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Contemporary Novelists: Richard Brautigan
by Thomas A. Vogler?
BRAUTIGAN, Richard. American. Born in Tacoma, Washington, 30 January 1933. Recipient: National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1968.
In the first section of Trout Fishing in America, Brautigan asks: "Was it Kafka who learned about America by reading the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin... Kafka who said, 'I like the Americans because they are healthy and optimistic.'" This is as good a center as any for a brief look at his work. Brautigan has found a way for Americans who don't much like themselves as Americans to fall in love with an old American Adam reborn once more. He draws on those qualities which are likeable to a Kafka, because so exotic and remote: innocence and good intentions, naÃ¯ve optimism combined with a practical cunning. The narrator-hero of The Abortion says, when forced to leave his library at the end of the book: "Vida was right when she said that I would be a hero in Berkeley." The hero in this case, as always with Brautigan, is not a person or character - he is an attitude, a point of view. He embodies good humor, is unaware of or mystified by evil, and survives catastrophes without even knowing they are there. Brautigan's narrator-heroes are hang-loose and loveable Captain Delanos, with the evil in their worlds pushed even further under the carpet. But for the reader, excluded evil becomes even more conspicuous and significant by its absence, like the plot in a plotless novel. Brautigan's version of the "American Dream" leaves out precisely those things writers like Mailer insist on as the basic substance of the dream.
The nameless innocent narrator of In Watermelon Sugar is a good example of these Brautigan qualities. He tells us early on that he has a "gentle life" a "comfortable" life, a life "carefully constructed from watermelon sugar and then travelled to the length of our dreams..." The book, too, is made from "watermelon sugar", and things gone into in it are "travelled in watermelon sugar." What "watermelon sugar" is, then, is indefinable even on the allegorical level. It is like "Trout Fishing in America," a phrase which can be anything from a person to the name of a book. It is a combination of language and attitude, a sense of form and response which is at once amorphous and particulate, innocent and cunning. When the narrator stops sleeping with Margaret and starts sleeping with Pauline, Margaret eventually hangs herself. Before that, Pauline asks the narrator how Margaret feels, saying that she seems terribly upset. "I don't know how she feels," is his response. The narrator-hero learned this response early, having watched some "tigers" kill and eat his parents when he was nine. After their meal, the tigers comment enthusiastically on how nice the day is, then they apologize: "Please try to understand. We tigers are not evil. This is just a thing we have to do." The narrator say "All right... thanks for helping me with my arithmetic," and the tigers answer: "Think nothing of it." It is precisely this lack of thought, introduced here in a typical Brautigan double-entendre, that means any day, even when one's parents have been eaten, can be a "nice day". At the very end, after Margaret hangs herself from the apple tree, there is a traditional funeral to be followed by a dance. No "thought" is necessary. since there is a traditional way of doing things. No empathy with the motives that might drive the inBOIL gang to cut themselves up ("It's a mystery to us") or drive Margaret to hang herself ("I don't know why") can distract the narrator from the contents of the potato salad, which had a lot of carrots in it.
The more one reads this book, the more uneasy one feels. Perhaps the "point" is as profound as that at the end of The Brothers Karamazov. We can't understand the problem of death and evil; so mourn and suffer, but then eat pancakes and be happy. Yet here is a book, not really a novel, that does away with the dialectic of mourning and rejoicing altogether. "We take the juice from the watermelons and cook it down until there's nothing left but sugar, and then we work it into the shape of this thing that we have: our lives." This sugary shape, and the virtuoso power of metamorphosis (the sentence is about it and illustrative of it at the same time) are the essence of Brautigan's art. More process than substance, more wit than wisdom - except that he just might be right, after all. One is left with the same ambivalence of attraction and repulsion felt towards the "So it goes" refrain of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five; and with the feeling that any response to so understated a form of art risks overstatement.
James Vinson (ed) - New York: St Martin's Press, 1972