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Ferdinand Mount's review of 'Sombrero Fallout'
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The Novel of the Narcissus: New Fiction | Sombrero Fallout

by Ferdinand Mount

American fiction specializes in the artistic arrangement of junk, often on a scale which recalls the Watts Towers(external link) in California. The humble artisan who built those fantastic towers out of old bits of tin cans and crockery is of course far removed in degree of awareness from the conscious literary artist. He celebrates the glory of creation by picking up the junk which others have dropped, for even the junk is part of that glory. The American literary artist is different. He picks it up because it is junk. He is a merchant of Dreck. He does not assert that the fragments are beautiful; on the contrary, he takes delight in asserting that they are Dreck, shit, crap. It is a key principle of modern American fiction that no lump of excrement is going to get away with pretending to be good rich earth. The principle may be directly expressed in excremental language as in Mailer or more obliquely as in the whimsical put-downs of Vonnegut? and Brautigan. But it always manifests itself in a steady determination not to be enchanted by the appearances of the external world - objects, systems, peoples. This stance is not the same as the old European cults of nihilism, absurdism or even skepticism, for it implies no pessimistic overall world-view. The assertion that the world is full of shit excludes the observer himself. The cynicism about the external world contrasts with an unbounded sentimentalism about the inner world of the self. The novelist-hero is a rooster on a midden.

Richard Brautigan's latest novel, Sombrero Fallout, is about an American humorist who is said to have no sense of humor. But of course he has a sense of humor. Look at his jokes. He is having trouble writing. But he isn't really having trouble. Look at his book. Even a piece of paper bearing an idea for a story which he tears up and throws on the floor takes on a life of its own. It is a story about a sombrero which causes a civil war. It is not a very good story. That doesn't matter. The American humorist can think of hundreds more stories in the same way that, although he has been left by his latest (Japanese) girlfriend, he can pick up hundreds more girlfriends just as he picked up her. In his junk-world, reality is conferred on objects, human and otherwise, only by the touch of the free-floating ego. Everything else is, as Gore Vidal? puts it in his perceptive essay, "American plastic" (New York Review of Books, July 15, 1976). "The author tries not to be himself a maker of dreck but an arranger of dreck." And there is no higher compliment that one American modernist can pay another than to say, as William Gass says of Donald Barthelme, that he "has the art to make a treasure out of trash." All art, in Michael Moorcock's? phrase, constantly aspires towards "the condition of Muzak" - or ought to.


Encounter, 48(6)
June 1977: 51-52

Note: The above is an excerpt from a longer article which includes reviews of Sombrero Fallout by Richard Brautigan, I Would Have Saved Them if I Could by Leonard Michaels, Marry Me by John Updike, The Painter of Signs by R.K. Narayan, The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez, The Lake by Yasunari Kawabata, The Bread of Those Early Years by Heinrich Böll, Peter Smart's Confessions by Paul Bailey, and Kith by P.H. Newby.


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