Richard Brautigan – Chapter 3

Pastiche and Postmodernism

According to Lawrence Wright, in his Rolling Stone article ‘The Life and Death of Richard Brautigan’, several members of the Beat generation often denigrated Brautigan’s talent. Lawrence Ferlinghetti even went so far as to identify the Sixties as a “non-literate age” (36), partially because of Brautigan’s prominence. Whilst this was evidently a rather flippant remark, the significance of such an assertion cannot be underestimated. On a superficial level at least there is a sense that this observation is borne of incredulity, is no more than the typical response of an artist witnessing the end of his era. But the fact that Ferlinghetti is not alone in his opinion indicates that his comments signify a broader belief. The sentiment is indeed even shared by writers who were deemed central to this new generation. Ken Kesey, for instance, one of the greatly celebrated literary debutants of the period, began to voice his own misgivings about writing following the publication of his second novel Sometimes a Great Notion. He concluded that writing was “an old-fashioned and artificial form” (95) of expression, preferring instead to turn to filmmaking and multimedia projects. For him, at least, there was a realisation that literature was no longer the most effective medium for the countercultural agenda. When taken together, the assertions of Ferlinghetti and Kesey point towards a growing sense of dissatisfaction within the artistic community, an identification of inadequacy in existing forms of articulation. In its attempt to explore and build social alternatives, the counterculture was beginning to draw on a number of cultural influences, both historical and creative, to generate something new, something hybrid. The intellectual challenge inherent in such an endeavour was such that it was bound to test the limits of conceptual thought and expression. As Theodore Roszack explains, what was “of supreme importance [was] that each of us should become a person, a whole and integrated person in whom there [was] manifested a sense of the human variety genuinely experienced, a sense of having come to terms with a reality that [was] awesomely vast” (235). The goal was at the same time rather vague in definition and enormous in scope. It was perhaps inevitable then that the only way to tackle the problem artistically was to take a number of different approaches, each of them as free from formulaic restriction as possible in order to allow freeform experimentation without the need to lock ideas into a logical structure.

It is certainly no coincidence that writers such as Kesey began to switch their attention away from words in a patterned sequence on a page to more emotive methods of expression such as cinematic collage and a form of social theatre[1]. On a more political level, this diversification of media was also reflected in the work of the Diggers, who began to take their theatre out into the streets. Their approach was to include bystanders in their plays, “life-actors”, illustrating to them that life itself is an act, is an assumption of “life-roles” which are instilled and perpetuated by majority social values (Grogan 371). Through this technique they sought to break down the expectations of drama audiences and show them that the structure of social experiences, such as the act of watching a play, was only the way it was because it had gradually become ingrained in that manner, it had not been challenged. Artistic expression for the Diggers became, therefore, even more immediate than that of Kesey’s film project because they dispensed with the barrier – the page, the canvas or the frame – which would divide the artist from the audience. Instead they strove to make their audience part of the art itself. The audience were “active participants” in a transitory expression of a message rather than “passive stargazers” (Grogan 349) looking on at a permanent end-product of that expression, fixed and permanent and once removed from the artist’s intent.

It has already been discussed in the first chapter that Brautigan was at least marginally associated with the Digger movement and apparently shared some of their aesthetic perspectives. Marc Chénetier believes that his literary aesthetics completely match those of the Diggers in terms of immediacy and inclusion. In his study of the author he makes the claim that Brautigan considered writing as something that “exhausts, encloses, defuses, cages” (27) the moment. He goes so far as to suggest that the author considered “writing [as] killing” (31). While it is certainly true that Brautigan experimented with the immediate distribution of his work in an attempt to make the act of reading it as synchronous as possible to the act of production, the very fact that he did not turn his back on the written form as Kesey did would seem to suggest that this is in fact a rather presumptuous conclusion to draw. Indeed, it appears instead that Brautigan fully explored all the devices he could manufacture within his chosen form in order to best represent the ideologies that were being drawn by those around him in the cultural consciousness. Synchronous distribution of reportage during the Invisible Circus[2] was merely one of these devices which best suited the artistic message that was being conveyed in that precise instance. Elsewhere in his work he drew on a whole range of other techniques, utilising the most effective vehicle for whichever of his aesthetic concerns he was focusing upon at that point.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this would be his engagement with notions of the authoritative voice. If his affinity with the Diggers illustrates anything, it is that Brautigan was in no way enamoured by or unquestioning of the vestiges of authority or the values promoted by mainstream society. Keith Abbott picks out an incident in the author’s childhood as a particular turning point on this issue. In his retelling, the young Brautigan realises that his excellent school grades have done no more than make him the puppet in somebody else’s game, that “doing things right only led to the bondage of always doing things right according to other people’s standards” (70). To Abbott this reaction is indicative of an informed irreverence, an intelligent but resolute rejection of what at that age would have been an unquestionable social precept: that to do well at school, to fulfil one’s designated potential, is undoubtedly what one should strive for. In a very tangible sense, this same irreverence is one of the most significant foundations of Brautigan’s literary technique. Along with the Diggers he challenges the values of the majority culture, his place in that culture, the culture itself, and its own revisionist and self-aggrandising history. His novel A Confederate General from Big Sur is testament to this, reflecting as it does Mark Currie’s claim that history is nothing more than a discourse; that historians “construct rather than reflect, invent rather than discover” (88) their representations of the past. Whether Brautigan saw himself consciously as a purveyor of this postmodernist approach is unclear, but his narrative begins with an incident whereby the main character, Lee Mellon, uses what he believes to be a genuine ancestor, a Confederate General, as a method of defining his own identity. He establishes for himself a great American lineage of which he is the end product. Brautigan is very quick to dismiss the factual truth of this assertion: Mellon cannot find the statue that is supposed to exist of this mythical forefather of his and then fails also to find any reference to him in the historical documents of the period. The point of interest, however, is that this hardly seems to matter in the context of the narrative. The more conclusive the evidence becomes that there never was a Confederate General Mellon from California (which was, after all, never a Confederate State) the more concrete and affirmative this definition of Lee Mellon’s character becomes. Indeed, everything he does begins to be represented in these terms. He “lay[s] siege to Oakland” (33), drinks muscatel and schemes in “his official San Francisco headquarters” (24), and slips further and further into the persona of an arcane American rebel or outlaw. The absolute fact of the matter, Brautigan appears to be saying, is secondary to the significance Lee Mellon has placed upon the issue. The truth of his ancestry does not have to be literal to exert a very real and tangible influence. The power is in the belief, the interpretation, not in the infallibility of the concept. In essence, history is only as significant as its proponents choose to make it. It is only as reliable as personal interest allows; when it ceases to make the point it is being utilised to illustrate, that is where the narrative ends, that is precisely where the history becomes complete and absolute and closed to further interrogation.

Brautigan, however, pushes his interrogation of history even further than this in the text. A parallel narrative begins, depicting an alternative history of “private Augustus Melon thirty-seven-year-old slave trader” (117) and his antics with the Digger Indians during the final days of the Civil War. Not only is Brautigan undermining the value of substantiating evidence as a factor in understanding one’s own history here, he is mocking the very concept of truth itself. The Mellon ancestor is knocked down from his rank of General to a Private, as far as he can be knocked down, and is ridiculed in the narrative by events which depict him as a coward. At one point he pretends to be dead in order to avoid a column of Union soldiers who are, it is revealed, themselves merely “looking for a Confederate to surrender to” (121). What the author is doing here is not an attempt to correct an error of history, but to elevate this error, to revel in it and celebrate it and make of it an untruth so absolute that it challenges the very notion of what truth is. History is not truth. History is the repression of certain facts and the promotion of others to create out of the chaos that is existence an illusion of coherency. As Paul Hamilton points out, we are forced as sentient beings to “choose between the several meanings any utterance may have in the light of the special circumstances under which it [was] made” (51). This heightened state of ambiguity “can perversely require us to reinterpret the very notions of tradition” (53). The conclusion of such an argument is that history is nothing more than a fiction, and if this is the case, then all fictions have an equal claim to authenticity when representing this history. Just as with Jacques Derrida’s theory of relativism, there are no absolutes here: none of the versions we are presented with are any more or less reliable than any of the others. Nobody is in a position to effectively contradict that Lee Mellon has a Confederate General for a grandfather, just as nobody is in a position to contradict that he was instead a cowardly private squatting in the mud of Big Sur. Both propositions are subjective, and as such both are equally valid and equally invalid.

Brautigan is already aware, even at this early stage of his career, that any form of representation is essentially a compromise between relative positions. If truth is relative, then it follows that everything built upon this foundation is also relative. Any assertion is co-dependent upon everything that informs it; it is held in place by a notional keystone, a piece of received truth or wisdom that may or may not be accurate. In effect, any form of representation contains elements of the suspension of disbelief demanded by fiction. This perspective directly parallels Mark Currie’s postmodernist model of reality in which “any sign is embedded in a context” and “its meaning bears the trace of the signs which surround it” (77). When considered in this light, Brautigan’s work begins to move away from the shadow of the Beats and becomes much more attuned to the ideologies of the postmodernists – their sense of duplicity within meanings, of infinite relativity attached to truths and axioms. Indeed, the aims of the evolving counterculture, if refracted through the work of Brautigan, also seem to be shifting towards this postmodernist stance. Certainly, Linda Hutcheon claims that “postmodernism reveals a desire to understand present culture as the product of previous representations” (55) and one of the primary techniques of groups such as the Diggers and Kesey’s Pranksters is to do exactly what Lee Mellon does in A Confederate General from Big Sur. That is, to reach beyond the values of the previous generation and mainstream culture, and claw back for themselves a set of signifiers from a historical past that have personal resonance. If this could not be achieved directly from a stylised sense of history, then they utilised other sources of inspiration within the popular culture that could be filtered through a layer of irony or reinterpretation. The costumes of Kesey’s pranksters sewn together from discarded American flags, for example, would be a prime example of this, a reclamation of the ultimate nationalistic icon to symbolise the new America that these social groups felt was coming. In a very tangible sense, the era represented a reassessment of how culture is forged and how the base elements in this process can be manipulated to produce a very specific and much more desirable end. Jean-FranVois Lyotard identifies this self-awareness as a common trend in the evolution of any society, claiming that “the status of knowledge is altered as societies enter what is known as the postindustrial age and cultures enter what is known as the postmodern age” (3). It is a perhaps inevitable consequence of greater prosperity and personal liberty amongst young adults: with more time to reflect and with greater access to education, an erosion of absolute respect for absolute authority is almost certainly guaranteed. Once this erosion is combined with a political agenda, an impetus to smash through the protracted process of incremental cultural change will not be far behind. That is certainly the view of Charles Kaiser who claims that “students were too impatient for change to work within the system” during the period; “their dream was to overthrow it” (154).

Therefore, out of this new liberated perspective on political theory also emerged fundamental truths about the nature of current sociological frameworks and further realisations about the methods by which these are attained. The whole cultural trend essentially comes back to this central concept of definition. The founding principles of any society – its moral structure, its ethical hierarchy – are essentially nothing more than arbitrary rules agreed upon by either the majority or a powerful minority, perhaps later passed as laws by a sect of self-designated experts. The postmodernist trend in the counterculture during this period can ultimately be expressed as a realisation of this arbitrariness and the promotion of certain viable (and some less viable) alternatives. Of course, these ideas are not without their detractors. A common charge levelled at postmodernism in general, not least by Frederic Jameson, is that it is a superficial method of comprehension; that it fails to engage with representations of the past, or indeed of anything conceptual, in a meaningful or insightful manner. Jameson terms it the “pastiche”, the “bravura imitation” (133) of postmodernism, a reduction of authentic images and ideals to a “mass cultural allusion”, a set of stylised signifiers which start to replace the truth of any matter (134). The example he cites in his opus Postmodernism, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism is David Lynch’s Blue Velvet which, he believes, displaces “the 1950s” with “the ‘fifties’” (281), a string of “stereotypes, of ideas of facts and historical realities” (279) rather than those facts and realities themselves. To a certain extent this argument has real validity; however, it seems somewhat misplaced. This process of conceptual displacement is not strictly a fault of postmodernism alone. Representation itself is by very definition a reductionist process. The 1950s do not mean anything as and of themselves; they are merely a collection of years, of months, of revolutions of the earth around the sun. The attachment of significance to them is a revisionist process, an editing of facts into a narrative, a method which raises the same questions of whose narratives have greater authority – those of the historian or those of the “teller [who] constructs that truth and chooses those facts” (Hutcheon 56)?

What Brautigan is attempting to do via his postmodernist technique is far from simplifying those concepts he feels aesthetically compelled to present to his readership. Indeed, he is trying to do precisely the opposite, to deconstruct the very limitations that the written form imparts on the clarity of the artist’s message. To question the very nature of truth, knowledge, and understanding in an attempt to liberate the author and the reader in a manner that they have never been before: this is what postmodernism does. It does not present textual content as an adequate representation of human consciousness or physical reality in the way that realist fiction does. It does not do this because in all honesty textual content is not an adequate representation of human consciousness or physical reality. Textual representation is at best a relatively accurate summation of its subject to the limitations inherent within the form. On a physical level, text is little more than words on a page which have to be processed via the rational mind of the reader via the mechanical act of reading. Not everything in human experience is rational, is conscious, can be imparted or understood mechanically or logically. Like many other postmodernists, Brautigan’s primary technique is to highlight the artificiality of his artistic method. Trout Fishing in America, for instance, begins with a description of “the cover for Trout Fishing in America [which] is a photograph taken late in the afternoon” (1). Immediately, the author is identifying his work as precisely that, a stylised work of fiction, of writing, of textual creation. The book is not merely a reflection of reality, an image created in a mirror held up to the world; it is an entity as and of itself. “The grass is wet from the rains of early February”, it is “five o’clock in the afternoon of my cover for Trout Fishing in America” (2). The description is a specific moment in time within the alternative system of moments in time that constitute this novel, this fabricated reality of represented moments. The primary significance of this technique is that it serves to effectively dispose of a whole set of literary conventions in one gesture. Because Brautigan has identified his text as an alternative universe, he is suddenly free to explore within it alternative connotations of the language and metaphors and cultural allusions that he will employ within that text. Indeed, he proceeds to do precisely this, likening the method by which the Cobra Lily traps insects to “a ballet to be performed at the University of California at Los Angeles” (19). Obviously, the initial reference is to the grace with which the plant dispatches its function, yet the allusion then draws in a sticker promoting Nixon for president and then a score provided by “an orchestra of mortuaries with ice-cold woodwinds” and a reference to “the pines, in the pines where the sun never shines” (20). The author is praising the grace of the lily, decrying the ruthlessness of its digestion habits and, by incredible tangent, referencing the lyrics of a blues song by Leadbelly all in the same sentence. But this is precisely what Trout Fishing in America represents to Brautigan: a distillation of all the cultural influences that have congealed within the artist’s subconscious down onto the page in a freeform representation of the contemporary American psyche. It is less a novel and more akin to Hesse’s “Magic Theatre”, a theatre of signs and tokens that encapsulate the chaos of understanding (32).

Consciousness, in Brautigan’s work, is nothing if not random. “For some strange reason” exclaims the author’s narrator elsewhere in the text, “suddenly it was a perfect time, there at Mushroom springs, to wonder whatever happened to the Zoot suit” (106). There is, he points out, absolutely no accounting for the tangential nature of the function of the human mind. The cultural destiny of the Zoot suit is just as likely to emerge at any time from the maelstrom of images and influences within the primordial soup of the brain as the impression that “the Missouri River […] doesn’t look like Deanna Durbin” (122), or that a sandwich maker in Dreaming of Babylon does look like Rudolf Valentino (25). The strength of the postmodernist technique is that it does not preclude any combination of signifiers to express in the most powerful terms the sensual or connotational impact a situation has on the culturally imbued mind. While Jameson might argue that it is a superficial process, reducing the Forties down to the base element of the Zoot suit, or supplanting a century of movie making with one freeze-frame of Deanna Durbin, in fact it serves to open up a greater understanding of these concepts by cross-fertilising them across the whole of the human experience. Consciousness operates in a sensual manner, linking sensory stimuli like smells or images to broader memories, episodes in time. What Brautigan is effectively doing in his technique is to reflect this human tendency within his chosen form of expression. The smell of flowers or the taste of a particular food can trigger a recollection, as illustrated by Marcel Proust’s narrator dredging up a “visual memory” which is “linked to [a] taste” (62), the latter recalled by association from the former. So too can a configuration of lines and shadows on a patch of water trigger the memory of an actress’s profile. Instead of a process of reduction, stripping away true meaning from a signifier for the recipient, this is actually a communicative technique which explores and recreates the very method of actualisation itself. It replicates the manner in which understanding and comprehension form within the human consciousness. By drawing upon a reservoir of previous knowledge and prior experience to illustrate something new and to locate it in relation to all other knowledge, it comes as close as any form of artistic expression in transmitting its conclusions in a state that the human mind is already primed to receive them in.

There is no substantial evidence to suggest that Brautigan regarded his own work in explicitly postmodernist terms, but then this is the crux of why his appropriation of the form is so significant. The irreverent, non-linear, chaotically emotive nature of postmodernism is something that was so embedded in the counter-cultural mindset of the period that a writer such as Brautigan would not necessarily identify these traits in his work as something theoretical. In a cultural landscape where even to “attempt to attribute a single meaning to a particular [pop] song was to miss the point” (Kaiser 203) it is clear that the postmodern ethic was so entrenched in populist thought that to disentangle it as a signifier would perhaps have been impossible. In fact, the closest Brautigan came to attributing anything he did to postmodernism was to declare the mangled text of a book he shot a hole into as the ultimate in “conceptual criticism”, reading as it now did – “it in a black printed nicely the cover” (Keeler 63).[3] Critics have, however, retrospectively identified several postmodernist traits in the author’s work. Greg Keeler himself, one of Brautigan’s closest friends during the final years of his life, is keen to comment on the author’s appropriation of genre in his later works. Keeler identifies recurrent themes of “deflation and parody” in Brautigan’s narratives, a tendency to “take on many of the Great American Novel’s serious genres by turning quests and conflicts into absurd dilemmas” (156). This claim is indeed borne out in texts such as Dreaming of Babylon, where the conventions of the private eye novel are essentially deconstructed and parodied. Not only is the narrator of this novel a hopeless private detective, continually “fresh out of bullets” (2) and running scared from his landlady – in essence the antithesis of the cool and controlled Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett hero – he is also a character perpetually aware of the trademarks he is trying to emulate. He identifies his shoulder holster as “an authentic touch” (9) and is constantly disgusted with the limitations of his available transport, concluding that ultimately “there’s something about a private detective walking or taking the bus that lacks class” (134). In this novel Brautigan introduces an element of awareness in his characters as to the artificiality of the genre they exist within. In effect, they fail to live up to the standards of behaviour that a detective story demands of them because these standards are in reality unattainable. It is interesting to compare the narrative voice from Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely to that of Dreaming of Babylon:

I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room (Chandler 207).

Brautigan’s narrator attempts to phrase his observations in the same sardonic tone as Chandler, but he cannot even pull this off:

When you’re hired to steal a body from the city morgue, that’s very strange in itself, but when the people who hire you hire other people to steal the same body from the morgue and then hire some more people to steal the body from you after you manage to steal it, you’ve got a lot of weirdness going on (Brautigan 196).

The short, clipped phrasing of the cynical Marlowe is deliberately parodied with the rambling, almost confused attempt at rationalisation on display in Brautigan’s work. It is not merely the repetitive nature of the description that is of significance. The almost painful manner in which the section is delivered suggests the narrator is only just grasping at his own comprehension of the events he is imparting, but the manner in which it is so meekly concluded with the rather ineloquent expression of “weirdness” truly illustrates how little intellectual grasp he has on his own situation. Brautigan’s narrator is absolutely not in control of the circumstances he is in; he is not even in control of his own interpretation of these circumstances, or of his own faculties of articulation. He cannot operate at this fictional level of emotional detachment and wry wit that is so essential to the characters of Chandler: he is too grounded in the reality of his day-to-day existence, too aware of his sexual frustration and the absurdity of a “detective who’s only wearing one sock” (19). Of course, this grounding lies at the centre of Brautigan’s aesthetic point. When compared to the triviality of everyday existence, the conventions of the detective genre begin to look ever increasingly artificial, laboured or even comical. As Greg Keeler implies, Brautigan is indeed attempting to make the genre look absurd. The real question, however, lies in the ends to which these tactics are utilised. Is it merely to ridicule the detective genre, to mock the endeavours of authors like Chandler and Hammett? Is it intended to punctuate the assertion made elsewhere in Brautigan’s work that the written form is an artificial system, a human application of order upon something unordered, something chaotic, which is ultimately representative of the way we think as well as the way we read? Or is it a reinterpretation of the form itself, a postmodernist deconstruction of the genre which opens it up to renewed powers of expression and consequence? The most likely answer is that it is all of these. The deconstruction of previous narrative techniques is inherently dismissive of the effectiveness of these prior models, but that such a questioning of the validity of the artistic medium should itself be addressed in that same medium implies an acknowledgement of the form as representative of a wider phenomenon. It implies that the concept of genre is a microcosm of cultural cohesion, a delicate framework of codes and unspoken rules which can only be tackled from within, at the foundation of its own indelible structure.

Further evidence of this aesthetic crusade can be found in Brautigan’s other ‘genre’ novels. Increasingly, he is at pains to mix seemingly incompatible pulp fiction blueprints, hence The Hawkline Monster is subtitled as A Gothic Western, and Willard and his Bowling Trophies as A Perverse Mystery. The most overtly genre-focused of these is the former, taking as it does two western outlaws and placing them in a gothic mansion with a pair of rather sinister twin sisters. The novel is certainly not one of Brautigan’s more accomplished works, but there is an interesting contrast between the imagery of the frontier in half of the book – Greer and Cameron are described as “a relaxed essence distilled from the […] two qualities” of “tough and mean” (13) – and the clinical, almost scientific horror of the second half with its “huge yellow house standing in a field of frost at the early part of this century” (148). There is a curious subtext to the narrative, the house being terrorised by the mutated effects of a mysterious jar of chemicals which seems to evoke both the exploratory science of Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and the dangers of hallucinogenic drugs, a subject that was obviously a contemporary issue for the author. But this subtext, along with the increasingly random episodes of the narrative, seems secondary to the atmosphere and the imagery of the novel. The two contrary halves of the text – contrary as to genre at least – hinge upon the character of Magic Child. Whilst out searching for a bounty hunter to help her and her sister in their quest, she is characterised as a Native American. When they arrive at the house, she ceases to be this, in fact she ceases to have a unique identity at all and becomes an identical counterpart of her gothic twin sister: “Magic Child was dead and it did not make any difference in which Miss Hawkline she was buried” (120). It does not make any difference because the characters of the Hawkline sisters are of relatively little significance, as are the characters of Greer and Cameron. Ultimately, the four heroes and the missing father, are all marginalised, as is the protagonist – the Monster and its inherent shadow, in what is essentially an exercise in style, imagery and evocation. Much more prominent is the gothic “Victorian clock […] pushing Twentieth Century minutes toward twelve” (166), or the butler who shrinks, literally turning into a dwarf when he dies (136). What Brautigan is attempting to achieve in The Hawkline Monster is a dissection of the concept of genre. Rather than merely a blueprint, a schematic of theme and plot to be filled in with detail, he is consciously elevating it to the status of a genuine literary technique. If used correctly, it is extremely expressive and evocative, especially when combined with other techniques, other genres even, to create the maelstrom of imagery that more closely reflects the cognitive state of human comprehension. But even more importantly than this, the cross-pollination of genre in these novels contributes to Brautigan’s agenda of freeing the text, freeing the mind of the reader from ingrained assumptions, because if nothing else, genre is a method of promoting intellectual comfort. The reader approaches a genre text with a surplus of preconceptions and expectations. A detective novel or a gothic novel or a western all conform to perceived notions of their own limited scope. To undercut these conventions with irony, to highlight the artificiality and absurdity of them is to effectively perturb the mind of the conditioned reader and harbinger the first stage in their awakening to new modes of understanding.

Of course, this method of using genre, utilising existing methods of expression to create something new, is precisely what critics such as Jameson and Lyotard appear to deplore about the postmodern technique. Rather than a progressive development, an exploratory take on the application of literary methods, Jameson would claim that it instead indicates a lack of imagination, an artistic sterility. In his extensive treatise on postmodernism, he states quite explicitly that he views “the process of [a culture] trying to identify its own present” via means of existing cultural signifiers as indicative of that culture failing to define itself, evidence that it is “reduc[ing] itself to the recombination of various stereotypes of the past” (Jameson 296). The suggestion is that the rise of postmodernism signifies a culture in decline. This is seemingly a rather simplistic charge to lay on postmodernism because it ignores so many of the nuances of this method of representation. In the first instance, the stereotypes of the past are not merely regurgitated whole in the work of a writer such as Brautigan. In fact, the very opposite is true: these stereotypes, or cultural signifiers, are consistently applied in unique and inventive ways, often to express a concept far removed from the initial image. Hence the hump of a trout when cooked can “taste […] as sweet as the kisses of Esmeralda” (Trout 76); or a postmistress can have “one of those mouths they used to wear during the 1920s” (Revenge 76). The true postmodern aesthetic lies in this appropriation of old images, “the image reserves of the past” (Hutcheon 89), in order to encapsulate most effectively, most evocatively, the often unrelated subject under discussion. In the second example here, taken from Brautigan’s Revenge of the Lawn, the author is making an oblique joke about the manner in which subjects in photographs and films from the 1920s seem to hold their mouths. Of course it is ironic: not everybody from the period held their mouth in the same way. The humour, however, is of secondary importance to the fact that the author is explicitly aware of the stereotype he is employing here. He makes overt use of the fact that it is a stereotype to elicit a laugh from his reader. Effectively the line makes two important comments: the first upon the emotional distance between the 1920s and the author’s contemporary period, and the second upon the way in which the author and his readership, temporally located in the latter of these periods, understands the method by which it comprehends the former. Brautigan is fully aware that the 1920s mean nothing more to his audience than the odd photographic detail and well publicised superficialities such as fashion. To call on these details in a descriptive textual context is not to stunt the cultural development of new signifiers and contemporary imagination but to draw upon an emotive frame of reference that the reader will respond to in an intellectual manner. It is an effective method of opening the present up to an awareness of itself: its perspective upon those very things that it has developed from and its definition of itself from a comparative ideological position.

What makes this technique even more interesting is the fact that so many critics make the claim that postmodernism is essentially an anti-historical aesthetic. Marc Chénetier concedes that Brautigan “recognizes the existence of history” (88), but argues that his concept of existence does not really extend beyond the appropriation of “instants […] side by side; between them and beyond them, nothing” (82). This is a view shared by Keith Abbott in his memoir Downstream from Trout Fishing in America. He claims here that Brautigan’s reticence about his own past was indicative of his perspective upon history, of the generally dismissive stance taken by the “psychedelic generation” as a whole, their “insistence on the present, the here and now” (43). Whilst neither of these assertions is strictly incorrect when applied to Brautigan’s work, they are perhaps a little simplistic. In the first instance, it is not uncommon in the author’s work to find a literal representation of a single moment in the life of the narrator. One of his later works, The Tokyo-Montana Express, is indeed nothing more than a collection of these moments, instants in time, fragmentary impulses and impressions strung together into a random narrative of the author’s time in Japan. But to suggest that these moments are somehow divorced from a conceptual appreciation of the past – both in terms of those previous moments that have led here and the much more tangible weight of cultural history itself – is somewhat inaccurate. Whilst all of his narratives deal with contemporary issues, they do so in a way that draws out the relevance of these issues in a meta-referential manner, utilising signifiers of a pre-existing popular culture as a frame of reference. Brautigan’s present is always about the past, and very often about the future too. The moment is for him a microcosm of the totality of experience, is a window on the constant flux of history which spills off the page in all directions. Perhaps nowhere is this concept more evident than in So the Wind Won’t Blow it all Away:

I walked very carefully over to the baby buggy. I didn’t want to stumble over the past and break my present-tense leg that might leave me crippled in the future.

I took the handle of the baby buggy and pulled it away from the 1900s and into the year 1947 (11).

There are no limitations on the myriad of ways in which these tenses can intersect. A train of thought can begin anywhere in this vast referential system and lead effortlessly anywhere else. An anecdote about hunting for bears, for example, can be initiated by “a photograph in the newspaper of Marilyn Monroe, dead from a sleeping pill suicide” (Revenge 77). But this unpredictability is applied to precise effect: human experience is composed of all of these disparate elements, images and influences from across the entire expanse of not only an individual’s life but also of their frame of reference, their cultural awareness. The present and the past are intrinsically tied in the human consciousness by countless little cognitive impulses and comparative memories. History, in both a personal and cultural sense, is an ever present notion in Brautigan’s work, infringing upon every perception and every fundamental act of comprehension.

The crux of the postmodernist argument on the nature of history, however, lies precisely in this same cognitive process. As has already been discussed, Jameson dismisses the evocation of a cultural past as nothing more than a contemporary cultural laziness.[4] Of course, this perspective ignores the tendency for postmodernist texts to interrogate and reinterpret these old signifiers, making them relevant to the sociological present. However, the fact cannot be ignored that this interrogation is a reinterpretative process, that the appropriation of pre-existent cultural signifiers is a decidedly interventionist procedure that cannot help but contaminate the original specimen under discussion. Lyotard expresses the phenomenon thus: “the [postmodern] narrative’s reference may seem to belong to the past, but in reality it is always contemporaneous with the act of recitation” (22). The present, in other words, may always be about the past, but a past that is being constantly revised and harmonised with the present it is being pressed into service to amplify. In fact, the issue is not even as simple as this: the signifiers of the past are not only changed by the process of appropriation, they are in fact differently understood by the contemporary artist from how they would have been perceived at the time. The appropriation, therefore, proceeds from a different point of comprehension anyway. “Textual meaning changes through time” (Hamilton 206); each successive discourse on a cultural icon or image changes its meaning, revises its significance and realigns it to new connotational alliances; “history is cyclical in the sense that individuals constitutionally rework an inherited pattern of evolution on their own terms” (Hamilton 35). Brautigan’s appropriation of the American West, for example, is not a direct discourse with the truth of the nineteenth century but a culturally imbued perspective on documentary evidence filtered through the stylistic representations of the western genre and idiosyncratic parallels drawn by the artist between his own sociological reality and that of the “aristocratic rebel tradition” (Abbott 168). The author himself acknowledges this relationship over and over again in his work. For example, the narrator’s grandmother in the story ‘Revenge of the Lawn’ is not presented as merely an icon of the old frontier, a epitome of old western values that encapsulates fully the essence of nineteenth century life. Instead, she “shines like a beacon down the stormy American past” (1), creating a genuine link with the period that winds its way through a whole maelstrom of meanings and reinterpretations just as a beam of light travels through time, distorted and bent by external forces before it reaches the recipient.

When Jameson claims that “there is no such thing as ‘history’” (282), he is making a fundamental assumption that he understands precisely what history is, and more importantly, what it is not. He seems convinced that the “allegorical processing of the past” (287) inherent in the postmodern method is not history, but is counter-historical, is in fact counter-productive to an understanding of the very concept of history itself. The preceding discussion on the incremental reinterpretation of historical signifiers demonstrates clearly that history, in a true representative sense, has never actually existed. By definition, any interrogation of the past has to be performed in the present by an individual who cannot but be influenced by events and opinions (many of them perhaps seemingly unrelated) that have emerged in the intervening period. Postmodernism does not create this problem; the linear patterns of time and the human condition create this problem. Postmodernism simply acknowledges the irony inherent in the relationship between fact and meaning and takes advantage of the opportunity to enhance understanding of this schism. As Lyotard points out, knowledge “goes beyond the simple determination and application of the criterion of truth” (18), and comprehension, in its truest form, goes beyond the consideration of a single fact in isolation of any other contrary influence. To arrive at a conclusive representation of a historical instance is to consider that instance in its own terms, to consider both its relevance to its own period and to the contemporary period, the interpretations put upon it by previous ‘historians’, and the idiosyncratic cognitive impulses it sets off in the individual preparing the representation itself. In short, the postmodern technique replicates the conditions of any scientific method wherein the properties of the source material are factored in alongside the conditions in which these are tested, the bias of the tester and the original objective of the experiment. History is not dead in the work of writers and artists such as Richard Brautigan, it is instead rather more of a subordinate factor in the attempt to promote “a unity of experience” (Lyotard 72) than it is a fundamental, unquestionable source in its own right.

It seems in many ways that postmodernism was a natural technique for Brautigan to appropriate in his writing. Not only does it align closely to his sense of humour and his active imagination, it seems also to be an extension of the life he lived in Haight-Ashbury and later in Bolinas and Japan. Keith Abbott concludes in his book that Brautigan attempted to “create […] a new vision out of the materials at hand” which is “exactly what people were trying to do with their lives in the Haight” (40). He spent a lot of time walking around this burgeoning Mecca of the hippies, soaking in the ambience and open to whatever random experience might present itself next to his imagination. Later on, just as he “launch[ed] himself into the serendipity of San Francisco life” (24), he also wandered around the streets of Tokyo, declining to learn the Japanese language, preferring instead to “coast […] above the mystery, reading his own meanings into events” (Wright 40). Even his relationships with women have been reported as definitively grounded in his own dogged interpretation. As discussed in the previous chapter, his one-time partner Akiko claimed that “he had some dream of women”, and it appears that he had a tendency to “create […] a persona” for his female companions, to form “this female ideal” (Wright 40) and attempt to make his partners conform. Ironically enough, a postmodern analysis of love would perhaps suggest that all human relationships are founded upon a fiction, a composite image, an illusion that is fed by projections of personal ideals that feed into a myth of the other person. As George Herbert Mead describes it: “the value [an object] has are values [defined] through the relationship of the object to the person who has that sort of attitude” (5). But what all these second-hand accounts of the author’s behaviour demonstrate, along with his own proclamation that he “love[d] chaos” (Stickney 54), is a deep seated affinity with the postmodern ethic. Brautigan seems to have had an innate awareness of the manner in which reality is conceptualised, is forged into comprehensible elements of the individual consciousness. In other words, it is perhaps postmodernism that chose Brautigan and not the other way around. In An Unfortunate Woman, he contests:

it would be convenient if one could redesign the past […] but if one could do that, the past would always be in motion. It would never settle down finally to days of solid marble (8).

If postmodernist patterns of thought indeed encroached themselves upon Brautigan’s personal life, it is perhaps inevitable that it should eventually seep into his perspectives on memory and personal history, and ultimately time itself as the framework that memory and history sit within. Lawrence Wright claims that “time meant nothing to [Brautigan]” (36). He makes this claim in relation to the fact that the author was “a hopeless insomniac” (36) so it would perhaps be easy to read too much into it, however even a cursory analysis of Brautigan’s later work would reveal that time in fact meant everything to him. Indeed, time becomes one of the fundamental issues in his postmodernist agenda. There is a malleable quality to the time in the author’s final texts, especially in So the Wind won’t Blow it all Away; a sense of subjectivity and authorial control that can stop and start at will. The narrator can step outside of his moment and describe another one while waiting for the first to reach its conclusion. “While I’m a quarter of a mile away, walking back to the pond […] I’ll talk about something else that is more interesting” (25). Because after all, what is time but a primary experience of passing moments as interpreted at the focal point of individual perception? If history for Brautigan is a chaos of facts reconstructed into a narrative, then time is a maelstrom of impressions that are reconstructed into a chronology. Brautigan’s credentials as a postmodernist really begin to take shape as soon as he applies the same method of deconstruction he used on history to the founding principle of Western thought: the absolute and linear nature of time itself. It is here that he truly begins to take on the counter-cultural call to attack “the foundations of the edifice” (Roszak 55), to mount a serious challenge against an intrinsic social precept and attempt to free the minds of those under its spell.


[1] The Pranksters often filmed their experimentations with LSD, in particular their interactions with police and the general public whilst under the influence of the drug.

[2] The Invisible Circus was a countercultural gathering with “active participants” (Grogan 349). Brautigan was involved and provided instantaneous reportage by writing, printing and then immediately distributing articles about the event as it was still happening under the banner of “The John Dillinger Computer Service” (Grogan 351).

[3] The book was Jack Hicks’ In the Singer’s Temple.

[4] It is Jameson’s contention that many manifestations of postmodernism merely demonstrate “a collective consciousness in the process of trying to identify its own present at the same time that they illuminate the failure of this attempt” (296).

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