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Trout Fishing in America ()

San Francisco Chronicle Top 100 Novels of the West (40)

In an era when even baseball players entertain themselves by pondering questions like "Why do we park in driveways and drive on parkways ?," absurdists have an awfully tough row to hoe; we are all absurdists now.  If the ironic viewpoint ever did offer a useful perspective on Man's existence, and it likely did, we have long since passed that point and have slid into a period when irony has nearly degraded us all into cultural nihilists.  A little skepticism goes a long way, but push it too far and it will eventually consume everything in it's path.

Particularly dangerous is that strain of literature which, by discarding narrative structure, continually shifting points of reference, and toying with the meanings of words and phrases, ultimately tends to suggest that coherent communication may be impossible.  There is a peculiar kind of arrogance at work in such manipulation of language, which is intended to obscure, rather than to reveal.   It is so individualistic and relativistic as to only be truly accessible to the author himself, or to those who are willing to make the study of that author and his writings their own life's work.  If language can't communicate, why is the author writing words down and why should we read them ?

Oddly enough, one of the best descriptions I've ever found of this tendency was in a police procedural : The Death of a Joyce Scholar: A Peter McGarr Mystery (1989)(Bartholomew Gill 1943-) (Grade: B+); it reads in part :

    And since the form of the novel as written from Richardson to Joyce was exhausted, Samuel
    Beckett turned around and attempted to exhaust the form in its 'negative' image, as it were--the
    novel of incompetence.  By incompetence Beckett does not mean novels written by incompetent
    authors.  He means that, unlike Joyce, he cannot assume the possibility of communication among
    human beings, much less between human beings and the collective unconscious.

    For Beckett words don't work.  They are an imposition, given us by others after our births; they
    really can't describe our own particular experiences in our own individual terms.  Also, when we
    speak words, we need somebody else to hear and acknowledge them.  A witness.  In other words,
    we can't say us in our own terms for anybody's ears but our own.  And if we were to try, say, by
    speaking out all the words of the Others once and for all, we would find that there's nothing to say,
    since Western civilization assumes that we are no more than what we were when we were born--a
    tabula rasa, a void, un neant, a nothing.  And nothing can only be described by silence.

Such is the inevitable end result of this philosophy, man rendered silent.

There is a famous incident wherein Boswell says to Samuel Johnson that they can not refute Bishop Berkeley's theory that we can not prove that matter exists but can only know that we perceive it.  Johnson thereupon kicked a rock and said : "I refute it thus."  This does not necessarily disprove Berkeley's argument in purely logical terms, but amply demonstrates the uselessness of the theory.  Similarly, one is tempted to respond to Beckett by telling him to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater.  There simply is some fundamental level at which absurdism is itself so patently ridiculous as not to be worth talking seriously.  Kind of ironic, huh ?

All of which brings us to Trout Fishing in America, the best known, and seemingly the best, work of the Beat novelist and poet Richard Brautigan.  As a cover blurb on my decrepit Delta Books addition says :

    Mr. Brautigan submitted a book to us in 1962 called TROUT FISHING IN AMERICA.  I gather
    from the reports that it was not about trout fishing.
            -an editor at The Viking Press

The book isn't really about anything, in the conventional sense.  It's chapters are loosely unified by a repeated reference to fishing for trout in America (mostly Brautigan's native Pacific Northwest) and to a character named Trout Fishing in America, and a hotel named Trout Fishing in America, and a book titled Trout Fishing in America, and so on...  Metaphors twist back on themselves; meanings multiply; even the cover photo of the book (see above) and the statue in the picture become integral to the text.  It is playful, often amusing, frequently frustratingly obscure, and it's hard to see what it all adds up to.

Thankfully, Brautigan has the good sense to keep it brief and not to strain for greater meaning than his verbal tricks will support. And in a final odd twist, he tells the reader in the penultimate chapter that he's always wanted to "write a book that ended with the word Mayonnaise."  However, in the final chapter, he actually ends with the word "mayonaise."


Grade: (C)


Richard Brautigan Links:

-ESSAY: Exploring the Richard Brautigan Universe of Bubblegum Minimalism That Inspired Harry Styles: Matt Mitchell on the Inspiration Behind “Watermelon Sugar” (Matt Mitchell, June 30, 2022, LitHub)

Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "richard brautigan"
    -POEM : from "Loading Mercury With A Pitchfork" : AUTOBIOGRAPHY (POLISH IT LIKE A PIECE OF SILVER)
    -Richard Brautigan  (1935-1984) (Bedford/St. Martin's Press)
    -The Brautigan Pages
    -Richard Brautigan - Introduction (Empire-zine)
    -Richard Brautigan Photos
    -Richard Brautigan
    -Richard Brautigan, A Pilgrimage, August 1982
    -Richard Brautigan in Beatnik Paradiso
    -Inventory of the Richard Brautigan Papers, 1958-1984 (The Bancroft Library Berkeley, California)
    -Richard Brautigan (1935-84) (American Literature on the Web)
    -ESSAY : Who was Richard Brautigan ? (Kumquat Magazine)
    -REVIEW : of  SO THE WIND WON'T BLOW IT ALL AWAY, By Richard Brautigan (Eve Ottenberg, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of AN UNFORTUNATE WOMAN: A Journey by Richard Brautigan (Etelka Lehoczky , NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of    An Unfortunate Woman A Journey By Richard Brautigan Postscript from the hippie Hemingway (Michael Harrington, Philadelphia Inquirer)
    -REVIEW : of The Edna Webster Collection of Undiscovered Writings By Richard Brautigan (Jennifer Schuessler, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : Apr 22, 1971 Robert Adams: Brautigan Was Here, NY Review of Books
       The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 by Richard Brautigan
       A Confederate General from Big Sur by Richard Brautigan
       Trout Fishing in America, The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, In Watermelon Sugar (Three works in one volume)
       and Richard Brautigan
    -REVIEW : Apr 8, 1965 Philip Rahv: New American Fiction, NY Review of Books
       Roar Lion Roar by Irving Faust
       The Edge of the Woods by Heather Ross Miller
       A House on the Sound by Kathrin Perutz
       P. S. Wilkinson by C.D.B. Bryan
       Yarborough by B.H. Friedman
       A Confederate General from Big Sur by Richard Brautigan