Jaroslav Kusnir's essay on In Watermelon Sugar and The Dead Father
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Diversity of Postmodern Fantasy: Richard Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar and Donald Barthelme's The Dead Father

by Jaroslav Kusnir?

In her study on fantastic literature entitled Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London: Routledge, 1981), Rosemary Jackson understands fantasy as a "mode" and as literature of both subversion (of the established order, of the dominant discourse as well as the dominant power structure) and desire (a desire to undermine this order, dominant discourse and power structure). According to her, "The fantastic is a literature which attempts to create a space for a discourse other than a conscious one and it is this which leads to its problematization of language, of the word, in its utterance of desire. The formal and thematic features of fantastic literature are similarly determined by this impossible attempt to find a language for desire" (Jackson 1981:62). She further observes that in connection with Freud's theory "[...] it is possible to see the modern fantastic as a literature preoccupied with unconscious desire and to relate this desire to cultural order..." (Jackson 1981:62). Similarly, according to Irwin "A fantasy is a story based on and controlled by an overt violation of what is generally accepted as possibility; it is the narrative result of transforming the condition contrary to fact into 'fact' itself" (Irwin 1976: x). Jackson understands ”the mode” as a device of identification " […] structural features underlying various works in different periods of time” (Jackson 1981: 7), as "[...]a range of possibilities out of which various combinations produce different kinds of fiction in different historical situations” (Jackson 1981: 7). She further explains that “There is no abstract entity called 'fantasy'; there is only a range of different works which have similar structural characteristics and which seem to be generated by similar unconscious desires" (Jackson 1981:8). Drawing on Freudian psychological theories of desire and fantasy, Todorov's, Irvine's, Rabkin's, Brooke-Rose's and other theorists' views, Jackson gives an analysis of different kinds of fantasies (from the Gothic tales through Victorian fantasies, to fantastic realism up to contemporary postmodern fantasies). She understands it as literature of both subversion (of the dominant discourse, culture, vision of reality) and desire (fantasy through subversion being the expression of desire). At the same time, she suggests a different kind of fantasy represented by contemporary postmodern and especially metafictional writing. In her view, such a literature is "[...] manifestly unreal ... fabrication [...] lie" (Jackson 1981: 164). In her view, these "[…] metafictions are set apart, taking pleasure in their manifest unreality by presenting only a series of reversible representations” (Jackson 1981:164). Despite such fantasy is different, in its nature, from traditional fantastic literature or literature with clearly identifiable and separable fantastic elements, in my view, it can also be understood as literature of both subversion and desire. On the one hand, it subverts both traditional representational discourse within the history of literary representations, the forms of literary representations which, speaking in John Barth’s terms, have been exhausted (Barth 1967), and, at the same time, it subverts the dominant cultural order and morality. It is, on the other hand, being however playful and linguistically experimental, a literature of desire, a desire to offer an alternative vision of reality to one which seems to be corrupted and manipulated by modern culture, media as well as modes of behavior. It is different from previous fantasies because it subverts the very nature of the referential function of the language and offers, in an experimentally playful way, an alternative vision of reality both from the formal (linguistic, thematic) and social (behavior) point of view. Many postmodernist and metafictional authors writing in this way use different forms of fantasy in order to, on the one hand, subvert traditional "myths", and, on the other hand, to relativize the unitary, pseudo-objective vision of reality as well as to emphasize plurality of its perception. In my paper, I will analyze textual strategies that form a fantastic nature of both authors' texts, and, at the same time, I will discuss the subversive function of these fantastic elements. Based on the analysis of these novels, I will try to point out different kinds of postmodern fantasy as manifested in these works.

Both postmodern novels use fantasy in different ways. Richard Brautigan's novel In Watermelon Sugar depicts seemingly real characters, although the setting is purely imaginary, fantastic or even supernatural and behavior of people psychologically unconvincing, harmonious, and even idealized. Creating a picture of idealized life in the natural environment within the idealized life in iDeath community and contrasting it to the world of the inBoil Gang (representing the world of violence and physical reality), Brautigan thus creates an idealized romantic vision of reality. This reality seems to be an alternative to the brutal presence of physical reality (and realism as a writing method). The fantastic nature of Brautigan's world in which tigers eat parents, but, at the same time, talk and teach children arithmetic, in which the brook runs through the house and the material things (bridge, clocks, books), are constructed of watermelon sugar is further supported by Brautigan's use of linguistic play. They are especially metafictional elements which problematise the referential function of language itself, and, in this way, construct what could be labeled, using Rosemary Jackson‘s terminology, a linguistic fantasy. Patricia Waugh understands metafiction as " [...] a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality" (Waugh 1984:2). These metafictional elements and especially an apparent fictitious and ambiguous status of a narrator undermine not only a make to believe approach to reality, but also the whole process of signification. In this way Brautigan creates a fantastic world par excellence within which his use of symbolism and allegory creates a multilayered semantic connotations I will deal with later. The narrator in Brautigan's novel In Watermelon Sugar comments on his own status in a following way:

^"I guess you are kind of curious as to who I am, but I am one of those who do not have a regular name. My name depends on you. Just call me whatever is in your mind.

If you are thinking about something that happened a long time ago; Somebody asked you a question and you did not know the answer.

That is my name.

Perhaps it was raining very hard.

That was my name [...]

Perhaps it was around midnight and the fire tolled like a bell inside the stove.

That is my name?" (Brautigan 1968: 4-5).^
Undermining its own status as a physical entity, Brautigan's narrator refers to himself as to purely imaginative, fictional being or even an abstract phenomenon (in addition to the above, being also an inability to answer the question; being writing a short story etc.). At the same time, this narrator emphasizes reading as a creative process in which the meaning is never given, but constructed in the reader's mind in the process of reading and perception of constructed reality. Such an approach evoking doubts about real physical reality is further supported by another metafictional element present in the composition of the book and is connected with the narrator again. Not only the narrator, but also the reality he is speaking about is manifestly unreal, fictitious, a fictional story which he admits at the very end of the novel:

"They were ready to go. It would only be a few seconds now, I wrote" (Brautigan 1968: 166).

In addition to this, the narrator himself is a writer writing an indefinite book which he never finishes but which seems to be, quite paradoxically, the book the reader has just read. Brautigan's fantasy thus becomes multilayered –- from the perspective of the narrator and his writing with the use of metafictional elements it is evident that a reader does not read a real life, but a fictional story about it. This is a postmodernist construction of reality. At the same time, within this fictional story his use of fantasy does not only support its fictitious status, but also creates an alternative vision of reality and point out at man’s withdrawal from the nature. It the same time, it celebrates the power of imagination and contrasts it to the contemporary materialistic and emotionally, spiritually and economically corrupted world. For such a construction of fantasy and meaning Brautigan uses a dominant image which is a watermelon sugar representing an imaginary fantastic world (watermelon sugar is a diversity of both abstract and material things); the community of iDeath representing an idealized life and a peaceful harmony with nature. These images are juxtaposed to the inBoil gang representing brutality, violence and the physical material world as contrasted to idealized and peaceful one represented by the iDeath community. The inBoil gang "lived in a little bunch of lousy shacks with leaky roofs", "drank whiskey brewed from the things they found "(Brautigan 1968:76). InBoil himself "[…] looked like a mess" (Brautigan 1968: 84) and "He became very removed from people and then his speech would be strange, slurred and his movements became jerky" (Brautigan 1968:71). These characteristics are in direct contradiction with the peaceful and harmonious life in the iDeath community that finally leads to its self-destruction. The physical unmotivated self-destruction means a symbolic destruction of evil, physicality and materialistic corrupted world. Brautigan thus, in this way, symbolically points out a power of imagination and fantasy as a contrast to the materialistic corrupted world. The Forgotten Works, a strange place where the garbage, waste, and by-products of commercial production are stored, represents such a world. At the same time, the image of the Forgotten Works along with inBoil gang, as I have mentioned, represent a physical world and create a contrast to imaginative and fantastic world of watermelon sugar and iDeath community. This world of iDeath does not represent an aggressive, or violent protest and critique of the dominant social order and contemporary society, but offers a peaceful, non violent alternative and both vision and way of life of almost a Tolstoyan nature. Thus, this Brautigan's postmodern fantasy suggesting an alternative way and vision of life undermines the established understanding and perception of reality (and, at the same time, dominant social institutional model). At the same time, it is an expression of desire to establish a different understanding of reality, moral and social values. This new 'sensibility' transgresses the boundaries of social institutional pattern and suggests freedom, freedom of the body and the mind that is understood as a freedom of the liberated spirit in Brautigan's novel. Some critics associate the transgressive imagery associated with the fantastic world of watermelon sugar used in this novel with the liberating spirit of the hippie and Beatnik community of the 1960's (Boyer 1987). On the structural level, all the characters in this novel have no doubt about the fantastic world they live in. That is why, using Todorov’s terminology, this fantasy in its very nature could be labelled as marvellous in which "[…] supernatural factors do not arouse any distinctive reaction either in the characters or in the implicit reader" (Todorov 1970: 87).

In his novel, The Dead Father Donald Barthelme offers a slightly different kind of postmodern fantasy. In difference from Brautigan's simple, but poetic style in which the introduction to a particular situation ends in an image representing a poetic vision of reality, Barthelme's novel is characterized by his use of multiple narrative voices, which often overlap. These narrative voices give a complicated imagery based on intertextual and linguistic play with a language, and, consequently, with a reader. In difference from Brautigan, Barthelme's style and language are contemplative and philosophical. At the same time, Brautigan's idealized and romantic vision of the world is replaced, in Barthelme's novel, by a constant violent and brutal struggle of the protagonists to establish their dominant position in the world. This is the world which arises as a conflict between father representing authority and his children representing obedience and all connotations which are thus evoked and which are associated with all meanings of authority and obedience, innocence and experience, young and the old age, discipline and loyalty. The fantastic and supernatural character of this novel is revealed at very beginning when the narrator describes the Dead Father:

"The Dead's Father's head. The main thing is, his eyes are open. Staring up into the sky [...] No one can remember when he was not here in our city positioned like a sleeper in troubled sleep, the whole great expanse of him running from the Avenue Pommard to the Boulevard Grist. Overall length, 3,200 cubits" (Barthelme 1975:9-10).

The supernatural dimension of the Dead Father’s body makes a supernatural, fantastic character of him. The fantastic character of Barthelme's story is further supported by Barthelme's construction of the basic narrative development. Dead Father is dragged to an unknown place by his children (eventually it turns out to be a place of his burial) who talk to him as to a real living being and to whom their father responses as a real living character. In this way Barthelme establishes a fantastic world in which the protagonists do not doubt about their either realistic or supernatural, fantastic identities and accept their world as existing, as if real. This fantastic world is reminiscent of the marvelous in Todorov's understanding again, but Barthelme, in difference from Brautigan, uses fantasy in a different way.

Barthelme's Dead Father having supernatural dimensions and character (dead man talking) evokes a symbolic meaning as a representative of authority, power and control. An omniscient narrator commenting on his status further supports this in a following way:

"He controls the hussars. Controls the rise, fall, and flutter of the market. Controls what Thomas is thinking, what Thomas has always thought, what Thomas will ever think, with exceptions” (Barthelme 1975: 10). Such a status is always doubted about and attacked throughout the text. Narrator mocks at his physical features and, passing into a collective voice (we) clearly rejects his status and meaning at the very beginning: "We want the Dead Father to be dead. We sit with tears in our eyes wanting the Dead Father to be dead — meanwhile doing amazing things with our hands" (Barthelme 1975: 11).

On the other hand, the Dead Father during his deportation to his own funeral constantly argues with his children. It often passes to a contemplative argument about the role of fathers, authority and tradition in contemporary world and its relation to the role of children, in other words to new generation, obedience, but also resistance. This also manifests itself, for example, in a following scene in which the Dead Father with his company meets with two escaping and rebelling children aged ten who answer the company‘s questions:

"We are twenty, said the girl. I am ten and he is ten. Old enough. We are going to live together all our lives and love each other all our lives until we die. We know it. But don't tell anyone because we’ll be beaten, if the knowledge becomes general.

Aren't they supposed to be throwing rocks at each other this age? Thomas asked.

Eighteen he is going to refuse to do his military service and I am going to do something so I can be put in the same jail with him […]" (Barthelme 1975: 22-23).

If you do that we shall leap into the reservoir, Lars said, together. And drown. I am going to tell you something utterly astounding, surprising, marvelous, miraculous, triumphant, astonishing, unheard of [...] something which causes the greatest joy to those who know of it, something, in short, which will make you doubt the evidence of your senses: We don't care what you think.

I am offended, said the Dead Father.

I was quoting Mme de Sévigné, said the boy, except for the last part, which was mine" (Barthelme 1975: 25).

The children The Dead Father with his children meet with represent a resistance and rebellion both to social institutions (schools, military service) and are different from the Dead Father's own children accompanying him. Despite these children’s protest, they rather adapt their position and roles, that is what is expected from them, and accompany their father to his own funeral. Lars and Hilda represent rather a more radical protest not only against the institutionalized world, but also against the authority of any kind including their parents. At the same time, as it can be seen from the above passage, they also represent a new sensibility and different vision of the world however psychologically unconvincing. Lars comments on his own speech and alludes to his reading of Mme de Sévigné thus symbolically expressing a dissatisfaction with the past 'exhausted' (Barth) forms of artistic representation. At the same time, he is suggesting a new way of representation based not on direct mimetic, but manifestly metafictional representation of reality. His contemplative and metafictional speech thus becomes an expression of the rebellion against and the rejection of the established literary forms of the past.

Barthelme's Dead Father's journey to his own funeral, as it is revealed at the end of the novel, becomes an allegorical journey representing a conflict between the father and children; between authority and disobedience; between dependence and independence; between submission and protest. Father's own burial at the end of the novel evokes the death of authority, a climax resulting in freedom and liberation providing a space for non-authoritarian relationships in real life; for rejection of the authority of any kind; for the rejection of the stiff forms, ways of behaviour, dependence (Freudian Oedipus complex) and, on the other level, the rejection of traditional literary forms and traditional vision of life. The main aim of such a depiction is the rejection of any authoritarian vision of reality. On the other hand, quite paradoxically, according to Freud, only the dead father gains its power of a symbolic meaning. In this way, thus paradoxically the Dead Father's death means the re-establishment of his symbolic power of authority. This does not mean that Barthelme symbolically emphasizes authority and violence as a prevailing force. Since the Dead Father is clearly a fictional, fantastic character, what is buried is not the physical body of the Dead Father, but the fictional construct, a subject from which all meanings and connotations are derived. There is nothing to be buried, only a meaning, that is superstitions and preoccupation the people have about the symbolic meaning of the father, authority and control of any kind. In the particular cultural discourse and social behavior the father, its dominating (and often authoritarian) role, such a meaning may dominate, but, as Barthelme shows, it is constantly attacked and loses its position with both changing sensibility, cultural characteristics and character of modern and postmodern periods as well as with coming of the new generation on scene.

Similarly to Brautigan, Barthelme's fantasy is allegorical and reminiscent of the ‘marvelous’ from Todorov's point of view, but a complex contemplative and intertextual character of his style draws reader’s attention to realizing the difference between fiction and reality and thus to working of the language to construct the world. At the same time, the symbolic construction of father and children enables Barthelme point out a difference and distance of the present from the past. As Trachtenberg argues, in Barthelme's fiction "Form [...]outlasts and finally comes to take the place of meaning. It becomes style" (Trachtenberg 1990: 21). Barthelme's linguistic fantasy is thus supported by his use of language that turns its attention to itself and thus creates a specific fictional world in which manifestly supernatural, fantastic world is juxtaposed to 'a linguistically constructed fantastic world'. This world is both the expression of protest against the uncritical understanding and acceptance of tradition and authority, but, at the same time, a suggestion of an alternative represented by both different poetics and different vision of the world.

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