July 9, 2008 § Leave a comment
Just finished: Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar, by Richard Brautigan.
Reading next: Vineland, by Thomas Pynchon.
“By the way,” Doc Edwards said. “How’s that book coming along?”
“Oh, it’s coming along.”
“Fine. What’s it about?”
“Just what I’m writing down: one word after another.”
That’s from In Watermelon Sugar, maybe the most compellingly weird, indefinable narrative I’ve ever read. Now here’s one from Merriam-Webster:
shibboleth: a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usu. regarded by others as empty of real meaning
I’m afraid I’m going to have to more or less gloss over these two Brautigans: they deserve fuller treatment than I’m going to give them (just as Dog of the South did), and even if I’m uncertain how much I actually understand, appreciate, or should even worry about understanding or appreciating them, they are certainly interesting, and I’m glad I read them. It’s been kind of a crazy summer, and I’ve been away from the ol’ desk for two weeks straight, more or less. I’m on to Vineland and there’s too much crazy-fun shit in there for me to ignore: I need to get to Pynchon more than I need to babble about Brautigan.
But back to my point, which is that these books are in part about their language, the words that make them up. Classic metafictional tactic, I suppose, but much less cloying than many metafictional tactics, in that Brautigan is fairly loose about it, fairly comical, willing to have fun with the idea and (I think) let the reader in on the fun, too. The phrases “trout fishing in America” and “in watermelon sugar” recur throughout their respective books. The first, oddly beautiful, sentence of the latter is “In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar.” And it turns out that, yes, the substance “watermelon sugar” does, in fact, make up much of the material of the world in that book. I imagine it as a kind of natural plastic, if it’s anything, which it’s not, because it’s just words. And that’s kind of the point, maybe: “watermelon sugar” is a phrase that strikes Brautigan as beautiful, and it can mean something or not, as you will.
Similarly, “trout fishing in america” is, in the first chapter, the title of the book, and subsequently becomes, additionally, an activity, an idea or mythos , an anthropomorphization (writing letters, responding to the text: maybe a deity, maybe just another facet of being an idea or mythos), a synecdoche for America itself and especially its “nature” (maybe), a name for a very strange wheelchair-bound wino, a place. A phrase, though, always. A hook to hang a little story or idea from. Maybe a shibboleth, although it can seem meaningful many times.
Brautigan spent much of his life in Japan, and it would seem that he’s studied his haiku. The sound and intonation of words is important in haiku, and the point is not telling a story, exactly, but crafting out of a moment and a setting an emotion, a reaction, a being. I think Brautigan was after something similar, perhaps. But it is tempting to see his phrases as shibboleths: all those hippies getting high, digging on his crazy riffs, his willfully naive sentences (as rhetorically complicated as anything DFW has written, these sentences that act simple), his seeming talk of nature and living in it. (But what does he actually think about nature?)
The cool thing, especially in TFiA, is how the metaphors carry so much of the weight of the book. The book seems to be all about his metaphoric juxtapositions of the pastoral or “natural” with the modern, the artificial, the urban and suburban. And IWS is built around this central mystery of what it means that things are made of watermelon sugar; that the place the townspeople live in is called iDEATH, where the sun’s color is different on each day of the week and strangely disaffected suicides shock (but do not seem to change) those townspeople; that a book has not been written for generations and books used to be burned for fuel. It’s the words themselves, to no small extent, that make the surrealism, not the images they can (or cannot) convey. Why that small “i”? Why is it important that the last word of TFiA be “mayonnaise”?
The books are now remembered as hippie books, and Brautigan is remembered as a hippie writer, so I suppose if we think of these as shibboleths for anyone, it would be for hippies. But my understanding is that Brautigan was ambivalent at best toward the hippie movement (if there was such a monolithic thing). These might be shibboleths for just strange folks, folks enamored of language, enamored of odd ways of thinking about being and the oddness of being in a world full of other beings being. (But that sounds like hippie talk. Perhaps I’ve backed into a corner. And yet there seems something intellectually substantial to Brautigan; an anecdote to overthought, bringing me back to haiku. I suppose there was something substantial to many hippies, too, before we turned them into a punchline.)