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Brautigan’s writing, so identified with the excess of the ’60s, is not currently enjoying critical praise. But, Tavis Eachan Triance argues, there’s much more to his fiction than hippies and rebellion.

Richard Brautigan: A Poetics of Alienation

Tavis Eachan Triance. March 19th, 2000

Richard Brautigan is a writer whose work many people have become familiar with since the publication of Trout Fishing In America in 1967. This parodic, fragmented, yet strangely nostalgic work of fiction captured the interest of a burgeoning youth culture. The willingness of this element of society, to accept anything which established itself in opposition to established social traditions, be it music, literature, drugs, philosophy, or outward appearance, was a phenomenon which created a substantial reputation for the literary experimentation of its author. This popularity has been thought of both by critics and readers, in terms of the generational context in which it occurred.

Brautigan’s status as one of the chief icons of a literary audience whose adherence to what was widely perceived as a naive, reactionary hippie culture has unfortunately left him stigmatised by those pejorative notions.

Much of the criticism which deals with his work, suffers from an inability to separate the author from the ethos which swept the period in which it was written. Although both Brautigan’s prose and poetry are coloured by the whimsical, highly transparent positively which was characteristic of the hippie generation, these moments are neither indicative of Brautigan’s style, nor are they particularly luminous surrounded as they are by the innovative use/misuse of conventional literary forms and devices.

It is this juxtaposition of nostalgic reminiscence, with a parodic, disjunctive rendition of the English language that allows for Brautigan’s peculiar ‘cacaphonic simplicity.’

It is as if Mark Twain had somehow become lodged in a player piano which continuously emits a jumble of hauntingly familiar, yet ineffably garbled show tunes.

Generally Brautigan’s narrators sound as if they are extremely gentle, even fragile people, who are slightly befuddled by a world which appears too harsh for them to exist within. It is as if the realisation of the pain, frustration, and disappointment of the ‘actual’ world has spurred them to create a surrogate world peopled with nostalgic reminiscence, fantastic occurrence, and the free play of language.

Anatole Broyard, in his appraisal of Brautigan’s work states that “[he] sees, hears, feels and thinks things that make some of us feel he’s found a better answer to being alive here and now than we have.”

It is the previously mentioned sense of narratorial hopelessness which we find in one of Richard Brautigan’s later novels Willard and His Bowling Trophies. Although this book does deal with the frustration and sadness which accompanies the perception of a world which has no place for the distinct personality, it is hauntingly devoid of the self-aggrandising optimism which is present in many of Brautigan’s other works. Published in 1974 Willard is subtitled a “perverse mystery,” exhibiting the author’s penchant for presenting his works of fiction as if they were written in accordance with certain established conventions of genre.

The expectations which are projected onto the work as a result of these tags, provides Brautigan with a platform from which to examine the consequences of making groupings, in both literary spheres and in society as a whole. It is likely that he feels structures of inclusively and exclusivity such as these leave him marginalized both as a person, and as a writer, and is therefore inclined to protest them. Willard and his Bowling Trophies is comprised of pseudo- erotic narrative which is combined with a disconnected, rather vaguely orchestrated crime story. This story presents the reader with an array of images which depict the modern persona in various states of marginalization and alienation from modern society.

Traditional forms of linear narrative are re-ordered, and cast into a slowly shifting near stasis. It is as if the author decided to utilise as narration, a collage whose forms were imbued with a sort of viscous motion. These images are gradually strung together, through various idiosyncratic allusions, and permutations of language. The first fragment of the literary Aggregate which Brautigan brings to rest before our eyes, depicts the lives of two residents of San Francisco.

Their ability to exist within American society has begun to degenerate; it is the fault of genital warts, or rather it is the fault of a societal reaction towards sex, sexually transmitted disease, and all of the connotations that have become associated with them. Bob is de-habilitated by the massive force of cultural disdain which is attached to this particular, relatively harmless disease.

“It had never dawned on him to look inside of his penis, down into the urethra. The warts were like an evil little island of pink mucous roses…He stood there staring at the warts in his penis. He thought he was going to throw up. Long after he had finished peeing, he was still standing there above the toilet bowl, staring at his penis.” (Pp13)It is this sense of alienation from modern culture, and more specifically American Society which is called into question throughout the novel.

Bowling trophies whose symbolic merit leads to the degeneration of the Logan Brothers; three brothers who before the loss of the trophies could have been poster children for the American utopian vision of the 1950’s. Even one half of the pronouncedly ‘normal’ couple, who are seemingly immune to the marginalization which abounds, is denigrated; exposed for a cruel latent sexism. The work continually points to the brutally cruel inconsistency / hypocrisy of the normalizing social standards which are in place in modern society. In fact the only character who is depicted in a light which gives him any hope for survival within this culture is Willard, a papier-mâché bird.

Whether these entrenched cultural views have a marginalizing effect, thus driving individuals who do not fit the mold into an illusory inadequacy, or whether they work to supplant them with values which the author sees as being inadequate themselves, society is definitely on a horrific path. This path is illustrated by the anguished cry of one Logan brother, and the analogy which Brautigan uses to punctuate it, “‘SOMEBODY STOLE OUR BOWLING TROPHIES!!!’ finally broke the silence like a locomotive leaping its tracks and crashing into an ice covered lake to sink instantly out of sight, leaving a giant steaming hole in its wake.”

This gaping hole appears to be the watery void which society is bound for if it continues to attribute maximum value to bowling, and minimum value to the individual. It may have been that Richard Brautigan was finally overwhelmed by a strong feeling that the society in which he had chosen to live was one whose major tenets provided no place for him.

In the early 1970’s Brautigan moved to Pine Creek Montana refusing to give interviews or lecture for approximately the next eight years. He was found dead of a gunshot wound on October 25 1984.