December 17, 2012 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Hard Times, by Charles Dickens.
There’s a depth of emotion to the second half of the second book — the climax of the affair between Louisa and Harthouse — that is hard to locate, exactly. The action is filtered through the nasty little eyes of peeping Mrs. Sparsit, until Louisa returns home and the emotion all spills out in the typical Dickensian fashion. What Dickens seems to do in the chapters preceding this is work all of his emotion into the scenery and the metaphor.
In such a short book — and really, I’m beginning to near the end, and I feel like I’m just getting my bearings; I’m poorly calibrated for short Dickens — a chapter is spent on explaining “an idea in the nature of an allegorical fancy” that Mrs. Sparsit develops:
She erected in her mind a mighty Staircase, with a dark pit of shame and ruin at the bottom; and down those stairs, from day to day and hour to hour, she saw Louisa coming.
It became the business of Mrs. Sparsit’s life, to look up her staircase, and to watch Louisa coming down….
The eleventh chapter is remarkable in a number of ways. Mrs. Sparsit tails Louisa to her tryst with Harthouse, and there is this remarkable transition from the industry and bustle of the railway journey to the country house to a garden to a dark wood:
All the journey, immovable in the air though never left behind; plain to the dark eyes of her mind, as the electric wires which ruled a colossal strip of music-paper out of the evening sky, were plain to the dark eyes of her body; Mrs. Sparsit saw her staircase, with the figure coming down.
(Amazing, that. The plain thing, here, is an imaginary “immovable” staircase. It is compared to the plainness of a fanciful staff on the night sky, made of electric wires. Dickens gives the lie to Fact and Progress once again.)
An overcast September evening, just at nightfall, saw beneath its drooping eyelid Mrs. Sparsit slide out of her carriage, pass down the wooden steps of the little station into a stony road, cross it into a green lane, and become hidden in a summer-growth of leaves and branches. One or two late birds sleepily chirping in their nests, and a bat heavily crossing and recrossing her, and the reek of her own tread in the thick dust that felt like velvet, were all Mrs. Sparsit heard or saw until she very softly closed a gate.
She went up to the house, keeping within the shrubbery, and went round it, peeping between the leaves at the lower windows. Most of them were open, as they usually were in such warm weather, but there were no lights yet, and all was silent. She tried the garden with no better effect. She thought of the wood, and stole towards it, heedless of long grass and briers: of worms, snails, and slugs, and all the creeping things that be….
She sees their interlude “by the felled tree” and Louisa’s struggle, “in the whirl of her own gratified malice, in the dread of being discovered, in the rapidly increasing noise of heavy rain among the leaves, and a thunderstorm rolling up.” I love how this mention of the thunderstorm also comes upon the reader unsuspected, swept up like Mrs. Sparsit in the suspense of Louisa’s wooing by Harthouse.
Mrs. Sparsit saw her out of the wood, and saw her enter the house. What to do next? It rained now, in a sheet of water. Mrs. Sparsit’s white stockings were of many colours, green predominating; prickly things were in her shoes; caterpillars slung themselves, in hammocks of their own making, from various parts of her dress; rills ran from her bonnet, and her Roman nose. In such condition, Mrs. Sparsit stood hidden in the density of the shrubbery, considering what next?
The whole scene is so astonishing, and rushes so headlong, that you can miss that it’s a parody. Dusk in the fecund forest by a tree surely felled by lightning, with a lover, as the sublime power of a thunderstorm descends? This is Romance. But it’s Mrs. Sparsit we experience it with, and see its ridiculousness. (The key, perhaps, is that absurd bat that keeps crossing her path, and the strange phrasing of its introduction. It jarred me out of the scene on my first reading.) The passion is real, for Louisa, and yet Dickens shows how the stage is set, how the eyes are watching (including ours), how it would be a huge mistake to trade a life for a moment. It’s ingenious. And it manages to indulge us with the image of a sopping wet Mrs. Sparsit, to boot.
Perhaps it’s because I recently saw the new Anna Karenina film adaptation (which is wonderful), but I kept thinking of Tolstoy’s novel during these Louisa-Harthouse chapters, and wondering if they were an influence on his conception of the affair between Anna and Vronsky.
April 23, 2011 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov.
In honor of Nabokov’s birthday — or I guess I should say “Nabokov’s birthday (observed),” since, as he explains in his foreword, he was born on April 10 according to the Russian Old Style calendar, which translated to the 22nd in the 19th century, the 23rd in the 20th, and he was born in 1899, but his birthdays were observed beginning in 1900, so it’s a complicated mess — I’ll stick to a fairly simple unpacking of one of Vladimir’s more complicated metaphors in the first chapter. It’s closer to what he would’ve wanted than an exegesis on any “such dull literary lore as autoplagiarism,” I suppose. Mostly I want the excuse to look at it a little more closely, to understand exactly what’s going on in it.
These extended metaphors are a kind of trademark with Nabokov; coming as they often do at the ends of chapters or their sections, they take on the status of bravura arias or crescendoes of thought and image. (Ironic, those musical metaphors of my own, since Nabokov acknowledges that music doesn’t do a thing for him.) There’s a real doozy at the end of chapter one, involving a memory of his father being tossed in the air, the angels painted on a grand church ceiling, and a Greek Catholic funeral service; I can’t even delve into this one yet. At any rate, I think that these metaphors also function as a message to the reader that here lies the author’s real “message,” more than in any mere plot or character. The play of word-images across memory, character, plot, meaning is what he’s after, the delight of taking a particular comparison as far as it will go to reveal (or conceal?) as much as it can.
So here, at the end of the second section of chapter one, is the metaphor under examination:
Neither in environment nor in heredity can I find the exact instrument that fashioned me, the anonymous roller that pressed upon my life a certain intricate watermark whose unique design becomes visible when the lamp of art is made to shine through life’s foolscap.
The paragraph, a very long one, which this sentence closes began with an exclamation over the dwarfing of the “cosmos” by “a single individual recollection, and its expression in words!” Exceedingly well crafted, this, as you’d expect from VN. There’s an argument made here, an argument about the primacy of the importance of the human mind and imagination. But the paragraph also introduces questions which will be taken up soon in the book, about the possibility or probability of God, or some creator at any rate.
Nabokov rejects “environment” and “heredity,” the 20th centuries’ prime adversaries or ingredients in the scientific argument over human behavior, as the “exact instrument” that made him himself. Instead he shifts to metaphor to explain his thought, the kind of thing only a unique human being can do. The “exact instrument” is an “anonymous roller” which presses an identifying watermark into a piece of “foolscap” paper — Nabokov’s life. And this identifying mark can only be seen by holding it up to a lamp, art.
So the metaphor here is, obviously, of creating and exposing a watermark. The “roller” in this metaphor could refer either to the person, as “anonymous” would lead you to believe, or the machine which imparts the watermark, the dandy roll.
As the video makes obvious, this happens when paper is still not what we think of as paper, but a slurry of ingredients.
The other half of the metaphor is the exposure of this “unique” mark to light. Art is the lamp that exposes the unique qualities of any individual, not only to the world, but to the individual him- or herself. (I think of Bulgakov, and wonder if this is an oil lamp, or an electric bulb, and if electric, if the lamp is properly shaded.) “Foolscap” is a nice Nabokovian touch, the most provocative and allusive word possible. It refers to a large, distinctly European paper size, and this is significant considering Nabokov’s migration from Europe to America and back to Europe. But of course it also refers to the jester’s cap and bells — and the name for the paper refers to the watermark with this design. And Nabokov thereby ends the section on a resounding note of ambiguity and ambivalence, for if life is a sheet of foolscap, perhaps looking for our individual significance will lead us only to see that there’s no significance but the laughter (in the light, this time) of that anonymous roller, what- or whoever it might be.
April 5, 2011 § Leave a comment
Now reading: The White Guard, by Mikhail Bulgakov.
Half an hour later everything in the room with the falcon had been turned upside down. A trunk stood on the floor, its padded inner lid wide open. Elena, looking drawn and serious, wrinkles at the corners of her mouth, was silently packing the trunk with shirts, underclothes and towels. Kneeling down, Talberg was fumbling with his keys at the bottom drawer of the chest-of-drawers. Soon the room had the desolate look that comes from the chaos of packing up to go away and, worse, from removing the shade from the lamp. Never, never take the shade off a lamp. A lampshade is something sacred. Scuttle away like a rat from danger and into the unknown. Read or doze beside your lampshade; let the storm howl outside and wait until they come for you.
That’s early on in The White Guard, before things get really bad, but it’s one of those knockout passages that Bulgakov uncorks every now and then, topping it off with one of his enigmatic, double-edged epigrams. I was startled to realize, as I kept reading, that it was a very important passage. Light — lamps — especially electric lights — kept popping up. More than a motif, a kind of presence. A metaphor, a character. The Lights of Kiev.
Light bulbs, candles, wood-burning stoves, and electric street lights fight a kind of shadow-war in the novel. It’s a book, famously, about the irrevocable loss of a certain kind of world, a kind of system of being, to another, new system: the tsarists giving way to the socialists, the Ukrainian nationalists, inevitably the Bolsheviks, amid the swirling confusion of a World War. And there are these lights, everywhere: these bulbs being turned on and off, and Bulgakov taking the time to mention these things, associate them with certain kinds of actions, certain ways of being.
Wires “snake” from outlets to lamps. As our young cadet-officer, Nikolka Turbin, struggles to make his way home through the war-ravaged city, “the electric street lamp on the corner was turned on and began to burn with a very faint hiss.” In a marvelous, grotesque chapter, the syphilitic avant-gardist Rusakov shows his compatriot how to “thrust [his] way upwards to the top” by “Clasping the lamppost” and “wind[ing] his way up it” like a “grass-snake.”
You see what I’m getting at here, though I’m really only scratching the surface (and only highlighting one aspect of the representations of light in the novel). We’re not so far from The Master and Margarita after all. I am astonished to find myself believing that Bulgakov’s marvelous encoding of the giant all-seeing eye of Stalin as the sun in that novel did not begin there; no, he built that image out of its beginnings in The White Guard, where light bulbs, especially the unshaded ones, are Satanic. They change night to day. The little light bulbs here, at the beginnings of the Soviet Union’s formation, represent the beginnings of the spy-state. Eventually, adding all of the light bulbs together leads to a spy apparatus the size and scope of the sun: overwhelming, nearly inescapable. A lampshade is sacred because it represents the individual’s freedom from oppression by the spy-state. Maybe this is all common knowledge, but it was a revelation to me.
Bulgakov also uses light bulbs as part of a broader thread of images of machinery and technology: field telephones also function as a sort of character. Things are anthropomorphized (guns, the Turbins’ tiled stove), and people become things (clocks, especially). But the focus on electric light made me realize how Bulgakov prefigured later use of the bulb as an important symbol, motif, and character. Two legendary American examples:
-The prologue of Invisible Man: the 1,369 lights in the invisible man’s “hole in the basement,” the electricity stolen from the grid of Monopolated Light & Power “for taking so much of my money before I learned to protect myself,” and to allow him to feel his “vital aliveness.”
-“The Story of Byron the Bulb,” in Gravity’s Rainbow. As with everything in the book, it’s dense, clotted with meaning, both perverse and hilarious. The story of an immortal bulb, and the “international light-bulb cartel” that monitors his activities. Surveillance. Power. The individual against the oppressive state. It’s all happening again…
January 18, 2010 § Leave a comment
Just finished: Dictionary of the Khazars.
Before moving on, just a few words about this book’s complex structure (you could say, “overly, needlessly complex” — yeah, let’s say that) and how I went about reading it.
Pavic wanted readers to participate as full partners in creating his fiction: he wanted them to skip around in it, picking how they want to read (within certain reasonable patterns), not following a single preordained pattern of linear reading. This is an analog hypertext, in other words. The book has “Preliminary Notes,” followed by three dictionaries (more like encyclopedias, actually): Red, Green, and Yellow Books, with entries related to the Khazars from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish sources and perspectives, respectively. Then there are two appendices. So far as I can tell, these are appendices and not incorporated into the entries only because Pavic wanted them to be read after the other entries. It’s not as though the content of the entries themselves is so overly focused. The substantial entries are linked stories, for all their trappings as scholarly entries. There are also two slightly different versions of the book: a “Male Edition,” and a “Female Edition,” differing by one paragraph.
I read the book like so: first, the preliminary notes. Then I read the four entries included in each of the three books, which seemed fairly introductory to me. Then I started following links in those entries to other entries, which led to a more or less chronological reading, with a few exceptions: from entries on the historical Khazars of the 7th-10th centuries and their conversions to other religions, to entries on the three characters of the 17th century linked by their dreams and the creation of the destroyed first edition of the Dictionary of the Khazars, to entries on the 20th-century characters studying the history of the Khazars in one way or another. I read the first appendix after it was linked in the text, somewhere in the middle; I read the second appendix and closing author’s note at the end, since they were never linked anywhere in the text.
The metafictional apparatus by which the book purports to be a reconstruction and expansion of a lost 17th-century original (of which two copies, one written with some kind of magically poisoned ink, survived) never quite worked for me. Mostly it just confused me. It’s certainly a good example of the kinds of bibliographic muddles one can get into in researching old books, and trying to understand the sources of those books; and the idea that the sources of the three books of the different religions need to talk to each other to understand the entire story of the Khazars is also an important one. But the artifice is never convincing. The entries are, for the most part, incredibly detailed but also somewhat random: the list of entries is much more novelistic than scholarly or lexicographical. The gaps in knowledge seem convenient. Partly I think this is an epistemological critique, a way of reconstructing a whole race, a people that have been forgotten precisely through such Western exercises as the compilation of historical sources and archival material. If that’s the case, I don’t think it’s entirely successful. Somehow it just seems messy.
Part of my problem with the book, I suspect, is also with the often baffling language. Is this a translation problem, a problem of my lack of knowledge, or a problem of my method of reading — if I’d read the book in another order, would I have caught the meaning behind some of these perplexing metaphors and constructions? Indeed, in many cases there is a connection to another entry or a recurring character, but not in nearly all cases. Just for three instances chosen at random from many, if someone can fill me in on what might be meant by “She always thought she had three Fridays until dinnertime” or “‘Do you know how many mouth holes the Jews have?’ his mother asked that day as he ate” or “…Cohen had swallowed a soaring bird with his left eye,” I’d appreciate it. Few of these weird folkloric metaphors and surrealistic intrusions into fictive reality struck a chord with me; mostly they were just frustrating. (Though at least in the case of Dr. Suk’s entry it seems possible that all or most of the events are taking place within a dream, which lends the tone and language some credence. By and large, the dreams in the book are more lucid and straightforward than the supposed reality. Perhaps I’m looking at the book with two eyes when I should be looking with one, as Pavic would have it.)
March 22, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Against Nature, by J.-K. Huysmans.
This is regarded as the key text of the Decadent movement which is best known by the works of Oscar Wilde. It is quite easily the most foppish book I’ve ever read: Literature Dandified. So far, at least, it is quite persistent in its celebration of “taste,” its abhorrence of the mob, and its ugly streak of misogyny.
There are manifestos strewn here and there throughout the first four chapters, but the root of them all seems to be this, from chapter two:
The main thing is to know how to set about it, to be able to concentrate your attention on a single detail, to forget yourself sufficiently to bring about the desired hallucination and so substitute the vision of a reality for the reality itself.
As a matter of fact, artifice was considered by Des Esseintes to be the distinctive mark of human genius.
Nature, he used to say, has had her day; she has finally and utterly exhausted the patience of sensitive observers by the revolting uniformity of her landscapes and skyscapes….
So our “hero,” Des Esseintes, decides to isolate himself in a villa on a hill outside of Paris. He spends his time alone, keeping vampire hours, contemplating the furnishings he’s chosen, his art collection, his book collection (and his walls are bound like books, in “orange morocco”), his perverse fancies and desires. It’s amazing how much it reminds me of surrealism, and both Huysmans and Des Esseintes seem to be longing for just such a movement.
For instance, chapter four is devoted to Des Esseintes’ attempt to bring out “the silvery glints running across the weft of the wool” of an Oriental rug, by placing on it a “huge tortoise.” However, the brown of the shell does not have the effect he anticipated — so he has it gilt. Even this gilt does not prove to be enough, however, so he has a design of precious stones set onto the shell, simulating a Japanese drawing of flowers. Leading to the image of an aesthetic turtle lumbering across a gorgeous rug. (The turtle dies, of course: “it had not been able to bear the dazzling luxury imposed upon it.”)
This incident reminds me of nothing so much as Raymond Roussel: there are similar set pieces in Impressions of Africa. It also reminds me of some of the OuLiPo writers, Harry Mathews especially, and Perec. It’s also an extended example of the dominant metaphoric motif in the book: things from nature — insects, plants, weather — are compared to items in Des Esseintes’ artificial world, and, by the alchemy of metaphor, somehow transformed into them.
I love this stuff: so far, Against Nature is mostly description, metaphor, incident for the sake of striking image, and pure belletristic language. There have been chapters devoted to an alternate history of Latin literature and linguistics, the aforementioned turtle chapter, and an ekphrastic chapter on two artworks by Gustave Moreau featuring Salome.
However, it is amazing how the book disregards both any concern about money and any feeling for people — in general, really, but especially those without taste, which really seems to be everyone but Des Esseintes. There seems to be a pull back towards feudalism and a push forward towards fascism in the work. Acting on the desire to be left alone, the hermetic, Decadent ideal, leads to those who would get into everyone’s business running the world.
January 24, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Villette.
I’m reading this book at the behest of my wife, Jaime; we occasionally like to make each other read something we love that the other probably wouldn’t get around to. She read it after a long string of 19th-century books featuring typically selfless heroine-martyr female characters and was blown away by the complexity of Lucy’s character and narration. “You’ve got to watch yourself with Lucy Snowe,” she told me. “She lies.”
Brontë really does do some strange, brilliant things with her narrator: things that remind me of Nabokov, and maybe even Laurence Sterne. As those names suggest, the book can feel both archaic and modern, sometimes simultaneously.
For instance: the beginning of chapter four. The first two paragraphs of this chapter employ a technique that’s more or less never used anymore: the use of an extended, complicated metaphor as a narrative device, pushing the plot along in a kind of encoded message just short of allegory. You see this in Victorian literature frequently; I think it died out with modernism’s disdain for the flourishes and fillips of Victorian prose.
Lucy refuses to say much of anything about her family (or lack thereof?); it’s impossible to tell if her family has died, or is estranged, or abusive, or what, exactly. Instead of telling us what happens in the eight years after the opening scenes, she assigns to us, the readers, a “conjecture” that she was happy to go home, and spins around this a metaphor of a “bark” floating along merrily in the sunshine. “A great many women and girls are supposed to pass their lives something in that fashion; why not I with the rest?”
So, okay, we’re already just playing along with Lucy, and already cannot say with any certainty what actually happened to her. Then she says that, if that metaphor of the calmly floating boat was accurate, she “must somehow have fallen over-board, or that there must have been a wreck at last,” and talks of a “nightmare” along these lines of drowning; whether this is an actual nightmare or still a metaphoric nightmare of remembering something in those eight years is impossible to say. Finally, “the ship was lost, the crew perished.”
Lucy moves us through eight years without actually telling us one thing that truly happened: instead, she employs a metaphor that she herself disputes the validity of. It is impossible to say if the constituent parts of her metaphor (ship, steersman, storm, crew) function allegorically, standing for events and people in Lucy’s life, or are merely conveniences to capture the emotional landscape through which Lucy moves to the present of the novel.
This is brilliant. We get a sense of what that time entailed, but more importantly, we get a strong sense of how powerfully Lucy wants to avoid confronting the details of that time; how deeply she feels it still and how distant she tries to keep it from her thoughts. There is both expression and repression in the convolutions of metaphor.
She does it again in chapter 12, pages 124-25, provoked by a real storm this time. (The Gothic and Romantic elements in the book are palpable here, and really quite ingenious, I think.) This is another of my favorite passages in the book so far: Lucy looks at the moon on a calm night, and recalls how it looked “leaning back on azure, beside an old thorn at the top of an old field, in Old England,” during her childhood. (What a brilliant turn of phrase — “leaning back on azure!”) And it recalls her childhood to her. Then we get what seems one of the key paragraphs in the book:
Oh, my childhood! I had feelings: passive as I lived, little as I spoke, cold as I looked, when I thought of past days, I could feel. About the present, it was better to be stoical; about the future — such a future as mine — to be dead. And in catalepsy and a dead trance, I studiously held the quick of my nature.
I mean… good Lord! What are we to make of that? What are we to feel towards this girl, and towards the older woman recalling that level of repressed despair and grief? That level of repressed life? (Well, here’s what I felt: sympathy; horror; some level of queasy recognition.)
But Lucy goes on to recount a night of thunderstorms; she gets out on the roof and sits in the rain, wind, and lightning, feeling a kind of wild, Romantic kinship with nature. She feels a “longing” for a release from her “present existence.” In the midst of this scene of psychology projected onto nature, we get another, stunning, bruising extended metaphor:
This longing, and all of a similar kind, it was necessary to knock on the head; which I did, figuratively, after the manner of Jael to Sisera, driving a nail through their temples. Unlike Sisera, they did not die: they were but transiently stunned, and at intervals would turn on the nail with a rebellious wrench; then did the temples bleed, and the brain thrill to its core.
She then returns to the calm night, watching the moon, but extends the metaphor of Jael and Sisera (from Judges 4): Jael, “the stern woman,” watches over her captive Sisera, captain of the Canaanites’ army, while waiting for her husband, Heber, but does not drive the nail through his temples; instead, “something like an angel — the Ideal!” soothes Sisera, just as Lucy feels hopeful in “the cool peace and dewy sweetness of the night.”
So there’s some serious sexual longing and repression going on here. Lucy’s calm hopefulness is shattered by a love letter falling down to her secret resting place; and while she says (to herself and to us) that she “did not dream… for a moment” that it was for her, we feel for her; we know she let herself hope, at least for a moment. We read between the lines of her complicated metaphor to the desperate loneliness and desire she feels. It was no easy thing, being an unattached, “independent” woman (voluntarily or not); does Brontë invite us to feel sorry or elated for her, that she so often drove the nail into the temple of her desire?
August 4, 2008 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Vineland.
A couple more things about Pynchon’s other world and I’ll move on.
There are two incredible extended metaphors within six pages of each other that identify the essence of that other world (which I posited as being the filmed world): it is its timelessness, or at least the illusion of same. Here’s Frenesi, suffering from post-partum depression and from memories of her fascist lover Brock:
Taken down, she understood, from all the silver and light she’d known and been, brought back to the world like silver recalled grain by grain from the Invisible to form images of what then went on to grow old, go away, get broken and contaminated. She had been privileged to live outside of Time, to enter and leave at will, looting and manipulating, weightless, invisible. Now Time had claimed her again, put her under house arrest, taken her passport away….
Frenesi as film, and although I don’t really understand the process of developing film very well, I think what’s intended here is the idea of silver grains recalled from development to the real world, and by extension the idea of Frenesi terrified that she’s given birth to something existing in an unbounded set, something that can “grow old, go away…”
Then there’s a metaphor that manages to be both gonzo and haunting: Brock Vond’s “erect penis” as a “joystick” with which Frenesi steers through her obstacle-filled world, presented as a “forbidden arcade… closing time never announced… no longer the time the world observed but game time, underground time, time that could take her nowhere outside its own tight and falsely deathless perimeter.”
Also important is an earlier passage, from the beginning of the previous chapter (p. 218), which I somehow forgot to mention before. Discussing the Thanatoids, it reads:
We are assured by the Bardo Thodol, or Tibetan Book of the Dead, that the soul newly in transition often doesn’t like to admit — indeed will deny quite vehemently — that it’s really dead, having slipped so effortlessly into the new dispensation that it finds no difference between the weirdness of life and the weirdness of death, an enhancing factor in Takeshi’s opinion being television, which with its history of picking away at the topic with doctor shows, war shows, cop shows, murder shows, had trivialized the Big D itself. If mediated lives, why not mediated deaths?
Now, there does seem to be a clear difference between Pynchon’s treatment of TV and his treatment of video games and film. I’m probably simplifying by lumping them all together into Pynchon’s other, timeless world, a kind of fool’s paradise. I suppose, however, that I should leave the last, blunt word to Sledge Poteet, cutting through layers of b.s.:
“You don’t die for no motherfuckin’ shadows.”
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.)