Adventures in Writing and Reading (An Occasional Series), Part 4
I thought that I would interrupt this series of writing about short stories to present a short ramble about my favourite author. Richard Brautigan was born in 1935 and died in 1984, he wrote short stories, poems and novels, the most famous of which is probably Trout Fishing In America. He was tall and wore a moustache. His work is typically imaginative and funny yet sad, usually presented in very short chapters and with use of repetition and distractions. There is a simplicity to his writing and a sense of wonder and endless possibilities. The below are my five favourite Richard Brautigan novels. I have tried to write what I mean to say about each…
In Watermelon Sugar
Let’s start with black soundless watermelons, and communities built in sugar and trout oil. In Watermelon Sugar is a good place to start as it seems to both eulogise and criticise the counterculture of which Brautigan was a part. It is beautifully written and both whimsical and sharp, with the pointless violence of the conclusion standing in opposition to the gentle, maybe naïve, ways of the liberal inhabitants of the community. It is perhaps one of his more surreal works as he creates a world of tiny rivers, tigers, forgotten things… a world which I can picture being filmed in felt or plasticine or something like that. As with many of Brautigan’s novels the protaganist is a writer/ dreamer whose circumstances are noticably different from the others around him – he is distinct because he is writing a book and lives away from the commune, but at the same time his relationships mean that he finds himself in the middle of the conflict.
An American writer pines for his ex-girlfriend, worry-wishing the night away. Meanwhile, a short story which he has abandoned continues of its own accord. It centres around a sombrero falling from the sky – the kind of inexplicable event Brautigan likes to drop into his novels – and the reaction of three men to this event. The story builds with a pleasing intensity, blowing out of all proportion and mirroring the writer’s own spiralling paranoia. It is a story about the gaps in our comprehension of the world and the people around us, the distance between thought and reality and about people stalling rather than acting, misunderstandings through being unable to – or perhaps nervous of – expressing oneself clearly. I’m not sure what it says about me that this is probably my favourite book.
Dreaming of Babylon
Brautigan’s detective novel is essentially a story about creating your own utopias and the dangers of losing track of day to day events whilst dreaming. C Card, not just a shambling and inefficient private eye but also a shambling and inefficient human being, has little going for him in real-world San Francisco and so must battle his own overactive imagination to take advantage of a rare job offer. Brautigan plays fast and loose with the conventions of the genre, throwing in villains and crimes that make no sense to create a chaotic and farcical runaround. Secondary to the case in hand is C Card’s status in Babylon, a dream world into which he retreats on a seemingly involuntary basis. He tiptoes through the novel, careful not to fall into dreaming of Babylon one moment, allowing himself a few moments away in another – and it becomes clear that these dreams are equal parts comfort and curse. As with nearly everything he produced, the suggestion is that Brautigan is not just creating fiction but telling us something about himself.
The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966
Brautigan’s novels feature a lot of characters who are isolated from the rest of the world and who have created their own environments. In The Abortion, he creates a library into which anyone is free to deposit a book*. It is the job of the protaganist, a peaceful yet naive man, to look after the library and to ‘welcome’ the books and their writers. This is another cosy Brautigan idea, similar in many ways to the set up in In Watermelon Sugar, and this is shown up when the protaganist is forced to leave the comfort of his bookish utopia. It is the arrival of the character of Vida, and her subsequent pregnancy, which prompts a trip to Mexico to see a doctor. The contrast of the cold, hard reality of the characters’ plight to their strange yet gentle lives lived in the library seems to fit with so much of the rest of Brautigan’s work. In so much of his writing there seems to be a sense of disappointment that the real world does not live up to his imagination.
*This has inspired the creation of just such an institution, named the Brautigan Library – there is a good article about a visit to it here (though I think it may have since moved).
An Unfortunate Woman
One of his best works but also one of the saddest, this is the last ‘novel’ Brautigan wrote before his whisky-and-shotgun suicide in 1984. It might even be stretching it to call it a novel – it could more accurately be described – as Brautigan does – as a rambling ‘calendar map’ following the author’s travels. It is troubling in its wandering listlessness, as Brautigan crosses America and hops to Japan, Hawaii, Alaska, going anywhere but never stopping still, never seeming to find any source of happiness that can keep him from the spectre of suicide which hangs over the whole thing, made explicit with the recurring theme of the titular Unfortunate Woman.
But Brautigan is still curious, dreaming, perceptive and amused. His experiences prompt imaginative wanderings but these are so loosely anchored that it gives the impression of someone slowly drifting further and further from the real world. In Hawaii he spends time wandering around a Japanese graveyard and having a photograph taken of him holding a chicken; leaving Alaska he explains why flying with a hangover is his least favourite thing to do; in a supermarket he dreams up a burgeoning romance whilst choosing soup. This is some of my favourite of Brautigan’s writing and it makes me sad that there is not more of it.
Further reading: The Brautigan Pages, The Richard Brautigan Archives
(In Part 5 – it’ll be either Jon McGregor and Judith Schalansky; or Hari Kunzru and AL Kennedy).