Monday, February 24, 2014

30 For 30: Trout Fishing In America by Richard Brautigan

I turned 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 11, I shy away from high brows, accept the middle ground...and end with the word mayonnaise.
I have a confession to make, one that may knock down my pseudo-intellectual street cred: I've owned One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez for years and haven't read it. To be honest it's for a petty reason and also a very good reason. The petty reason is that I think there's no way it can live up to how stunning its title is; the very good reason is that, holy shit, that book is dense. And I mean dense in the physics sense of the word, because it's almost overwhelming how many characters there are. I feel bad, because I'm sure it's as amazing a novel as everyone says, but I feel like I'd have to read it over a week long vacation and take notes. Something so grand in scope just overwhelms me these days.

What's more, the last time I read Ulysses by James Joyce was in college. Somehow that makes sense, right? I even wrote a long essay for a Mythology class wherein I compared the novel to Homer's The Odyssey, a work which it famously parallels. Yes, that's the sort of trouble you get up to when you're a young pseudo-intellectual who spends most of his free time in the campus library. Not starting bar fights or having sex with several women in a night, oh no no no!

It almost boggles my mind to think I read Ulysses because it's the sort of reading that doesn't interest me at all nowadays. In different ways but for similar reasons, I think of it as being as 'difficult' and 'dense' as One Hundred Years Of Solitude, and I think I simply have too many things I want to do with my free time. Also, my poor short term memory is taxed enough as it is without having to keep track of seven generations of a family like One Hundred Years demands of a reader.

Yet I feel guilty about this, and I think I know why. It's this whole elitist notion that only serious/difficult literature is worth reading and discussing. Don't get me wrong, I (used to) love that kind of stuff, but it's not for everyone. It's like insisting the people who like Adam Sandler movies should be watching The Tree Of Life or The Seventh Seal instead: do you really think they'd enjoy it or get anything out of it? You have to have an entire background and the right type of mind to enjoy, let alone understand, what is being done in those films. There's a happy middle ground to be found, so that as much as I think Christopher Nolan films are a bit overrated by people who haven't seen enough movies, they are still veritable art films compared to anything Michael Bay scrapes off his boot and releases in theaters.

This, finally, brings us to Trout Fishing In America by Richard Brautigan. Well, it brings us to how I discovered it and what it means to me.


During the Summer of 2012, I was going through a real low point in terms of caring about literature. I was exclusively reading non-fiction and ignoring the unread copy of One Hundred Years Of Solitude on my shelf. I kept feeling as though I wanted something new and experimental in fiction reading but not in a difficult or dense way. Probably the last time fiction had really excited me was while devouring the works of Mark Z. Danielewski after the recommendation of a friend. His books are still brilliant and exciting...but in a difficult and dense way. I mean, Only Revolutions isn't a book I want to re-read any time soon.

Something you should know if I've never brought it up before is that at my job, I get to see a lot of random vintage items. This has led to some fun gems, like a semi-rare Bob Dylan 45 single and a book of Monet prints suitable for framing. But this chaotic way of scavenging for diamonds in the rough isn't a good way to find the next fiction to excite my mind, or so I always thought. For, one day during the Summer of 2012, amongst a mound of other used books, I came across a collection of works by Richard Brautigan (which not only has Trout Fishing in it, but also one of his poetry collections, The Pill Versus The Springhill Mine Disaster, and another of his novels, In Watermelon Sugar). I'd never heard of this guy before, but I was intrigued by the cover and the titles.

So I opened it up and the interior of the cover says “Welcome, you are just a few pages away from Trout Fishing In America.” Then I flipped to the first actual page of the novel and see that it begins by describing the cover of the book. “Huh,” I thought to myself, “this is either one of the best books I've never heard of, or it's the most precious and annoying things ever.” I don't have to tell you which it was, but I do have to tell you that I think of Trout Fishing as being like that middle ground I spoke of earlier. It's not exactly a low-brow book—there's a running post-modernist stunt wherein 'trout fishing in America' can be used as a character's name, an activity done in the book, the name of a hotel, etc—yet it's also not completely high-brow, because there isn't really a plot and no greater meaning or themes to take away. To put it another way, if you think about the book afterward, it won't be to ponder the symbolism or figure out who the real villain was.

Trout Fishing In America is just this fun, whimsical, and clever little novel that came along at the right time of my life. I don't tend to re-read books all the time in the way that I tend to re-play the same music all the time, so I hope it says something that I have to make myself read other things because otherwise I'd just keep reading the Brautigan collection I got from work. I find it to be exciting and inspiring literature; it feels like something that wants to be read and enjoyed and isn't some insular work of a depressed or deranged outcast. If Charles Bukowski's Post Office made me want to write a novel, Trout Fishing In America makes me want to write another. Perhaps one that other people might read and enjoy and tell their friends about, the way Trout Fishing is passed around by word of mouth. Perhaps, too, I'll write a novel that doesn't take itself seriously, and is willing to end with the word 'mayonnaise' because the author expresses a desire to do so in the previous chapter.

Expressing a human need, I always wanted to end one of these 30 For 30 pieces with a quote from Trout Fishing In America. Until now, it just never would have made sense or worked effectively.

“Expressing a human need, I always wanted to write a book that ended with the word Mayonnaise.”

1 comment:

Sherman Krebbs said...

In the interest of dismantling pseudo-intellectual street cred: I've owned a copy of Gravity's Rainbow for at least four years now and probably haven't read more than twenty pages. It's like reading the phonebook if the phonebook was written in Martian hieroglyphics and each character was capable of sprouting arms and legs and the arms carried billy clubs wrapped in barb wire and the barb wire was dipped in acid and the acid was dipped in bees and the bees puked DeLillo and the phonebook is actually a remote detonator to a miniature hydrogen planted in President Butterfly's stomach and the first seven characters are the launch codes. It's very hard, I guess is what I'm trying to say. I'd like to think that I've become a better reader these past four years, but returning to Pynchon hasn't been a top priority.

What I'll say about the Trout Fishing in America collection:

1.) That bit with the “talking outhouse” is one of my favorite passages of writing. On the right day, it pretty much is my favorite.

2.) Is it weird that I expected some kind of apocalyptic bloodletting at the end of In Watermelon Sugar?

3.) I don't know if it's the funniest book I've ever read, but it's definitely the most infectious. It's like listening to a series of stories and anecdotes about life in the 1960s Northwest from your hippie uncle (are hippie uncles still a thing?). I wish more authors took these kinds of risks.