Day #10582

Adventures in Reading and Writing, Part 12 – Richard Brautigan (2)

The work of Richard Brautigan was first brought to my attention by a friend at University who marched me into the library one afternoon and forced me at gunpoint to withdraw a copy of ‘The Hawkline Monster’.  He was also a short story writer, one who was completely in thrall to Brautigan and who later grew a moustache in the style of his favourite author, a look which kind of worked due to the fact that he was similarly fair and tall.  Though we lost touch after leaving University, his recommendation that I read ‘The Hawkline Monster’ (and my subsequent investigations which lead to the discovery of ‘Sombrero Fallout’, ‘A Confederate General To Big Sur’ and then a whole cache of other wonderful novels) has clearly had a lasting effect.

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Once I had read all the writing by Brautigan I could find, I bought a copy of ‘Listening To Richard Brautigan’, a record the author made in 1973, because it seemed like an interesting curio.  The stories and poems he reads on it are all published works and then there are a few tracks which are recordings of him going about his day-to-day business (on the first track we hear a phone ringing followed by one side of a conversation in which Brautigan discusses the equipment the recording engineers have set up in his house.  I love the sound of wonder and enthusiasm in his voice and the way he sounds sad and amused, and for a while I used this track as an introduction on all the mixtapes I made).

Up until then I had seen pictures of Richard Brautigan and read the words he set down on the page, but hearing his voice – a little dopey, friendly, cautious – really brought him to life.  It is not unusual to discuss a writer’s authorial voice, but is it strange that hearing a writer’s actual voice might change the way a reader/ listener interprets his work?

Reading ‘You Can’t Catch Death’ by Ianthe Brautigan, Richard’s only daughter, went some way to building a more complete picture of my favourite author.  As a personal memoir which draws on a lot of childhood memories it inevitably offers a warm, romanticised portrait of Brautigan.  There are parts which almost read like one of her father’s own novels, in particular her description of the road trip she took to meet her grandmother (Brautigan’s mother) for the first time has a whimsical-yet-heartbreaking quality that is reminiscent of parts of his novel ‘An Unfortunate Woman’.

And recently I finished reading a rather comprehensive biography.

William Hjortsberg’s epic ‘Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life And Times Of Richard Brautigan’ is not one for the mildly curious.  Then again, I suppose it is true that it may be a good idea to have more than a passing interest in any public figure before embarking on an 800 page account of his life.  Whilst the level of detail the author includes can be a little overbearing it does show that an impressive amount of work has gone in to its research (evidence of which is in the list of interviews conducted, which suggests Hjortsberg has spoken to pretty much everyone who ever knew Brautigan).  From conflicting accounts there emerges a dense personal history of which the biographer does his best to make sense and, whilst in places the text descends into tale after tale of drinking, shooting and sleeping around, these do at least accumulate to build a picture of how sudden fame affected Brautigan and how it may have accelerated his demise.

For me, the most interesting parts of the book are those where Brautigan’s life and writing overlap, when I find myself reading about something that happened to him and realising that it corresponds to one of his stories.  As a short story writer, I also find it interesting to read about the writing process, how/ where/ when he came to write these stories, as well as how proud he was of his work, albeit defensive to the point of alienating those around him.

And there are some beautiful little pieces of writing uncovered in Jubilee Hitchhiker, such as this line from an early piece of correspondence with a prospective publisher:

Making paper flowers out of love and death is a disease, but how beautiful it is.

I’m not sure how to follow that line in summing up my thoughts.  Because, whilst I wanted to find out what he was like as a person (after all, that is what we do when we admire the things people create), the Richard Brautigan I feel that I have come to know over the last nine years is the one written into the pages of his work and not the one defined elsewhere by his actions.

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Novel

I receive a phone call from a number I do not recognise.

“Hello?” I ask.

“Oh, hi,” says a voice I do not recognise.  “I just wanted to let you know that you feature heavily in my latest novel.  A lot of it is based on your life.  Nearly all of it in fact.”

“Can you tell me more?”

“Unfortunately not.  I don’t want to spoil any of the secrets, I just wanted to let you know ahead of publication.”

Publication?

The line goes dead and I stand there with the phone in my hand listening to the dead line, but sooner or later I hear it twitching and it is not dead and I climb into the telephone and then into a place I do not recognise.  All the time I am thinking about how exciting it is that someone has written a novel based on my life and I wonder what the author will have made of it.

Eventually I end up in his apartment.  He does not notice me.  He is busy replying to emails.  He is so involved in his work that even when I cough he does not turn round.  I recognise him but I am not sure where from.

I creep over to his dinner table where a manuscript of his novel lies open.  I begin to read it but I do not recognise the characters, the setting, the plot.  None of it corresponds to my life.  I feel cheated – was my life not interesting enough for him to turn it into a novel?

“What the-” he says as he turns round.

“Yes,” I say.

“Oh,” he says.

“Ok,” I answer.

Then I lean back against the window and fall through, turning into a fabulous massive seagull as I catch the breeze and soar over the city, looking down upon grubs and flavoured teas and missed calls and wrong numbers.

The Family Surveillance Unit

I was in the supermarket, looking down at my feet, choosing fruit to buy, essentially minding my own business.

A man approached me and picked up my face with a leather-gloved hand so he could study it. He was dressed like a computer undertaker and wore his reading glasses as if they were eyebrows. The man said that he remembered my father and that meant I must help him look for the missing component, which was – which must be – somewhere in the supermarket. Lost somewhere in the supermarket Ok. We looked everywhere. We reached into deep freezers, searched the backs of the very highest shelves, checked the insides of olives that had been de-stoned and stuffed, emptied cereal boxes and picked through their contents.

When I got home I told my father, who turned into a ghost then asked if we found the component. I didn’t remember. I said I didn’t remember. He said it was important, very important, of the utmost importance. But I couldn’t remember if we ever actually found it. I just could not remember.

The Family Surveillance Unit

My grandparents spent most of their retirement playing truant, sneaking in to factories and on to farms and working until someone noticed they shouldn’t be there.  Meanwhile I stayed home from school.  My poor handwriting lead me to abandon my plan to become a typewriter, so I started training to become a search engine.  I got people on the internet to send me their questions and then I did some research so I could send them back an answer within a few hours.  I thought it was a good idea, but it wasn’t really working.  When my grandparents got home, I made them hot drinks and tried to tell them things they didn’t already know.

The Family Surveillance Unit

Mother left so that she could star in a new detective series and was replaced by another actress, one who looked a bit like her but not much.  The transition from one mother to the next was supposed to be seamless, but new mum had all these crazy ideas about being nice to the spies and reporters that routinely turned up around the place, hiding, filming, taking notes.  Instead of shooing them away, as we did, she made the effort of baking goodies for them and serving cups of tea.

When we got snowed in she invited them to stay in the house and then there was no hiding place.  As far as exciting things go, being snowed in was the most boring exciting thing that ever happened.  There was no television, which meant there was no news, which meant we had to sit around and ask each other what was going on in our lives instead.  And then when it cleared, it felt as though being snowed in had never happened at all.  We staggered out into the world, not quite believing it was there, forgetting all the things we usually did outside.

But we did begin to appreciate new mum’s chumminess with the press – their reports became less intrusive, the pictures they chose to use were more flattering.  They made a kinder analysis of our uneven lives.

The Family Surveillance Unit

I ate lots of breakfast cereal and eventually the cereal company sent me a free set of beautifully illustrated dinosaur fact cards.  Beautifully illustrated, factually correct.  I felt honoured that the cereal company thought so highly of me that they would bestow upon me this gift, and I began to dream of a future career working on the cereal company’s archaeological digs, discovering new dinosaurs for them to inform the world about.

But I started to become sceptical – what if dinosaurs were a myth, what if the cereal company were not who they claimed to be.

Then our local news ran a story that revealed I had been targeted by a resistance movement who played hypnosis tapes through my window whilst I slept.  The news had exclusive footage of them, exclusive recordings of the tape.  ‘Dinosaurs Were Never Real, The Cereal Company Do Not Want What’s Best For You.’

The Family Surveillance Unit

First the room was full of primary colours, the walls painted with toys.  Everything was bright and unusual and I, soft-headed and warm.  Then time, light and dust faded the colours and mould started to creep through, speckling first until speckles grew between the speckles and it became one mass of dull green.  Moss began to grow through the wallpaper.  Mum shouted up the stairs that it was time for dinner and I went down the stairs and filled my face with food.  When I returned to my room, the walls were riverbanks and my bed was floating downstream, gently butting against the doorframe.

The Family Surveillance Unit

We kept a box filled with the family history – all old letters and photographs and things like that.  And this box kept our heritage up to date, it spun the words and pictures into films that were soundtracked by hit songs relevant to the time period, then later on it digitally condensed them into a string of code that was pure memory.  I never worked out what happened to the original documents, I thought it might have been nice to keep them too.  But then they do say that in the future it will be possible to create bright, modern versions of everyone and everything that ever was, and that we will all exist in the one moment and enjoy the best years of our lives together.

The Family Surveillance Unit

Not all of the relatives could make it to the wedding.  I was on heavy medication, I began to hallucinate that they were the same people in different disguises on different days.  When I suggested to the rest of the family that this is why they could not all be in the same room at once, I was locked in the airing cupboard to think about what I had done.

Going undercover disguised as a towel, I escaped and set out to discover the truth.  Following some awkward incidents I came to the conclusion that my theory had been incorrect, and once I finished the course of medication I stopped being a towel and slept for a week.