Well, I never thought that Harry Styles would have any influence on my life whatsoever. But I picked this book up in a library sale entirely because of his (somewhat irritating) song. I have no idea whether Harry has actually read the book, but it was apparently lying around whilst he was writing the song and he liked the title. So here we are.
It’s a hard book to explain. The blurb says:
"iDEATH is a place where the sun shines a different colour every day and where people travel to the length of their dreams. Rejecting the violence and hate of the old gang at the Forgotten Works, they lead gentle lives in watermelon sugar. In this book, Richard Brautigan discovers and expresses the mood of the counterculture generation."
Doesn’t really help much huh?
Let me try and sum it up...
The narrator lives in Watermelon Sugar at some time in a post-apocalyptic future. At least we think it is post-apocalyptic, but that is never actually spelled out. Almost everything is made of watermelon sugar, which somehow makes a strong and verstatile building material which conveniently doesn't dissolve in the rain. They fuel lamps with watermelontrout oil, which apparently burns very well and smells lovely. The watermelons that are boiled down into sugar are different colours – this is influenced by the fact that the sun shines a different colour on each day. On Thursdays the sun is black and soundless. From sun up to sun down the world is completely silent and no one can talk to each other.
"When the sun came up over the edge of our world, the darkness would continue and there would be no sound today. Our voices would be gone. If you dropped something, there would be no sound. The rivers would be silent."
People live peaceably in some kind of commune called iDEATH, where they eat a lot of carrots. It’s unclear how many people live there, but when they die they are seemingly entombed in glass boxes under the river. We're not sure why. We also don't know why it is called iDEATH, but death, sacrifice, and suicide are recurrent themes throughout the book.
At some point in the past, the settlement rid themselves of the ‘tigers’ who used to eat the people. The ‘tigers’ could speak the language of the people, so we don't know if they were actual tigers, people, or something else.
They used to have a lot of trouble with a gang based at the ‘Forgotten Works’ (some kind of abandonned city or factory) because the gang spent most of their time getting wasted and being rowdy and annoying. The leader of the gang, inBOIL has some kind of beef with iDEATH. The narrator tells us what happened to him and the gang – let’s just say it’s pretty weird and they didn’t bother the commune again afterwards.
I told you it was hard to explain. It’s fairly obvious that when they say Richard Brautigan “expresses the mood of the counterculture generation”, they mean he was probably completely smacked off his tits most of the time. In Watermelon Sugar certainly has a trippy, dreamlike quality, where nothing quite makes sense. It's sort of frothy and brightly coloured, like something from The Yellow Submarine. It is easy to see why the hippies of the 1960s loved his work so much. However, the book is also quite dark. Nothing is as idyllic as it first seems. This is a world where people live peacefully together and craft what they need from sugar, but it's also a world where the people slaughtered all of the educated 'tigers' and where alcoholism and suicide bubble under the surface. Clearly a lot of this was taken from his Brautigan's own experiences. From what I've read, he had rather an unhappy childhood filled with poverty and upheaval. He was an alcoholic himself, and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1955. He sadly killed himself at the age of just 49.
For all In Watermelon Sugar makes no sense whatsoever, I didn’t actually hate it. It is written in very small sections, (or ‘vignettes’ if you're posh), which make it much more consumable and easy to plough through. It is written in a very matter-of-fact way which makes it more 'believable' somehow. After all, someone living in that world wouldn't have to explain anything; to them, it just is. These things combine to keep you reading. You're spurred on by the vague hope that it will all make sense before the end (spoiler: it doesn't). It's weird but oddly compelling.
"One morning the tigers came in while we were eating breakfast and before my father could grab a weapon they killed him and they killed my mother....
'Those were my folks,' I said finally.
'We're sorry', one of the tigers said. 'We really are.'
'Yeah,' the other tiger said. 'We wouldn't do this if we didn't have to, if we weren't absolutely forced to. But this is the only way we can keep alive.'
'We're just like you, the other tiger said. 'We speak the same language you do. We think the same thoughts, but we're tigers.'
'You could help me with my arithmetic,' I said."
In some ways, it does give you the feeling that if only you had a degree in English Literature you’d be able to discern some deeper meaning or social commentary hidden within the pages. But once I suspended the need to figure anything out and just went along with it, I would go as far as to say that I quite enjoyed it. Like a bizarre dream; you can't explain it, and you don't understand it, but it sort of makes its own sense.
It was certainly a very different read. So, thanks Harry. I think.
- Richard Brautigan also wrote poetry. As you might expect, it's quite strange. You can find lots of it here and here.
- Brautigan's first novella God of the Martians was written in around 1955. It has never been published.
- In 1994, 17 year old Peter Eastman Jnr. legally changed his name to Trout Fishing in America after Brautigan's 1967 bestseller. Each to their own.
Odd but oddly likeable.
In Watermelon Sugar remains in print, and is widely available.