Mary Rohrberger's essay on 'In Watermelon Sugar'
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Richard Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar

by Mary Rohrberger

^Author: Richard Brautigan (1935-1984)
Type of plot: Surrealistic
Time of plot: Simultaneously no time and all times
Locale: Simultaneously no place and every place
First published: 1968

Principal characters:
  • THE NARRATOR, an unnamed protagonist who is writing the first book to be written in thirty-one years in the community known as iDEATH
  • MARGARET, the narrator's previous girlfriend
  • PAULINE, the narrator's present girlfriend
  • CHARLEY, the leader of the community
  • inBOIL, Charley's brother


The Novel

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 made. Chapter titles, rather than the narrator, make the point: "Margaret," "Margaret Again," six times repeated until finally "Margaret Again, Again, Again, Again, Again."

The action that takes place concerning the narrator and Margaret and that leads to her suicide is the most conventional of the levels of narration in the novel. At this level, a reader can discern a movement from exposition to complication to climax and denouement, with Margaret's funeral being the last piece of action. On another level, the story of inBOIL takes on greater importance. The narrator dreams the history of inBOIL and his gang and the "terrible things that happened just a few short months ago." If the entire action of the novel is considered to be a dream vision, then inBOIL's story is a dream within a dream, a kind of parenthetical expression, but one having central significance.

Other structural patterns can be discerned: a rising movement, for example, that never comes to climax or denouement. At the end of the novel, one must remember that the musicians are poised to begin, and all is ready to be done (and done again as life is done) in watermelon sugar. On the other hand, a deeper structure, revealed to the reader but unknown to the narrator, moves with continual falling action, so that anticipation merges with despair, and the sense of continuing renewal becomes a conviction of ultimate end.

Through a process of deduction, a reader can determine three time sequences operating in the novel: a distant past of which "The Forgotten Works" are emblematic (the narrator's twenty-eight-year life when he lived with his parents in a shack by the river, listened with Margaret to inBOIL's stories, watched the tigers kill and eat his parents, participated in the tiger hunt, joined the commune of iDEATH, and established an intimate relationship with Margaret); the recent past (the breaking up of the liaison between Margaret and the narrator and what happened to inBOIL); and the three days that make up the present time of the novel, during which period the narrator and Pauline establish their relationship and Margaret kills herself. Margaret's funeral takes place on Thursday, the black and soundless day. The action begins on Tuesday, the gold day, and proceeds through Wednesday, the gray day.

Part of the magical effect of the novel derives from the descriptions of iDEATH. As is suggested above, the sun on different days is different in color. The watermelons, too, are different in color, depending on the day. Seeds gathered from a blue watermelon, for example, picked on a blue day (Saturday), and then planted on a blue day make blue watermelons. (The stars, however, are always one color-red.)

The watermelons are processed to make watermelon sugar, which in turn is spun out to make everything in the community. The weather is always temperate. There are many waterways, creeks and rivers, some only inches wide. The houses are a delightful combination of indoors and outdoors. Statues of vegetables adorn the community. Lighted bridges decorate the night. The dead are buried in glass coffins placed at the bottoms of rivers, and the coffins glow at night because fox fire is put in the tombs. Such is the world of In Watermelon Sugar, passing strange and full of quirky charm.

The Characters

Much of the sense of disparity in the novel results from the incongruity inherent in the person of the narrator, who insists that everything in iDEATH is exactly as it should be — the people gentle, pleasant, and tolerant. Despite the narrator's insistence that iDEATH is a stable Utopia, however, many of the things that happen are fraught with pain and violence. Balancing the easygoing and vegetarian people with their light chores and flower-filled parades are the man-eating tigers, the burning of the mutilated corpses of inBOIL and his gang, Margaret's suicide, and the emptiness felt by the narrator but never named.

Indeed, the narrator never really names anything, even himself. In chapter 3?, the narrator invites the reader to do the naming: "My name depends on you. Just call me whatever is in your mind." Though the narrator clearly plays the role of poet-seer, he came upon his vocation by accident. He was not good at anything else, though he had tried several occupations. It is Charley who suggests that the narrator write a book. Margaret's excursions into "The Forgotten Works" disturb the narrator so greatly that he cannot cope with his feelings for her. Nor is the narrator's restlessness assuaged by his liaison with Pauline. He remains an insomniac and nightwalker throughout the novel. Thor's day is his favorite — black, silent, and long.

Margaret is the only character in the novel who exhibits what one would normally call the signs of an active and curious mind. Her visits to "The Fotgotten Works" and her continuing conversations with inBOIL, however, cause the community to isolate her and the narrator to shun her. Only Pauline seems to wonder how Margaret is responding to the loss of a long-standing relationship with the narrator and her alienation from the community. The narrator expresses no interest and refuses to discuss the matter beyond saying that everything will be alright. Yet Margaret's desolation and hurt are apparent. She returns to the narrator's shack, knocking at his door with a persistence that bothers him; she walks past Pauline without responding to her greeting. Only Margaret seems shocked and pained by the death of inBOIL and his gang, and only she seems to understand its significance. Her suicide, which she accomplishes by hanging herself from an apple tree, clearly results from a sense of profound despair over the community's inability to recognize what inBOIL was trying to say by means of his immolation and over the community's and the narrator's total rejection of her.

InBOIL and Charley, the community's acknowledged leader, are Janus-like counterparts, Charley having accepted the bland and docile as the only acceptable reality, and inBOIL insisting on the reality of pain and loss. When inBOIL and his men come to confront Charley and the iDEATH community, inBOIL insists that he is going to show Charley what is really going on. Without the tigers, inBOIL says, there can be no iDEATH. InBOIL accuses Charley and his group of living "like a bunch of clucks." Then inBOIL and his men slowly and deliberately cut off their thumbs, their noses, and their ears, systematically removing their sense organs and thus illustrating the deprivation of the iDEATH community.

Other characters in In Watermelon Sugar, particularly Pauline, play significant roles. Pauline seemingly accepts without question her role in the community, especially after her liaison with the narrator: Apparently, she stops her nightwalking and sleeps well, and she appears content taking her turn in the kitchen. Charley, who knows "about everything there is' has been the unquestioned leader of the community for a long time. All the members of the commune, including Fred, who is a fine craftsman, Al, who takes turns in the kitchen with Pauline, old Chuck, who lights the lanterns, and the young girl who picks strawberries play a contributing role, each according to his or her own special interests and needs.

Themes and Meanings

Critics have argued both sides of the question as to whether iDEATH is Heaven or Hell. Only a few have recognized the paradoxical nature of Brautigan's statement. Rational discourse in the Western world establishes absolutes, insists on a categorical difference between Heaven and Hell, up and down, fiction and fact, love and hate. Yet Brautigan appears to be trying to mesh the opposites, suggesting that rather than being antithetical, opposites are identical. The world is Janus-like. iDEATH is both idea (creation) and death. Life is not simply passive or violent; life and death are not contraries. Each partakes of the other. It is the separation of the two that is unnatural. In terms of the novel, watermelon sugar is also polyurethane foam.

Apparent polarities thus form the base of In Watermelon Sugar; in this respect, the novel recalls the Surrealists' point sublime, where contraries are identified, where the "yes" and the "no" merge. It is not necessary to limit time and space as people are accustomed to doing. Time and space are one. Past and future yield to the simultaneous. In dreams, one understands that which one's culture and language have in the past made difficult to apprehend. Thus, Brautigan's effort to get above or beyond the language of rational discourse and to eschew ordinary novelistic techniques, where time and linear plots carry the story line, is closely tied to the meaning of In Watermelon Sugar. Form and content are also one.

Critical Context

In Watermelon Sugar was one of three early works — the others were A Confederate General from Big Sur (1964) and Trout Fishing in America (1967) — which established Brautigan as one of the most popular writers of the 1960's. His books were particularly popular on college campuses; photographs of the author showed a rangy figure with shoulder-length hair, granny glasses, and a walrus mustache — the quintessential San Francisco writer. At the same time, he was recognized by some critics as a writer whose works could stand on their own merit; Guy Davenport, reviewing Brautigan's early novels in The Hudson Review, described him as "one of the most gifted innovators in our literature."

In the decade and a half between the appearance of In Watermelon Sugar and his death by suicide in 1984, Brautigan published many more books, but none of them enjoyed the success of his early works. His identification with the counterculture worked against him; from the beginning, many hostile critics had rejected his work as cute and ephemeral, and it became fashionable to dismiss him as a phenomenon of the 1960's, no longer of interest.

In time, Richard Brautigan will find a permanent place in American literature. Whatever the vicissitudes of critical opinion (his later works are only beginning to receive an objective critical reading), it is certain that In Watermelon Sugar will be numbered among the lasting works of the 1960's — a book which captures as few others do the spirit of that extraordinary moment in American history.

Masterplots II: American Fiction Series
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1986: 787-791

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