Sunday, 10 February 2013

Week Six - Jeanette

Revenge Of The Lawn by Richard Brautigan (1971)
Recommended by Stephen

1998. ‘You’ll like this,’ Stephen said, pressing a 7” single on me. We were in the basement of Brighton’s Wax Factor, having only met a couple of hours previously. The single was post-punk perfection:

I not only liked it; it became one of my favourite singles of all time. I went on to buy everything else by LiLiPUT. The search for their second LP, Some Songs (released in Germany only), dragged on until 2008.

Stephen and I had been writing to each other for eighteen months or so by the time of our meeting. He had contacted me, asking for my fanzine Kirby (then on its second issue), and I had been delighted to get his letter. For Stephen was a well-known name to people who wrote fanzines. His reputation preceded him: someone with excellent taste, kind and supportive, a scourer of the charity shops down in Brighton, and the person with the best collection of books, records, and ephemera. My cultural horizons would be a whole lot narrower without Stephen in my life. He must have turned me on to well over two hundred things I would never have discovered without his guidance: from Helen And The Horns offshoot bands to obscure Caribbean dub poetry.

However, and by degrees, a new person emerged to me. Stevie was within Stephen. Because while Stephen and I would talk about books and records, Stevie and I – via letter and telephone – shared our lives.

It was a mixture of Stephen and Stevie that recommended Revenge Of The Lawn to me. Stephen, with his eclectic taste in books, was perfectly capable of dealing me an oral history of waitresses in Balham or a book of Cuban horror movie poster art; but I know Richard Brautigan is an enduring part of his collection, nestled within its heart chambers. And Stevie, who knows my inner world, felt I would react well to the book's tone, its detail, and its compassion for human eccentricity.

How many short stories can you fit into a 174-page book? Richard Brautigan can fit in 62. This is ‘The Scarlatti Tilt’ in its entirety:

‘It’s very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who’s learning to play the violin.’ That’s what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.

If the creative writing advice is true, and that in a short story every single word should count, ‘The Scarlatti Tint’ has to be the medium’s flawless exemplar. Not every one of Revenge Of The Lawn’s component parts is so concise. But, in many of the stories, Brautigan encapsulates something in a few words that other writers would need a paragraph or more to describe.
            They all looked like people whose names you forget.
                                                                        (‘The Pretty Office’)
              Love affairs that were breathing mirrors of my unhappiness.
                                                            (‘American Flag Decal’)

We see a café resting in the snow’s leisure.
                                                 (‘Thoreau Rubber Band’)

It is the polished nucleus of writing.

I’ve often heard Brautigan’s work described as ‘surreal’ yet – in Revenge Of The Lawn, at least – I found this judgement shallow (although the titles do all sound like lost tracks from Trout Mask Replica). While a few stories do have an otherworldly aspect, such as the sad consumer daze of ‘The Wild Birds Of Heaven’, most are very human and relatable. A note of deep profundity is often struck at the end, which sometimes only makes sense in the context of the title.

Witness my favourite, the one-page ‘A Complete History Of Japan And Germany’. It begins:
A few years ago (World War II) I lived in a motel next to a Swift packing plant which is a nice way of saying slaughterhouse.

The narrator describes the sound made by the pigs:

                        A squealing lament equal to an opera being run through a garbage disposal.

However, he soon gets used to the anguished porcine cries. The final line:

Whenever the pigs weren’t screaming, the silence sounded as if a machine had broken down.

Thinking about that title, and the reference to the war in the first line, plus the fact it was written in 1969, during the Vietnam conflict… this story seems a subtle update of Nineteen Eighty-Four doublethink: war is peace.

I can see the huge influence of this work on modern America, and not just in literature. I would wager Larry David is a fan; ‘Complicated Banking Problems’ is nothing if not a lost Seinfeld episode. Some musicians openly acknowledge his influence, like Neko Case and Devendra Banhart, while dozens more simply rip him off, hoping their audience won’t twig.

Brautigan was also a poet, unsurprising given his talent for expressing intricate ideas in a compact package. Hear him reading 'All Watched Over By Machines Of Love And Grace':

I was glad when the bus came. There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.
                                                            (‘The Old Bus’)

Stevie, your hope was realised: I did enjoy this. XXXOOO.