The sun shimmers brilliant blue on Saturdays and watermelon sugar makes up everything from bridges to notebook paper in Richard Brautigan’s “In Watermelon Sugar.” The 1968 post-apocalyptic tale is 138 pages of enjoyable whimsy. It reads like a hallucinogenic journey: chaos that makes perfect sense.
The surrealist narrative follows an unnamed speaker who grew up in iDEATH, a morally questionable utopia surrounded by the Forgotten Works junkyard, rubble of an obliterated past civilization. As readers, we wonder: Is this a future version of our world, or are we peering into an alternate universe? It’s endearing how Brautigan never quite explains the lore behind his dystopia. He allows the imagination to run wild, resulting in many possible interpretations of the book.
The protagonist can remember when things were different, when anthropomorphic, arithmetic-adept tigers ruled the rural area he calls home. He numbly recounts the moment when his parents were devoured by a pair of tigers during his childhood. Intelligent and human-like, the striped creatures expressed startling empathy and intelligence before they were hunted to extinction. Were the gorgeous beasts so different from people, aside from their lush fur coats?
The speaker muses about his decision to write this very book in a stream-of-consciousness account. It is the first novel written in years, following an Orwellian book burning in his commune that destroyed every written account of life before iDEATH. With simple, refreshing language in the first-person, Brautigan characterizes the speaker as a model citizen. He is rule-abiding and irritable, constantly agonizing about his ex-girlfriend Margaret’s ability to step on one loose, creaky plank of his bridge each day. Interestingly, it is Margaret who seeks freedom from the stupor of the masses. Because she is written as a secondary character, it’s easy to scorn her failure to be complacent with the seemingly functional members of organized society. The narrator may be a keen observer of his odd surroundings, but he is heavily indoctrinated by his community’s values. This tints our perspective as readers.
Aside from the intrigue surrounding the fictional world’s history, Brautigan’s creative structural choices contribute to the story’s unique allure. In an attempt to introduce himself, the speaker says,
“Somebody asked you a question and you did not know the answer.
That is my name.
Perhaps it was raining very hard.
That is my name.”
Brautigan toys with our perception of language. The protagonist describes his name as an intangible concept—each line of prose is a stark declaration that earthly laws are inapplicable in iDEATH, where a feeling itself can be snatched out of the air and pinned to the dewy grass.
During the rising action of “In Watermelon Sugar,” inBOIL, the exiled antagonist, and his crew of rebels who live in the Forgotten Works, plan to expose iDEATH for its hypocrisy. The narrator is disgusted to find Margaret collecting strange old objects from the Forgotten Works and sympathizing with the barbaric rebels. The novel concludes with the execution of inBOIL’s plot at the trout hatchery, a violent but anticlimactic end, like the crest of a wave that slaps the shore with wild indifference.
There is a magical quality about such an abstract piece of writing. A product of the postmodern Beat Generation, Richard Brautigan leaves us with a lingering sense of awe, and more questions than answers. But despite the talking tigers, unnerving vegetable sculptures scattered throughout the commune, and sentient trout in the river observing iDEATH’s glass-encased dead in their underwater tombs, “In Watermelon Sugar” is a critique of how we live our lives in the modern world. The characters’ relationships are the centerpiece of the story, which grounds the outlandish tale in the universal human experience. The novel confronts love, fear of the unknown and the complex nature of community. Characteristic of other dystopian books, it appears to criticize social systems that repress individuality, but its message is ambiguous. The tension that draws Margaret away from conventional life can be seen as either heroic or naive, given the quiet return to normalcy in iDEATH during the final chapter. Brautigan addresses the conflict between individuality and group behavior beneath a veneer of science fiction imagery. When his wild fantasy is stripped of adornments, I think it’s possible that our own world is far stranger.