In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan
A few months ago – signed off sick and desiring something easy to read – I picked up Richard Brautigan‘s In Watermelon Sugar. Brautigan’s books are short and written in sentences of childlike simplicity. I find them highly enjoyable to read, yet I never quite know what to make of them – which is to say, I can’t decide whether their apparent simplicity is deceptive or not. On finishing these books, I’m often left with the feeling that something of significance has just brushed past me, but I’ve failed to fully apprehend it.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that this hunch about a deeper meaning is misplaced. Maybe the surface is all there is. As I entertain this possibility, I find myself wondering if a lack of deeper meaning actually bothers me. Given Brautigan’s poetic talents – his ear for language, his eye for imagery – should I really feel short-changed if there’s nothing beneath the beautiful surface? An interesting question, to which I’ll return.
It may be useful at this point to try to pin down what it is about Brautigan’s work that produces this curious effect. I think it boils down to this: Brautigan writes in such a way as to discourage a literal reading, whilst simultaneously ensuring no metaphorical interpretation can be determined with any confidence.
In the case of In Watermelon Sugar, this general strategy is applied at several levels. The story, taken as a whole, “feels” like an allegory – it has the simplicity and economy of something like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea – yet taken on these terms it doesn’t lend itself to any definitive interpretation.
At a smaller scale, the situations and events presented within the story also tend to discourage a literal reading. This is because they are so often anti-realistic. Take this passage:-
One morning the tigers came in while we were eating breakfast and before my father could grab a weapon they killed him and they killed my mother. My parents didn’t even have time to say anything before they were dead. I was still holding the spoon from the mush I was eating.
“We’re sorry,” one of the tigers said. “We really are.”
“Yeah,” the other tiger said. “We wouldn’t do this if we didn’t have to, if we weren’t absolutely forced to. But this is the only way we can keep alive.”
“We’re just like you,” the other tiger said. “We speak the same language you do. We think the same thoughts, but we’re tigers.”
“You could help me with my arithmetic,” I said.
– In Watermelon Sugar
Not only do we have talking tigers, we have a boy who responds to the death of his parents with a remarkable absence of emotion. Impossible facts, implausible psychology. Yet if this is not to be read literally, how do we construct a metaphorical reading? We have no frame of reference to work with. What’s the deeper message? Is Brautigan trying to say something about the realities of the food chain? Or how the ruthless justify their actions (choice posing as necessity)? Or about the general harshness of the world? Does this scene represent something of his own childhood? (Brautigan grew up a neglected and unwanted child during the Great Depression.) His fans argue endlessly about these things, but there really is no good evidence to support one interpretation over another. Once again, Brautigan has undermined the possibility of a literal reading without providing a framework to establish a definitive metaphorical one.
Perhaps the most interesting level at which Brautigan applies this strategy is the level of individual words and expressions themselves. Consider this passage, for example:-
I live in a shack near iDEATH. I can see iDEATH out the window. It is beautiful. I can also see it with my eyes closed and touch it. Right now it is cold and turns like something in the hand of a child. I do not know what that thing could be.
– In Watermelon Sugar
This is a classic example of how Brautigan cuts a noun adrift from any definite meaning. That word ‘iDEATH’ immediately grabs attention; for a start, its capitalisation scheme inverts the recognised convention. It’s not a standard dictionary word – but it does contain two, with very strong resonances – “I” and “death”. Thus it generates an emotional response, a certain atmosphere – but we still don’t know quite what it means. When we try to establish this from context, the initial clues suggest that it must be the name of a place – a village, or building perhaps. Yet then we are told it can be seen with the eyes closed (so is it an idea, a metaphor?) – but that it can also be touched (so no, it must be something concrete). Finally it’s described as something in motion (so not a place then?), and then – perhaps with some irony – we are teased with the prospect of a simile, only to be let down by the failure to specify exactly what sort of thing it’s like. What we have are several contradictory contexts, undermining the possibility of a single fixed meaning. We are left with a signifier – ‘iDEATH’ – which has several associated impressions, but no definite signified.
These techniques are not unique to this novel – Brautigan’s better-known novel, Trout Fishing in America, uses the trick of conflicting contexts extensively, particularly in relation to the book’s title phrase. There are also various impossibilities – for example, in the chapter The Cleveland Wrecking Yard:
O I had never in my life seen anything like that trout stream. It was stacked in piles of various lengths: ten, fifteen, twenty feet, etc. There was one pile of hundred-foot lengths. There was also a box of scraps…
– Trout Fishing in America
In this case, by contrast with the tiger scene, it’s pretty clear what the author’s driving at – he’s plainly satirising American culture, in which everything becomes a commodity, no matter how unsuitable – even nature itself.
Back to the Point
So what is the point of a book that invites metaphorical readings, but offers no guidance on how to choose from a conflicting array of possibilities? Is this merely a symptom of authorial cowardice – a sort of semantic commitment aversion? Does this abundance of possibility equate with a lack of substance? Above all, does it suggest the author has nothing to say?
Judging from a handful of negative reviews – bristling with words like ‘pretentious’ and ‘vacuous’ – there are clearly those who think so. I’m not so sure. The ‘P word’ always arouses my suspicion – it’s so often the calling card of sloppy-thinking, lazy readers; the type who consider themselves “maverick truthtellers” and will denigrate any book that requires a little effort or imagination.
While reading these books – enjoying the pleasing cadences, the language games, the surreal imagery – I’m prepared to keep an open mind to the possibility that there is something deeper going on, which perhaps my intellect isn’t quite up to grasping fully. But then, maybe nobody’s intellect can fully make sense of these novels; and if so, then doesn’t their ultimate elusiveness rather resemble the world we live in? And wasn’t that perhaps Brautigan’s point all along?