Brautigan's Psychomachia

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Author: Kathryn Hume
Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2003
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,104 words

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[(essay date March 2001) In the following essay, Hume analyzes the aesthetics of Brautigan's narratives, noting that he consciously used Zen principles to evoke a special kind of reader response.]

Richard Brautigan's novels rouse readerly uneasiness. Now accustomed to the gigantism of Don DeLillo's Underworld and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, we wonder whether slender books can offer anything but wispy charm. The violent emotional substrate is also disquieting, tainted ex post facto by the author's suicide. Add to that the strangeness: Brautigan offers no authorial guidance on how we should respond to a trout stream described as a series of horizontal telephone booths. Is this a bizarrely accurate simile, or does it physicalize the metaphor of wilderness being commodified and reshaped by technology?

The current critical picture reflects our difficulties. In addition to readings of individual novels, we have many attempts to relate Brautigan to the American tradition, as if this will make his weirdness safer because more familiar. William L. Stull and Edward Halsey Foster derive a genealogy from Thoreau. Ancestor status is granted to Melville (Stull; Vanderwerken), Hemingway (Vanderwerken; Locklin and Stetler), and Fitzgerald (Locklin and Stetler; Willis). Terence Malley identifies beat precursors, Kerouac in particular. Marc Chénetier, more concerned with unique than derivative elements, makes the case for Brautigan's experimentalism. Psychological approaches explain the strange by other means. Josephine Hendin's observations on repressed anger in the early works could be extended to all the novels, and Brooke Horvath traces Brautigan's fear of death throughout the corpus. Revealing and persuasive though these psychological approaches are, they tend to read the books as by-products of neurosis and emphasize the implicit author at the expense of his or her literary effects.

In this essay, I construct Brautigan as an aesthetician and writer, as a conscious artist who used Zen principles rather than simply becoming the victim of psychic furies. Overall, I ask, What is the nature of his narrative enterprise? I disentangle the artist from characters and view what he does as a series of narrative experiments in portraying emotions and in working out the philosophical and political dimensions of certain strong feelings that interested him. The emotions that fascinate him naturally stem from his own experience, but my concern is what he constructs from them artistically. The eleven novels (the last one published posthumously) constitute a series of battlefields in which he sets up emotional conflicts and tries to find narrative forms appropriate to his vision. Hence my term psychomachia, for in formalized schema he tests certain feelings and kinds of narrative much as medieval writers formalized into allegory the temptations besetting a Christian soul. In the course of tracing the artistic projects that Brautigan sets himself, I show how he invites an unusual sort of reader response modelled upon Zen observation and why two radical shifts take place in his method of plotting stories.

Brautigan's name flared vividly into national popularity in 1967, the publication of Trout Fishing in America: A Novel coinciding with media curiosity...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420049506