect criticism of the worlds they stand in opposition to. The situation in Brautigan's novel A Confederate General from Big Sur is slightly different. In this novel Lee Mellon reminscent of a real general from the Civil War R. Lee, is supposed to fight, must be active, although his battle is different. Although the geographical location is more explicit and visible than in his other two novels, Lee Mellon meets many people and although he fights, he does not fight directly with social evils; however, his rejection of a comfortable life with a rich middle-class girl is a direct refusal of the values this girl represents. Mellon fights not only with the frogs on the lake, his poverty, idleness, drunkeness, but especially for his spiritual and mental regeneration. Although he comes to the city representing evil from his "exile" in wilderness, the society represented by a city is for him a place where instead of spiritual satisfaction he can get only basic physical and materialistic satisfaction represented by alcohol, drugs, or sex and becomes useful only due to such satisfaction of materialistic or physical needs. The real nature of Mellon' s fight and his alienation from the society lies in a conflict of the material and spiritual satisfaction, as can be seen from the following passage: "It was a Norwegian ship. Perhaps it was going back to Norway, carrying the hides of 163 cable cars, as a part of the world commerce deal. Ah, trade: one country exchanging goods with another country, just like in grade school. They traded a rainy spring morning in Oslo for 163 cable car hides from San Francisco.

Lee Mellon look at the sky. "(Brautigan 56a)

Through Jesse's narration Brautigan points out the trading effect of nature through an international commercial exchange which is contrasted with Mellon's preference for real nature and its spiritual and emotional qualities. Mellon thinks rather of the sea and seagulls than of the world's material progress. Sea and seagulls do not represent only spirituality, but especially freedom and liberty, or as J. Clayton? argues: "Salvation through perception: the politics of inner freedom."(Clayton 59). This freedom manifests itself also in the composition of the book in the way that Brautigan refuses stability, satisfaction, and order. His protagonists travel, move, explore and search, although they are not able to come to any relevant conclusion or discovery. Travelling and motion itself provide them with the individual, moral, sexual, physical and spiritual liberation and symbolically represent this search for inner freedom. At the same time, Lee Mellon represents a double escape - to nature and through it symbolically to mental liberation and fantasy as values associated with nature itself. However absent or "silent" is the society and its institutions in Brautigan's presentation, it is always negative. It represents either a suppression of creativity and mental freedom (rejection of the unpublished books), or death in The Abortion, sterility and artificiality (statues of vegetables and plants) in his In Watermelon Sugar, and moral, spiritual corruption and materialistic vulgarism in A Confederate General from Big Sur. The artistic method Brautigan uses here for his expression of criticism is not a direct descriptive social, or stark realism, but it is rather his usage of vivid imagery, figurative language, fantasy, experiment with language and narrative voices. "Things simply are" (Clayton 64) in Brautigan's artistic presentation; they are not described or commented, they are lived without any profound detailed characterization.

The Nature of Brautigan's Alternative Existence


Brautigan ignoring explicit social criticism offers a reader an alternative world through his fiction: a world of imagination, fantasy, but also physical, mental and spiritual freedom. His imaginary "society" does not banish either outcasts, or rebels, it is a society where the rich, main, powerful or materialistic are not refused, but welcome to join. His "marginalized" become now "a centre", at least of Brautigan's artistic attention, although Brautigan is very careful not to present them as the authoritarian or the only model of living since their status of a "model" is undermined by their imperfectness, ambiguity, hesitation. Brautigan has created an alternative world, another "politics", "the politics of a subculture alive in another place"(Clayton 65), or, as Clayton further argues "...a political space in that that it reinforces "our" values - the values of a subculture that sees itself as flipped outside of goal-oriented, psychically and socially repressive, exploitative, aggrandizing American technological society. It is political, in that to go into that space is to decide not to confront that other society"(Clayton 59).

In A Confederate General from Big Sur Brautigan suggests instead of a description of working of social mechanisms, rather an alternative which is travelling, imagination, alcohol, drugs, sex and friendship. In Brautigan's rendition these phenomena do not have a self-exploratory function and a best-seller character; they are the means and ways to individual mental and spiritual liberation, freedom and independence. Travelling and motion symbolize Mellon's and Jesse's "physical" liberation and, at the same time, serve as a source of liberated identity. Alcohol, sex, and drugs, these traditionally tabooed issues, become a focus of Brautigan's attention and thus legitimize their formerly unwanted/prohibited status and gain, in this way, a rebellious character. Friendship seems to be the most acceptable value and common ground for both dominant and marginalized societies suggested by Brautigan in this novel. Since Brautigan does not like any totalization and integrity, this friendship, too, can work only because it is not obligatory; it is free and respecting each other' s freedom. Jesse and Mellon's meetings are random, occasional, without specification of time or place, and in this respect much more spontaneous and natural. Physical and spiritual freedom, hedonistic way of life and Brautigan's ignorance of the direct treatment of social institutions represent an alternative challenge and a call for a change in human relationships and seem to reflect the nature of the early 60's social and liberal change, "a sensuous experience" expressed through different kind of narrative with "...its emphasis on an immediacy of experience and in its anti-formalism" (Bertens in Smyth 132). In this way Brautigan offers an alternative not only to institutionalized life, but also to traditional literary conventions in a form of their indirect criticism.

Although less artistically successful (Foster 102, for example), Brautigan's novel The Abortion cannot avoid the theme of art itself, particularly literature, one of Brautigan's common themes. An unnamed narrator from his book The Abortion has created his own "exile" which becomes not only his exile, but also provides the others, marginalized, suppressed, with physical and spiritual place by which it fulfills not only social, but also an emotional function. Literature, art, or on a more general level, spirituality and creativity do not, once again, quite typically for Brautigan, depend on any social or material conditions. Any author, any book, any style are welcome in this mental shelter. Thus Brautigan librarian's world representing an alternative existence, alternative values including an alternative perception of reality and sensibility makes an alternative identity possible, at least for Brautigan, only in this space. When the librarian abandons this world and wants to be active (although in a negative way accompanying Vida to and agreeing with the abortion) this natural dwelling, his mental universe, he is punished - he does not lose only his job, but he enters the real world, social structures, and their effects on the emotional sensibility leave him confused, passive, sterile and incapable of any resistance. Neither the physical nor spiritual world of art ( literature) is possible any more. In difference from Lee Mellon's world from his A Confederate General from Big Sur, librarian's world is much more sterile, platonic, poetic and nihilistic and represents a politics of passive resistance. In his novel The Abortion Brautigan rejects indulgment in sensusous and hedonistic physical experience which he seems to have supported in his A Confederate General from Big Sur and suggests spiritual liberation through imagination and Platonic approach to understanding reality. The image of the library and rejected books implicitly evoke art and imagination which seems to be the representatives of this liberated spirit of Brautigan's "exiled" world. The librarian abandoning this world and his emotional, yet sterile, stability cannot belong to either one; he becomes an outcast from the world he had created and feels a possibility of social and political change gathering contributions for The American Forever, Etc. The emotional and moral failure of the main protagonist of the novel stimulates him to revolt, to enter this unwanted world of social and economic structures.

If Brautigan's The Confederate General from Big Sur celebrates physical and mental freedom and independence, The Abortion the marginalized, literary art and creativity, his novel In Watermelon Sugar is a celebration of imagination and fantasy. Although, once again, however fantastic, irreal, sterile and artificial, this world is possible. Brautigan lets his readers travel in fantasy through the transmutable image of watermelon sugar, which is a building material, novel, book, ink pen tint or narrator, and it penetrates all imagery in the book to bring him to the imagined community paradoxically named iDeath, in spite of the fact that this community is peaceful, calm, which is supported by the image of light and pastoral atmosphere (Brautigan 15c). As Hendin has argued, "Splitting the "I" from life, welding an "i" to Death means not merely suburdinating the individual consciousness, or ending-ego striving in a group turned in to peaceful low-key vibes, but separating yourself from your own, anger ridden past. What Brautigan wants are those easy feelings that flow only from the chosen present, from a world without enforced relations, a world without associations, without real memory (Hendin 49)." Time almost does not exist, the past is remembered with nostalgia or sentiment, although this is a nostalgia of a different kind; a nostalgia for real values, which are symbolically represented by naturalness and art. The real past for Brautigan does not seem to be reconstructible; more important values are imagination, fantasy and naturalness. If the past can be either nostalgic and only "dreamt about", the present is recreated through literature. As J. Hendin argues, in In Watermelon Sugar Brautigan rebels "...try to reconstitute civilization by reconstituting people."(Hendin 46). Brautigan's unidentifiable narrator referring to himself through a series of illogically connected sentences like: "Perhaps it was raining very hard." That was my name. Or somebody wanted you to do something. You did it. Then they told you what you did was wrong. "Sorry for the mistake," and you had to do something else. That is my name."(Brautigan 4c) undermines all the conventions of traditional fiction and refuses any "master", stable or coherent narrative voice and structure . Such narrative voice's status enables it to point out at other artistic possibilities of recreation of reality. For him, reality seems to be represented and preserved only through and by literature, imagination, history and reality being mediated only through a different kind of representation. The narrator does not deny his ambiguous, changeable, but omnipresent nature, but in his last words, at the end of the book, also confirms his both fictional and metafictional status:"The musicians were poised with her instruments. They were ready to go. It would only be a few seconds, I wrote."(Brautigan 166c), and thus point points out the fictional character of his "story".

Thus he only justifies the possibilities of conveying the truth, reality and meaning through other, "different" means. It seems, according to Brautigan, that reality cannot be artistically recreated through traditional realistic ways of expression, but rather through ontological emphasis on its "fictitiousness" and "self-reflexivity". In this novel Brautigan has created even more fantastic and irrealistic world than in his The Abortion, and its existence is possible only in imagination, it is a "pure spirit" liberated from all social and institutionalized ties and boundaries. Such a world represents Brautigan's "...verbal wildness, his simplicity, the passive force of his people who have gone beyond writing, losing, loving or hating"(Hendin 49). Brautigan' s imaginary commune of iDeath in his In Watermelon Sugar stands in contradiction to the inBoil gang which has massively committed a brutal suicide. This gang than symbolically alludes to other possibility - violence an self-destruction. As Hendin further argues, "...the destructivenness and self-destructiveness Brautigan sees as the only emotions possible for the man who has emotions at all."(Hendin 47)

Brautigan in his above three novels has created a special kind of "culture", a special kind of sensibility through special way of artistic expression. Although this expression is far away from traditional and explicit artistic techniques and direct or explicit treatment of the social problems, his "counterculture" is of a different kind - it is a counterculture of a mental and spiritual freedom which is characterized by Baštín as representing "...the ideas of the "new" romanticism and the so-called counter-culture finding their utter expression in typically neo-romantic gestures: and individualistic rebellion, idyllic and pastoral nostalgia, the seeking of original, spontaneous and authentic ways of living outside the institutionalized spheres of society"(Baštín 136).


Studia Philologica 7 (2000): 69-77.