4.5/5 (Very Good)
Desperate for something unlike any other New Wave SF experiment, I came across Richard Brautigan’s surreal post-catastrophe novel In Watermelon Sugar (1968). Brautigan, best known as a Counterculture poet and the author of Trout Fishing in America (1967), spins a poetic thread simultaneously elegiac and nightmarish. More a sequence of short linked scenes, In Watermelon Sugar charts the memories of a nameless narrator (N) attempting to write a book about the community and inhabitants of iDEATH. Brautigan juxtaposes the terrifying calamities of N’s past–including his memories of his parents consumed before his eyes by the human-like Tigers and the violent rhetoric and self-immolation of inBOIL–with N’s tender memories of his blossoming love for Pauline.
The Geography of a Luminous Place
The story takes place in the community (commune?) of iDEATH with its 375 inhabitants, a common eating area, shacks around the perimeter, luminescent tombs along the bottom of a latticework of creeks, a trout hatchery, watermelon patches, and statues of vegetables. In the distance under a sun with ever-changing colors the Forgotten Works, a vast/undefined dump or ruin of a pre-disaster city, reaches like distasteful mold further than anyone wants to travel (69).
In my view, iDEATH is one of the iconic SF places. Brautigan’s prose adorns the local with vivid signifiers. The tombs of children shine forth “with pale lights coming up from the bottom of the river” (26). You can see the deathly inhabitants “lying there in their coffins, staring from beyond the glass doors” (92). Scattered amongst the shacks are sculptures of vegetables and important events in the community’s past. Bridges with Janus-like heads (children and trout) crisscross the rivers that permeate the pine woods. A place that manifests peace. A place where simple work keeps those you love alive. A place where one can overcome the traumatic scars of the past and build anew.
The Past as Entropy Generator
“The tigers and how they lived and how beautiful they were and how they died and how they talked to me while they ate my parents, and how I talked back to them and how they stopped eating my parents, though it did not help my parents any, nothing could help them then, and we talked for a long time and one of the tigers helped me with my arithmetic, then I went away. I returned later that night to burn the shack down” (8).
In Watermelon Sugar formulates the undefined past as an alien world pulsating with destructive entropic forces. Even the objects excavated from the Forgotten Works cannot be described: “it looks like one of those things inBOIL and his gang used to dig up down at the Forgotten Works. I’ve never seen anything like it” (7). inBOIL, whose name represents his interior turmoil, is forever drawn to the wreckage wrought by the past. He spends his days digging in the Forgotten Works, drinking “whiskey brewed from the things they found” (65), and spouting “violent denouncements” (76). N’s first love Margaret, perceived by the community at iDEATH as tainted by her connection inBOIL and his excavation, likewise obsesses over the accumulation of undescribed past objects: “I just like forgotten things. I’m collecting them” (78). The past serves to re-anchor people to past mistakes. Over time inBOIL’s chaotic invocations turn into action and with slurred speech and increasingly jerky movements (62) descends on iDEATH. And the place where inBOIL violently immolates himself becomes a generative locus–a trout hatchery.
inBOIL’s destructive path is tied to his nostalgia for the tigers. Perhaps anthropomorphic humans or primitive survivors of the unknown catastrophe, the Tigers live in the woods and consume the living (including N’s parents). They are tantalizing beings. They sing. They tell stories. They might represent the destructive yet creative forces of humanity. At inBOIL’s death, he seeks to embody these tendencies with a final act of violence.
Final Thoughts Before the Fleeting Light Shifts
In Watermelon Sugar is a successful experiment. Brautigan’s deceptively simple prose creates a surreal landscape redolent with haunting imagery and emotion. N’s narration reaffirms the importance of making meaningful connections in the present and the dangerous pull of nostalgia that ties us forever in the past. There’s horror in these pages. There’s love in these pages.
Recommended for fans of Richard Brautigan, 60s experimental fiction, and the more out there manifestations of the “ambitious, self-consciously artistic sensibility” of New Wave SF.
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