Writer in Residence · 09/07/2011

Language as Landscape: from a Dissertation on Richard Brautigan

Note from Jess: My husband, Frank, and I returned to the United States this summer after a year living on an island off the Northwest coast of Wales. In Wales, Frank was studying cognitive linguistics at Bangor University, so I introduced myself to members of the English department to see if I could sit in on lectures or attend readings. To my surprise, and with a silent squeal of delight, I learned that there would be a lecture from a PhD student who had just finished writing his dissertation on one of my favorite writers: Richard Brautigan. This was especially prescient as we had just used Brautigan’s I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone as a reading during our wedding. Brautigan doesn’t get enough love from American critics, and to know that he was getting the critical attention he deserves in the U.K. was a real treat. I asked John Tanner, the Ph.D. student, if he would be willing to share an excerpt and he so kindly did.

Richard Brautigan is not read or taught much in US or UK universities, yet in the late 1960s and early 1970s he was the darling of the campuses – at least as far as students were concerned. At a time of cultural and political disaffection among a significant number of America’s students, Brautigan, with his off-beat literary style, hippie garb and home among the San Francisco avant-garde, was a counter-cultural icon. That partly explains his demise. Identified– wrongly –as an ephemeral hippie phenomenon, he was swept away in the anti-hippie backlash of the mid-seventies, along with tie-dye T-shirts, caftans and the belief that love and flowers could conquer the world. Many academic critics had been suspicious of his literary credentials all along,and by the time he committed suicide in 1984, his bibliographer, John F. Barber, could say that he had become “largely ignored, or worse, negated by critics and pundits who trivialized his contribution to American literature.” That is unfortunate, because Brautigan has a strong claim to be acknowledged as a significant and highly idiosyncratic contributor to innovative 20th-century American fiction. In particular, his most popular novel, Trout Fishing in America, was more structurally radical than anything previously attempted by his fellow American innovators of the 1950s and 1960s. It redefined what the American novel might be–and, unlike so much experimental writing, still remained accessible.

Brautigan was born in the Pacific Northwest to a single mother and led a poor and peripatetic existence, acquiring various step-fathers and half-siblings before settling in Eugene, Oregon, where he graduated high school, tried and failed to establish himself as a writer and finally left for San Francisco in 1956, aged 21,having cut all ties with his family. One of his final acts in Eugene had been to throw a stone through a police station window so that police would arrest him (why is unclear), a gesture which had him sent to the state mental institution for two to three months where he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and given electric-shock treatment. San Francisco provided Brautigan with a nurturing community of literary non-conformists, a chance to dramatically widen his reading, a mentor (the poet Jack Spicer) and a platform for his work (through poetry readings and small presses). He produced five books of verse, most of which are forgettable, and continued to publish poetry throughout his life. However, his undoubted poetic sensibility only produced work of sustained merit when expressed through the medium of prose.

Having said that, however, Brautigan seems not to accept prose-poetry categorisations. One of his most striking achievements is to blur the distinctions between the two, producing hybrid pieces that defy categorisation. This quality is particularly apparent in his short stories, many of which are collected in Revenge of the Lawn, and in the novels Trout Fishing and In Watermelon Sugar. In Revenge, many of the so-called stories are the kind of brief, non-narrative observations or snapshot images that one associates with lyric poetry. Their brevity – 62 in 46 pages – also suggests poetry as does the isolation in white space that this brevity, and frequent use of short paragraphs, creates. Also, Brautigan is acutely a-tuned to the rhythms of language and draws heavily on metaphoric usages, many of which are jarringly dissonant and counter-intuitive, in the manner of Dada and the surrealists. In “The Wild Birds of Heaven”, for instance, TV static dances on the screen “like drunken cemeteries”; in “The Post Offices of Eastern Oregon”, a house is “abandoned like a musical instrument”. Many of the events described are as surreal as the metaphors. In “Homage to the San Francisco YMCA”, for instance, a wealthy poetry-lover decides to replace the plumbing in his house with poetry. Underpinning all this exotica is the deployment of Hemingway’s terse, simple, declarative sentences as a basic unit of expression – a characteristic of some of the poetry as well as most of the fiction.

Brautigan’s novels feature the same linguistic characteristics as his short stories, and just as he was dissatisfied with the conventional distinctions between poetry and prose, so he was often impatient with the conventions of the novel. In his first published novel, A Confederate General from Big Sur (1964), this expresses itself in a desire to expose and parody those conventions. It has, for example, a multitude of endings, and blurs the lines between fact and fiction, past and present. It belongs to a metafictional mode favoured by American contemporaries such as Barth, Barthelme, Pynchon and Vonnegut. In a similar vein, Brautigan produced a series of genre parodies in the 1970s, including The Hawkline Monster (1974), and even when he seems happy to remain within narrative conventions, as is the case with In Watermelon Sugar, his treatment is still radical. In Watermelon he fashions a lyrical, serene, dream-like prose which mimics the consciousness that the community in the novel seeks to achieve.

However, in Brautigan’s most radical work, narrative conventions are neither meekly followed nor parodied. They are, for the most part, simply ignored. The effect is to prevent us from constructing a coherent perceived or imaginable reality beyond the text. Conventions such as plot, theme, character and a sense of place are the means by which we build this extra-textual reality. But Trout Fishing has no plot, no theme, no continuity of character and no stable sense of place. The fragments which compose the book range across fishing vignettes, tales of bohemian life in San Francisco, recipes, imaginary letters, a Jack the Ripper tale and much more. And yet the book’s fragments constitute a unified creative expression, rather than a collection of short fictions, just as a Cubist collage consisting of unrelated fragments is a single creative expression. And, like such a collage, Trout Fishing resists mimesis even though individual fragments may be mimetic because,taken as a whole, the piece can only be accepted as an addition to the perceived world rather than a representation of it. To emphasise the fact that this is a text in a textual universe, the book is extravagantly, playfully allusive and when a landscape is encountered it is the signs within that landscape, or the names of the places, that are stressed. This is a landscape of language. That stress can also be found in Brautigan’s use of metaphor. Frequently the comparisons are not simply counter-intuitive but present us with irreconcilable images and therefore make it even more difficult to construct a coherent exterior reality.They are self-subverting, as when a tree-lined creek is described as being “like 12,845 telephone booths in a row with high Victorian ceilings and all the doors taken off and all the backs of the booths knocked out.” Brautigan often goes further, extending the metaphor by treating it as a new reality rather than a comparative term, which takes us further still from mimesis. Omissions, digressions and contradictions intensify the effect. Trout Fishing also pays attention to its role as a physical/visual object, incorporating features such as the cover photograph into the signification process so that the book is conceived not just as a semantic creation but as an aesthetic artefact.

Prior to Trout Fishing, I can find nothing so structurally radical among Brautigan’s peers. And certainly nothing which was so experimental and yet so popular. Brautigan deserves remembering for this, as also for In Watermelon Sugar, for some of the inventive prose-poetry short stories, and for the inspired collision of minimalism and extravagant surrealism that typifies the language in so much of his work.

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Dr. Tanner’s PhD thesis at Bangor University, UK, was on Brautigan. A monograph based on the thesis is due to be published as an ebook next year and he has provided the entry on Brautigan in the online resource, The Literary Encyclopedia. He has a collection of poetry published, Pieces.

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posted by Jess Stoner