Friday, October 20, 2017

George Saunders Wins the Man Booker Prize for ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’

George Saunders


George Saunders Wins the Man Booker Prize for ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’


ALEXANDRA ALTER
OCT. 17, 2017

George Saunders’s surreal, experimental first novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” won the Man Booker Prize on Tuesday, marking the second year in a row that the prize has gone to an American author.
The novel unfolds in a cemetery in 1862, where a grieving Abraham Lincoln visits the crypt that holds the body of his 11-year-old son, Willie, who died of typhoid fever. At the graveyard, Willie’s spirit is joined by a garrulous, motley community of ghosts who exist in the liminal state between life and death. At times, the narrative feels more like a play or an oral history than a novel, with dialogue among the ghosts, interspersed with scraps of historical research and snippets of contemporary news accounts that Mr. Saunders gathered, or in some cases invented.
In an interview on Tuesday, Mr. Saunders said he was encouraged that the judges had recognized such an unconventional novel.
“For me, the nice thing is that the book is hard, and it’s kind of weird and it’s not a traditional novel,” Mr. Saunders said. “I didn’t do it just to be fancy, but because there was this emotional core I could feel, and that form was the only way I could get to it.”
At a news conference in London on Tuesday, Lola Young, the chair of judges, said that the novel was “unique” and “stood out because of its innovation, its very different styling; the way in which it paradoxically brought to life these almost dead souls, not quite dead souls, this other world.”
By awarding the prize to Mr. Saunders, the judges will likely face a renewed backlash from critics who have complained that the prize has become Americanized. Last year, Paul Beatty became the first American to win when he received the prize for “The Sellout,” a dark satire about race and the legacy of slavery and segregation in America. Mr. Saunders and Mr. Beatty both won for books that wrestle with deeply American themes and painful chapters of the country’s history. This year, three of the six finalists were American, which prompted another round of criticism that emerging British and Commonwealth writers were being overlooked.
Speaking on behalf of the judges, Ms. Young dismissed the notion that Americans have colonized Britain’s most prestigious literary award.
“We don’t look at the nationality of the writer,” she said. “We’re solely concerned with the book, with what that book is telling us.”
Until recently, the Man Booker, which was first awarded in 1969, was restricted to novels written by authors from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth nations. In 2014, the contest was opened to any novel written in English and published in Britain. Past winners include Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, V .S. Naipaul and Hilary Mantel.

Photo

CreditSonny Figueroa/The New York Times

The expansion of the prize parameters has drawn criticism from some in the literary world, who warned that the Booker would lose its British character with the incursion of American writers. After Mr. Beatty won last year, a group of writers, including Julian Barnes and A. S. Byatt, denounced the decision to let Americans compete. Ron Charles, a book critic for The Washington Post, criticized the list of finalists for being overly American, writing that “for any serious reader of fiction in this country, the Americanization of the Booker Prize is a lost opportunity to learn about great books that haven’t already been widely heralded.”
In addition to Mr. Saunders, the other Americans to make the list of finalists were Paul Auster, who was nominated for “4321,” an epic narrative that tells a Jewish boy’s coming-of-age story in four different versions; and Emily Fridlund, for her debut novel, “History of Wolves,” about a teenage girl growing up in a commune in the Midwest.
The other finalists were the British novelist Fiona Mozley, whose debut novel “Elmet,” centers on a single father raising his teenage children in rural Yorkshire; the British-Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid, nominated for “Exit West,” a surreal, dystopian story about two refugees fleeing a civil war through magic doors; and the British novelist Ali Smith, whose novel “Autumn,” about the relationship between a middle-aged British woman and an elderly man, explores the rise of British nationalism. Ms. Smith, who has been shortlisted for the Booker four times, was considered a favorite to win this year.
“Lincoln in the Bardo” won near-universal praise from reviewers when it was released in February, and became a No. 1 best seller. In a review in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote that “Saunders’s extraordinary verbal energy is harnessed, for the most part, in the service of capturing the pathos of everyday life.”
Before he wrote “Lincoln in the Bardo,” Mr. Saunders, 58, was best known for his dark and often funny futuristic, dystopian short stories. Born in Amarillo, Tex., and raised in and near Chicago, Mr. Saunders never imagined growing up that he could one day write for a living. He got a degree in geophysics from the Colorado School of Mines, then worked as a geophysicist in Indonesia, where he read to keep himself occupied at a remote camp. When he returned to the United States, he supported himself with odd jobs, working as a doorman, a roofer, in a convenience store and in a slaughterhouse.
He eventually enrolled in an M.F.A. program at Syracuse University, and in 1996, he published his debut fiction collection, “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” which established him as an innovative writer with a dark, demented streak. He went on to publish several other collections and novellas, including his widely celebrated 2013 short story collection, “Tenth of December.”
Mr. Saunders first got the idea for “Lincoln in the Bardo” in the late 1990s, when he was visiting Washington, and his wife’s cousin pointed out the crypt, and told him the story about how Lincoln would visit his son’s body. The story stayed with him for some 20 years, but felt too daunting. Finally, in 2012, he began to work on the novel.
“This is an idea that obsessed him for a long time,” said Andy Ward, Mr. Saunders’s editor and the editor in chief of Random House. “This book was something that I hadn’t seen before.”
Mr. Saunders, a Tibetan Buddhist, drew on the Buddhist notion of the bardo — the phase of existence between death and rebirth — bringing a supernatural layer to the historical setting. With the chorus of ghosts in the cemetery, Mr. Saunders tied Lincoln’s suffering to a universal human plight of mortality and loss, giving it an epic, mythical quality.
“For me, the book was about that terrible conundrum: We seem to be born to love, but everything we love comes to an end,” Mr. Saunders said in an email interview with The New York Times Book Review. “What do we do with that?”

Lincoln in the Bardo is such a marvelous novel / George Saunders by Sam Lipsyte

George Saunders
Photo by David Crosby

George Saunders

by Sam Lipsyte


"Lincoln in the Bardo is such a marvelous novel."
Sam Lipsyte

BOMB 139
Spring 2017

I've known George a little bit for a while now. We've chatted and emailed each other praise and encouragement. So it was a great joy to finally sit down with a writer whose stories have astonished me for years. His new novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, takes his gifts into deep, expansive territory without sacrificing the comic concision and emotional explosiveness of his earlier work. No one has shaped the landscape of recent American fiction quite like Saunders. No one has shaped the lives of students in recent years quite like Saunders, either. A writer who studied with him at Syracuse University once said to me: "George taught me how to write, but more than that, he taught me how to be a person." There are no real surprises when you meet George Saunders. He's the kind, curious, witty, thoughtful, and open-hearted man you might expect from his writing. Which is not to say he can't be viciously funny when the moment calls for it. We met at his hotel in New York City for over three hours. We ate a big plate of fruit and drank a pot of coffee.
 —Sam Lipsyte

George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year


George Saunders


George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year



By JOEL LOVELL
January 3, 2013

In a little sushi restaurant in Syracuse, George Saunders conceded that, sure, one reality was that he and I were a couple guys talking fiction and eating avocado salad and listening to Alanis Morissette coming from the speaker above our heads. Another was that we were walking corpses. We’d been on the subject of death for a while. A friend I loved very much died recently, and I was trying to describe the state I sometimes still found myself in — not quite of this world, but each day a little less removed — and how I knew it was a good thing, the re-entry, but I regretted it too, because it meant the dimming of a kind of awareness that doesn’t get lit up very much. I was having some trouble articulating it, but Saunders was right there, leaning in and encouraging. He has a bushy blond mustache and goatee going gray, and sometimes, when he’s listening intently, he can look a little stern, as if he just stepped out of a tent at Antietam. But then he starts talking and the eyebrows go up and it’s all Chicago vowels and twinkly Doug Henning eyes, and if you didn’t know that he was more or less universally regarded as a genius, you might peg him as the superfriendly host of a woodworking show on daytime public access.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Sarah Hall / ‘I love writing about sex, the civil veneer stripped off’




Sarah Hall: ‘I love writing about sex, the civil veneer stripped off’


The books interview: the author of The Electric Michelangelo talks about her new book, The Wolf Border, how motherhood has affected her work and why avoiding politics in fiction is juvenile

Sarah Crown
Saturday 28 March 2015 09.00 GMT


W
ant to know what it takes for a literary author to become a household name? Ask Hilary Mantel. Never mind the three decades-worth of praise and prizes she garnered for her pre-Wolf Hall output, it wasn’t until she tackled the Tudors that she made the step-change. These days, of course, she’s Dame Hilary, universally revered – but not so very long ago she was writing in relative obscurity, vigorously championed by her supporters, but little known by the wider public.


Four novels and one short-story collection into her career, Sarah Hall finds herself in a similar position. On the back of her fifth novel, out this month, her publisher, Faber, lists her achievements in bold. “Winner”, it declares, simply: “Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. BBC National Short Story Award. Portico Prize for Fiction. John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. EM Forster Award.” It’s an exceptional record for a novelist only just entering her 40s – and that’s without her inclusion in the Granta list of best young British novelists and her numerous short- and longlistings: for the Man Booker (twice), the Impac, the Frank O’Connor prize, the Arthur C Clarke award. But despite the laurels, the eulogies (“the best British writer around right now”, according to Foyles’s Jonathan Ruppin) and glowing comparisons to the likes of Raymond Carver and Alice Munro, the odd sense lingers of Hall as a well-kept secret. If you’re currently revelling in your membership of the initiate, however, be warned: her new novel looks set to blow the lid off. “Honestly,” says Hall, “I think it’s the best thing I’ve done. Everything I’ve learned about writing over the years, it’s in this book.”

The Wolf Border is set in Cumbria, on the fictional estate of Annerdale – the largest private estate in a country that is, as the central character Rachel observes with lightly jaundiced eye, “particularly owned”. A Cumbrian native, Rachel has been living a nomadic existence overseas, setting up camp wherever her zoological work took her. Now home is calling. Her once indomitable mother is dying by degrees, and Annerdale’s cavalier earl wants her help in furthering his precious scheme to reintroduce the grey wolf to England. Fans of Hall’s fiction will spot the signature notes: the northern setting, the civic engagement, the dynamic, faceted female lead. But there is also a sense that she has moved up a gear; the canvas is broader and the plot appreciably thicker than in her earlier works. Questions of inheritance, national and familial, echo back and forth across a novel in which the political and personal meet and mingle. The wolves themselves, meanwhile, furnish both metaphysical resonance and profound, physical reality: fairytale monsters, flesh-and-blood predators, they ghost through the pages like shadows; rarely seen but deeply felt.
Hall’s first encounter with wolves came when she was a child, at Lowther Wildlife Park. The park has long since closed, but it crops up under an alias in The Wolf Border; Hall, like Rachel, was raised in Cumbria, and it soon becomes clear that the novel is threaded with autobiography. As well as a shared geography, Hall gives her main character her own alma mater, Aberystwyth, and has her spend time on an Idaho reservation that Hall visited in her 20s.
We are talking in the living room of Hall’s house in Norwich on a bright day in early spring; publicity for The Wolf Border has been cut to fit around the schedule of her seven-month-old daughter, who is currently being promenaded around the local park by Hall’s partner. The state of motherhood provides the novel with its emotional core; Hall wrestles intently with the questions it raises, and describes the bodily ordeal of pregnancy and birth in such visceral detail that I took it for granted that this, too, was drawn directly from life. But it turns out she wasn’t pregnant when she began the book; in a rare case of life mirroring art, that came later.
“It was the thing I was most worried about,” she says now. “Motherhood’s such a personal thing, a fugue state; I didn’t know if, not having been through it, I could pull it off. Then, when I’d finished the first draft, I did get pregnant.” She laughs. “I finished the copy-editing two weeks before the baby came – horrendously uncomfortable, lying on the bed with the computer balanced – so I was able to check through the pregnancy stuff, but not what came after.”
Hall was born in 1974, just within the boundaries of the Lake District national park, in a “tiny hamlet, near the village of Bampton, which is near the bigger village of Shap, which is on the A6”. The sense her description gives of her birthplace as the still centre from which the wider world spins out is reflected in her work. Although it is years now since she headed down the A6, in her fiction, she is continually drawn back to this remote, well-written corner of the north-west. She puts its pull down to a “combination of intimacy and unknowability. When people think of the Lake District they think of Wordsworth and the other Romantic-with-a‑capital-R writers, but I always saw it as a great setting for adventure. In my third novel, The Carhullan Army” – a near-future dystopia set in a Britain of limited resources and repressive, military-style law – “fanatics go up into the mountains and use them to their advantage. In The Wolf Border, there are political debates about what the national park is for. I like the act of rewriting the Lakes: of pushing back against history and trying to decide what the modern way is.”

The presence of Cumbria in each of Hall’s novels means she is often spoken of as a “northern” writer. She is wry about the label (“the further away from the capital you are, the more exotic you seem”), but quick to point out that “we’re a small country: what affects the north affects the rest. In The Wolf Border, the Earl sits in the House of Lords and has his finger on the nation’s pulse. You can feel the vectors of power.” On the place of politics in her work, she is emphatic. “I don’t see that books can be written without political context – not if they’re relevant and ambitious. Our lives are politically wound. There seems to be such fear in this country of saying that outright about literature, as if it makes for lesser work, as if you’re writing a reductive manifesto. But to avoid politics seems somehow juvenile.”


A northern writer Hall may be, but it wasn’t until she put some serious distance between herself and her birthplace that she found herself writing about it. While studying for an MA at St Andrews she met an American law student whom she went on to marry; though the marriage was shortlived, its legacy was substantial: a move to the US proved the catalyst she needed to embark on novel-writing. The pair fetched up in the small town of Lexington, Virginia, after her husband was awarded a scholarship to a nearby law school. It was, she says, “kind of a brilliant place, but very southern and Christian: a serious culture shock. I walked dogs for this mad lady who had a loaded civil war cannon on her porch, pointed at the house of a neighbour she hated”. Uprooted, with time on her hands, she began writing the book that would become Haweswater, her version of the real-life story of the drowned village of Mardale. “It was like burying myself in the soil of the valley, not to sound too vampiric about it,” she says. “I was brought up three miles from the reservoir: there were people in my village who’d lived in Mardale; our church choir used to sing at the annual memorial service. The story was right there, but I needed to go away to write it. You can’t see all of a place until you look at it from a distance.”

If Haweswater is inward-looking, a close-up study of an isolated community drawn in wintry greys and browns, Hall’s second Booker-shortlisted novel, The Electric Michelangelo, the story of a tattoo artist who sets up shop on Coney Island amid the freak shows and fairground rides, is, by contrast, an explosion outwards; fireworks on the fourth of July. Writing it was, she says, “an act of exuberance. I was thrilled to find that I was allowed to be a writer, so I threw everything at it: language, rhyming sentences, non-existent plot.” Funnily enough, she says, “they love it in France. It riffs on concepts – pages and pages about what it means to get tattooed – and they like that. Here, it’s like, ‘Where’s the plot?’ Ideally, I guess, you strike a balance, but there’s no balance in that book. I look at it now and think, what were the Booker judges thinking? Rowan Pelling was on the panel; she was editing The Erotic Review at the time, and it’s full of sex, maybe that was it. Most novels avoid sex like the plague, but I love writing about it.”

Really? Why?


“I like extreme situations: people pushed out of their comfort zones; the civil veneer stripped off. Sex does that.” Also, she says, “it’s a challenge. You have to get the language right when writing about sex: if you want it to live on the page, you have to consider your choice of expression, the power of an image, the sound of a word. It gets down to the absolute essence of writing.”
The same is true, she believes, of short stories. Her first collection, The Beautiful Indifference, came out in 2011 to rapturous reviews; the form proved the perfect vehicle for Hall’s particular brand of brawny artistry. Val McDermid said of the taut, brutal opening story, “Butcher’s Perfume”, that it exemplified “the power of fiction to get to the grim heart of things”. With short stories, Hall says, “you’re required to fit much more in. It’s the world-on-the-head-of-a-pin thing. It was excellent discipline for me, the baggy, sloppy novelist, to think about form and plot.”
Now, in The Wolf Border, she is reaping the benefits. This is a mature novel, coming at a transitional point in Hall’s own life. And just as the landscape of her childhood infuses her work to date, so she is excited about the way in which the shift in her personal landscape might affect her fiction. “Children make you vulnerable: it’s like having a wound that anyone can pour salt in. But as a novelist, that’s a plus: you’re aiming for direct empathy with the world. And in terms of the practicalities, it’s just something I’ll manage, because I love writing. It’s a question not of if, but of how.”
 The Wolf Border is published by Faber.

Beautiful and brutal / How James Salter set the standard for erotic writing




Beautiful and brutal: how James Salter set the standard for erotic writing


Following a young couple in 1960s France, A Sport and a Pastime asks how we make sense of romance and tells the truth about sexual love

Sarah Hall
Friday 17 February 2017 13.00 GMT



“I
am not telling the truth about Dean,” the unnamed narrator warns the reader early in A Sport and a Pastime. “I am creating him out of my own inadequacies, you must always remember that.” So begins an ardent, interruptive tale of desire and discovery, conceived self-consciously and sensually on each page.

Since its publication in 1967, during the decade of sexual revolution, A Sport and a Pastime has set the standard not only for eroticism in fiction, but for the principal organ of literature – the imagination. What appears at first to be a short, tragic novel about a love affair in France is in fact an ambitious, refractive inquiry into the nature and meaning of storytelling, and the reasons we are compelled to invent, in particular, romances. That such a feat occurs across a mere 200 pages is breathtaking, and though its narrative choreography seems simple, the novel is anything but minor.
The narrator is staying in the house of rich friends in Autun, Burgundy, idly photographing the town and trying to uncork provincial culture. Thwarted in his own sexual yearning, he becomes obsessed with the relationship between his fellow guest, a nomadic American dropout, Philip Dean, and a local girl, Anne-Marie. Our narrator is the perfect voyeur, entirely suited to observation and vicariousness, and although not directly engaged in a menage a trois, his agency is crucial.
One cannot introduce the work of James Salter without mentioning his unmistakable prose. By this, his third novel, he had become the greatest stylist of any contemporary writer. There are sentences so precise, so abrupt and absolute, they almost defeat style, like literary pointillism. His evocations are both intricately faceted and vastly dimensional – a France of weather and architecture, history, flavour inhabited by characters as familiar, contrary, seasoned and unknowable as any human can be. Choose a page:
This blue, indolent town. Its cats. Its pale sky. The empty sky of morning, drained and pure. Its deep cloven streets. Its narrow courts, the faint rotten odour within, orange peels lying in the corners.
Another page:
Sometimes he is depressed by her imperfections. They should not be important, perhaps, but they often become so real, so ready to take control of her, these plain qualities hidden by the brilliance of a language and life the taste of which he has only just begun to grasp. He waits for her to put on her coat. She avoids his eyes.
Material, craft, and affect: Salter had a poet’s sense of aspect and essence, with power sustained across the long-form. Every sentence seems exactly right, each proposal true. The conceit of a work of fiction is to hide its mechanisms, to simulate, to suspend, even if it plays tricks with exposure and the seductiveness of words. The reader must be willingly transported into the believable unreal, as here the narrator is transported, via the erogenous imagination, deep into the heart of carnality and blinding emotion. Salter’s any-man narrator is complicit in our knowledge of the lie and understands the necessity of fabrication; a witness and an agent provocateur within his own story, he is also the reader’s accomplice.
Though Anne-Marie is the object of his desire and the subject of his incandescent, burning dreams, it is Dean he fixates upon. Dean is the sexual avatar, confident and entitled. He arrives at the house in Autun as heroes do, with ragged elan. He drives a discontinued Delage, a car flamboyantly at odds with the common Citroëns and trains of the nation, and sets about his regional conquest, plundering “the real France”, as he plunders Anne-Marie.
Dean’s physicality, his form, is as vital and compelling as Anne-Marie’s, and is rendered with equal care and attention by the narrator. We come to know his body thoroughly, as an attentive partner might. There are sublimated notes of homoeroticism in the text, jealousies and elaborations. The narrator is haunted, not just by a girl he cannot possess, but by another man’s prowess, his ability to perform. Even as he contemplates the eligible divorcees of the town for his own satisfactions, he remains passive, perhaps neuter, a receptor for the lust of others. “I am only putting down details which entered me, fragments that were able to part my flesh.”
Like Nick Carraway towards Gatsby in The Great Gatsby, this narrator’s ambivalence towards the winning, self-created character of Philip Dean is rounded by admiration. Their power differential is stark and paves the course for the obsession. “I am only the servant of life. He is an inhabitant.” The narrator wishes to know France: he observes France, catalogues her by eye and by lens, and he speaks the language, but it is Dean who journeys and surveys; who penetrates the culture. Dean takes a lover without promise or reciprocity; he takes her for whatever he can get now, like a colonial. He is penniless and directionless, has quit Yale, where “everything was too easy”, and is dependent on a rich father, on his charms and looks, to maintain his sexual flânerie and hotel tours. Dean’s fate is part of the attraction – it’s exciting but clouded, which will enable him to be a living idol, and to survive his betrayal, just.
James Salter in Paris in 1999. 
Photograph by Ulf Andersen

But who is Anne-Marie? She’s a shop girl, though a cut above: alluring, commanding, sacred and temporary. She is youth, if not innocence. She has a “stunning sexuality, but it’s like memorising the reflections of a diamond. The slightest movement and an entirely different brilliance appears.” The source of her power is rare, and also commonplace. She is chosen, she arrives, she’s a rapturous illusion – in the end it doesn’t matter. Like many women, and the shrewdest psychologists, Anne-Marie will come to understand that we can “die of love”. Only 18 years old when the affair begins, she’s already had previous lovers – a black American soldier, an Italian waiter. She is both unschooled and willing, that heady mix, and as such she is the novel’s erotic accelerant. Submission, control, preference for positions and role-play; she’s an actor in the theatre of intimacy, gazed upon, reactive and adored. She will be educated and will experiment with technique and methods, both painful and pleasurable; she will be humiliated, used, abandoned, as she will also be gloried in, raised up as a goddess, immortalised.

And this transaction is, of course, the truth about sexual love. It’s a gorgeous minefield. Gender politics and sexual powers are coolly tested throughout the novel – another of Salter’s remarkable skills – and are revealed to be inadequate analyses. Male solipsism. Female sentimentality. The labels stick and then peel off. Lovers are cruel and selfish, as well as generous and collaborative; they are imbalanced emotionally even if they match physically. Lovers pine and fantasise and self-deceive, they profess, they lie, they leave and they remain indelible to each other’s lives. Salter understood what lies beneath housebroken relations and rules: the fairytales. He understood the deregulation of encounter and exchange – beginnings and endings, potency and vulnerability, the construction of a union and its breaking points, moments of genuine affection and failure of feeling. In this brutal and beautiful novel, nothing is reconstituted to save our feelings. It’s all presented with gratuitous honesty.
Students of literary passion owe the author a huge debt. We’re not benign creatures in love, but angels of pornography. Nor are the mechanics of sex immune from attachments. To be privy to Dean and Anne-Marie’s entanglement is to look in on our own private, impure bedrooms, our own desires and crimes.
How compulsive and how fascinating. Until the last page, the book’s tension is exquisitely drawn. Though impotent, the narrator details everything, lays it bare. He activates the grand romance that Dean himself seems incapable of. Perhaps he is Dean, Dean’s higher, missing component. Or Dean is the alter ego, granting permission, enabling wish-fulfilment of the constrained libido. In this domain, we have so many selves.
Certainly the narrator is our registrar – without him nothing of the relationship is notarised; nothing can really exist. His observations and judgments are as cruel as they are tender – Anne‑Marie’s bad breath, her lack of intelligence and peasant’s earlobes. Her expectations of marriage are foolish and perfectly reasonable. Dean is callow and handsome, he stimulates and elates his lover, but he is terrified of the consequences, responsibilities, babies. He fails to respect France and her regulations, and he calculates, on a base level, that money and happiness are bedfellows. Together, the couple’s “atrocities induce them towards love”.
But what is love, the novel asks? What can it be, beyond temporal, beyond other? Is it simply the conceit of art, like the songs on Anne-Marie’s little plastic radio? Is it the impossible phenomenology of someone else’s account? A thing unreal to our selves, frigid under our own hands, lambent only when dreamed? Is love just a story, created from our biological urges and our soul’s ache, so that we might make sense, somehow, of our coming together, our making of it, and our parting?

 James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime is published as a Picador Classic.




Sarah Hall / The brilliance of Richard Brautigan

Cat in a hat … Richard Brautigan.
Photograph by Chris Felver

The brilliance of Richard Brautigan



Fairytale meets beat meets counterculture: bursting with colour, humour and imagery, Brautigan’s virtuoso prose is rooted in his rural past – and that’s what draws me in

Sarah Hall
Tuesday 23 September 2014 15.24 BST




Over the years, I’ve lived in a variety of places, including America, but I was born and raised in the Lake District, in Cumbria. Growing up in that rural, sodden, mountainous county has shaped my brain, perhaps even my temperament. It’s also influenced the qualities I seek in literature, as both reader and writer. In my early 20s, connecting with fiction was a difficult process. There seemed to be little rhyme or reason to what was meaningful, what convinced, and what made sense. There was a lot of fiction I did not enjoy, whose landscapes seemed bland and unevocative, the characters faint-hearted within them, the very words lacking vibrancy. This was no doubt empathetic deficiency on my part. I wouldn’t say it was lack of imagination – if anything, roaming around moors and waterways solo can lead to an excessive amount of making things up, a bizarreness of mind. I suppose what I wanted to discover was writing that served these functions, and I was in danger of quitting books.

Around this age I first read Richard Brautigan. When I learned that he was from the Pacific Northwest – an equally wet, rustic, upper corner of America – the coordinates struck me as significant, I sensed a geographical cousin. True enough: this formative territory is carried within his work, not as romantic vastification, but a sort of regional echo, possession of an underlying spirit. Though Brautigan moved to California, wrote about California, and California’s hip, sexy, psychedelic tropes become superimposed on his writing, beneath the berserker elements there remains trickling sadness, a wide-open loneliness, psychological rain. Such sensibility might partly be personal or social – the poverty of his youth and, later, mental illness. But its roots are perhaps Oregonian. In his collection of short fiction, Revenge of the Lawn, Brautigan describes the Pacific Northwest as, “a haunted land, where nature dances the minuet with people and danced with me in those old bygone days”. The stories set in this territory, about hunting and fishing, childhood play and damp weather, display a kind of sobriety and straightness that the San Francisco tales often don’t; the narrator is an isolated self, on a bridge, up a river, hitchhiking home in a soaked coat. Though these pieces aren’t necessarily bound by conventional physics or literary laws, something earnest and “real” rises to the surface in them, like trout in the author’s lost forest streams.
And then there are the stories where reality bends and warps, stories that seem to explode off the page. It’s also true that in my early 20s I was looking for prose with big personality – vivification and invention. Brautigan is a high stylist; his lines can be astonishing and have neon-grade memorability … “I sounded as if I had stepped in a wheelbarrow-sized pile of steaming dragon shit” … “she opened her purse which was like a small autumn field and near the fallen branches of an old apple tree, she found her keys” … “The way he lit a cigar was like an act of history.” But it’s very hard to label his work. Fairytale meets beat meets counterculture? Surrealism meets folk meets scat? The writing is bursting with colour, humour and imagery, mental flights of fancy, crazed and lurid details. There are wild inaccuracies and fever-dream occurrences. Bees living in hives made of liver. Bears dressed in nightgowns. Whisky-drinking geese. Heartbroken friends set fire to radios and the lovesongs being played melt into each other. People pay 237 cheques into the bank at once while the narrator waits, thinking of the skeleton buried in his garden holding a can of “rustdust” money. Men in debt have the shadows of giant birds attached to them.
Richard Brautigan
San Francisco, 1970 
Photograph by Michael Ochs




The more you read, the less there seem to be regulations and governing forces, ways of qualifying Brautigan. The mind of the author is simply too unbound, too childlike in its enormous, regenerative capacity to imagine. I often give one of his short stories, such as Homage to the San Francisco YMCA, to a creative writing student on the first day of a course. Suspecting I want them to write like Balzac or Woolf, the relief on their face is palpable. Not just relief, but sheer delight. Plumbing replaced by poetry! A man forced out of his own home by John Donne’s sonnets, Emily Dickinson, Vladimir Mayakovsky, et al! Many creative writing lessons are pointless, but this one is not. Even in adulthood, and no matter our circumstances, the imagination is a phenomenally powerful device, perhaps the most powerful. Brautigan knew it; he was a master-practitioner, a high-wire act.

Though he did occasionally fall. His metaphors can be widely off the mark, some too gnomic to comprehend. Where the brutally brief length of The Scarlatti Tilt makes it one of the best flash fictions ever written, other pieces feel boil-in-the-bag, or half-formed, more musings than anything else. A feminist Brautigan was not – women often occupy wistful sexual and aesthetic space only in the tales, are expected to get on board with men’s desires, be compliant when a character wants to get laid. He does better with old ladies and daughters, where the complicated business of sex is moot. Here there are acute character studies and even heroines. Possibly the wisest person in the entire collection is the little girl in A Short History of Religion in California, who rejects the piece of cake given to her by a christian in the campsite where she is staying with her father. “I’ve already had breakfast”, she explains. She’s previously expressed a desire to be a deer, to have antlers and hooves, which, in the scheme of the story, makes perfect metaphysical sense.

If you think things work a certain way, think again, Brautigan’s stories encourage, and quite rapidly the reader does forget the normal arrangements. The shifting perspectives and playful reversals, the activation of inanimate objects, the sudden sentience of things we believe to be unthinking, the unusual possibilities of life, in the end might provide some consolation for the fact of Brautigan’s tragic death and the lessening of interest in his work over the years. “Perhaps the words remember me”, he writes in Banners of My Own Choosing, as if there is, or could be, a world where the letters and sentences produced by an author are capable of nostalgia, even affection. I love this idea.
Certainly the words in Revenge do justice to the writer. Perhaps because I first read him when young and those associations remain, when I go back to Brautigan I half-expect the naive and imperfect aspects to disappoint. I’m never disappointed. Those same virtuoso characteristics of limitless creativity, the lambent glowing of the old country and the iconoclastic energy of the period, shine through. It still rains evocatively over the woods and valleys of the Pacific Northwest. The quotidian and the impossible walk hand in hand. There’s exceptional originality and levity to the phrasemaking. I’m reminded of the fundamental qualities I sought out in literature, connections that were so vital at the time, and still resonate now.
 Sarah Hall’s short-story collection The Beautiful Indifference is published by Faber.