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The clearest vision of reality is often the most abstract. While the rise of science and progress suffocate the notion of an extrasensory experience within the reading of literature, the phenomena persist. Meanings are communicated, participating in a magnificent cosmic-cultural aura, penetrating a communication of meaning, intent, and scandalously--truth. There is a process of intertextuality occurring, a conversation between authors, texts themselves, and the readers who venture to interpret them. Richard Brautigan's imaginary novel, In Watermelon Sugar converses well with a poem written many years after his death, Tunnel Music by Mark Doty. This conversation appears to be about the collapse of our techno-egocentric society.
Because of the cryptic nature of In Watermelon Sugar, it aids analysis to offer some form of comparison to its labyrinthine meanings. Through the lens of Mark Doty's poem, a particular feature of the novel is offered a clarity and relevance of vision: the Forgotten Works are indicative "of the coming world." (Doty 27) Allow me first to outline the basic feeling of the novel and how the Works figure into their lives. To paraphrase William James, generally there is a smell of watermelons.
At once the novella details a simple community of nature-minded folk, centered on a compound called iDEATH, a place "always changing" (Brautigan 16) with trees, and a river "flowing out of the living room." At iDEATH, the sun shines a different color every day, making the watermelon crops reflect that color. The people of iDEATH make "a great many things out of" watermelon sugar. (Brautigan 1-2) Sculpting their lives from this sugar, and mixing it with trout, they have lantern oil. Brautigan once said "everything in America is about trout fishing if you've got the correct attitude." (McDonnell) Rivers run everywhere here, they take the qualities of whatever the reader would like them too, if you look hard enough--everything can be a river. "Some of the rivers are only a few inches wide. . . I know a river that is half-an-inch wide. . . We call everything a river here. We're that kind of people." (Brautigan 2)
Beyond iDEATH and the trout hatchery are the Forgotten Works. They "go on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on." (Brautigan 69) They are "hammered out" as Mark Doty puts it. The Works are "much bigger than we are.
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THIS IS THE ENTRANCE TO THE FORGOTTEN WORKS
YOU MIGHT GET LOST.
Since this novella's release in 1968, literary analysts and readers alike have attempted to decode the significance of the Works, through their skillful manipulation of its mysterious contents. It is from the dead, forgotten things stacked so high that inBOIL, a character who exiles himself from iDEATH, and his gang make their whiskey from. Terence Malley offers some concise observations:
The Forgotten Works have become a kind of graveyard for unneeded, unwanted things. The names, purpose, and even nature of many of the objects heaped there have literally become forgotten... But if the objects piled up in the Forgotten Works have faded or are fading from conscious memory, the Works themselves are anything but forgotten. (Malley 122)
The Works' heavy symbolism on the characters living their lives in watermelon sugar is intuitively apparent, offering a contrast and contextualization to the (then) modern world of the 1960s. However, leaving the Forgotten Works here as merely a weight on the so-called "good" characters' backs is problematic.
The Forgotten Works are "so utterly of the coming world," our world. (Doty 30) Mark Doty's poem reads like a detailing of the possibilities of the Forgotten Works, giving a musical praise to its forgotten possibilities that the nameless narrator of In Watermelon Sugar refuses to place with it. Parts of the Forgotten Works are like many people's reaction to poetry; when confronted with an unknown object from the Works, the narrator "didn't know how to hold it." He "tried to hold it like you would hold a flower and a rock at the same time." (Brautigan 7) This Forgotten Works establishes a sense of time/period in the novella, providing a reference point to our own world of "infernal industry, the tunnels under Manhattan broken into hell at last." (Doty 2-3) inBOIL and his gang are like my perceived image of the homeless within Doty's poem, getting drunk on old things, having to create their own music to counter a world that doesn't understand them. They take "artifacts of wreck... a century's failures reworked" (Doty 17) and shape their lives out of it, unlike those shaping their lives in watermelon sugar.
When inBOIL leads a gang into iDEATH and they all chop their fingers, ears, and noses off, claiming that that was "the real iDEATH." (Brautigan 93) This provides a unique perspective as to the dynamic between the Forgotten Works and the idyllic commune of iDEATH. It makes me think of inBOIL as something "dinged, busted or dumped" being "beaten till it sings." Certainly his conclusion has "a kind of ghostly joy in it, / though this music is almost unrecognizable."
The music of he and his group's suicides are what he says they symbolize, "the tigers (being) the true meaning of iDEATH." I have forgotten to mention the tigers. They existed within watermelon sugar at one time, but they were violent, though they had wonderful singing voices, and had to be killed. Here, inBOIL mixes metaphors: by "bringing back iDEATH," he is raising forgotten things, the "infernal industry" (Doty 3) of his forgotten whiskey, made from forgotten things, the spirit of destruction channeled from the tigers, and the fearful energy of the inBOIL clan's self-massacre. Music.
Kathryn Hume observes that "those (characters) whose possessive and aggressive emotions are stronger" than an "even-tempered life and feel no need for... marriage... and nine-to-five" jobs, "commit suicide". She then notes that "whatever his plot's source in hot anger, Brautigan tries to transmute such feelings to something else"--the music of the novel. The great contradiction, the paradox if you will, of Brautigan's delineation of characters, are their interpretations of both what iDEATH means, what the Forgotten Works were & are, and the passivity of seeking answers to those questions. The thrust of their existence, that "the deeds were done and done again in watermelon sugar" (Brautigan 1) represents a circular life cycle, a return to the community-oriented non-contextual time environment of humanity's roots. The Forgotten Works, like the crafty descriptions in Mark Doty's poem, are the constant threat to the people of iDEATH (here on earth, and in the novel) because the past potentates a thirst for a wider future, it infects the ideal. inBOIL says that he has "forgotten more iDEATH than" the people "will ever know." (Brautigan 64) "This isn't iDEATH at all. This is just a figment of your imagination. All of you guys here are just a bunch of clucks." A century's failure will be reworked. (Doty 17) "So utterly of the coming world it is."
Brautigan, Ianthe. You Can't Catch Death: A Daughter's Memoir. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.
Brautigan, Richard. In Watermelon Sugar. New York: Dell Publishing, Inc., 1968.
Calvino, Italo. The Uses of Literature. Trans. Helen & Kurt Wolff. Florida: Harvest/HBJ, 1982.
Doty, Mark. "Tunnel Music." The Conscious Reader. 8th ed. Caroline Shrodes. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2001, 477.
Hume, Kathryn. "Brautigan's psychomachia." Mosaic: a journal for the interdisciplinary study of literature. Winnipeg: Univ. of Manitoba, (34:1) 2001, 79-80.
Malley, Terence. Writers for the 70's: Richard Brautigan. New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1972.
McDonell, Terry. "FISH THIS" Sports Afield. April 1996 Vol. 215, Issue 3