Richard Brautigan’s 1967 novella Trout Fishing in America is a difficult book. The opening chapter, “The Cover for Trout Fishing in America,” immediately puts the reader off balance, with a description of the actual book cover that we enter into, as if it is a magic portal. “Around five o’clock in the afternoon of my cover for Trout Fishing in America, people gather in the park across the street from the church and they are hungry.” We are outside normal space and time here, in the territory of the mind and the spirit.
In the first chapter alone there are references to Adlai Stevenson, Franz Kafka, and Tom and Jerry, seemingly part of a “postmodernist” aesthetic, and readers might lump this book in with Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or other difficult books of that type. However, the recurrence of symbols and phrases also might lead the reader to think that the mysteries presented by the book can be solved, in the tradition of “modernist” books like James Joyce’s Ulysses. Its difficulty has also led it to be described as a “prose poem,” a literary catch-all term for difficult, elaborate writing not fragmented by line breaks.
Trout Fishing in America may in fact be all of those things, but it is also not like any of them. Brautigan doesn’t use “style” to mystify and obfuscate, like so many of his predecessors in the modernists and postmodernists did. The language itself is not difficult to read, with simple, almost Hemingway-ish sentences like, “They dumped a can full of trout in the creek and no sooner had the trout touched the water, than they turned their white bellies up and floated dead down the creek.” Instead, it is the torrent of ideas, the pivots in perspective, and the shifts in focus that make this book difficult.
However, the book has its own internal logic, and once you as a reader penetrate that logic, it makes perfect sense. In this respect it prefigures television shows on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, where a viewing of one episode is confusing, but after several, an internal logic becomes apparent. In this case, one chapter, or even three, is confusing, but by the time you get halfway through the book, your own logic has shifted to meet Brautigan’s.
The only stylistic oddity may be the repetition of “Trout Fishing in America” in place of people or objects. “Trout Fishing in America left Missolonghi by ship destined to arrive in England on the evening of June 29, 1824.” This is part of the logic, and once the reader accepts this stylistic tic, it flows into the rest of this unique book. Indeed, it becomes a sort of mantra, one of the many ways this book encourages lateral and non-linear thinking in its readers. It may not seem like “contemplative” literature at first, but it might be a better meditation aid than most “simply written” reflections.
The vignettes often feature the narrator participating in actual trout fishing, casting his line into the Klamath River or Little Redfish Lake. In fact, the book has some of the best descriptions of fishing in literature, like the fantastic chapter “The Hunchback Trout.” But all of it is also metaphorical fishing – for ideas, for connection, for meaning. The trout are rising in the evening, and we must bait our hooks.