History: The novel was written four years prior to its first publication in 1968, between 13 May and 19 July 1964. The concept of iDEATH is subject to various interpretations. It can be seen as a new Eden in a post-apocalyptic world, with the old destroyed world represented by the Forgotten Works, connecting the narrator and his new lover to Adam and Eve. The novel alludes to communal experiments of the 1960s, involving the intersection of nature and technology. For example, the iDEATH building seems to have been constructed around nature, rather than displacing it; the building houses many trees, rocks, a creek, and a trout hatchery. Brautigan himself said he based the book on his life in Bolinas, whose inhabitants were at that time known for their semi-communal and insular ways. A possible inspiration for the "Forgotten Works" may have been a Sears Department store across from Brautigan's apartment at 2546 Geary Street.
Plot: The narrator remains un-named throughout the book, and through his first person account we hear the story of the people and the events of iDEATH. The central tension is created by Margaret, once a lover of the narrator, and inBOIL, a rebellious man who has left iDEATH to live near a forbidden area called the Forgotten Works. It is a huge trash heap where the remnants of a former civilization lie abandoned in great piles. Margaret, a collector of such 'forgotten' things, is friendly with inBOIL and his followers, who explore the place and make whiskey. In the violent climax of the novel, inBOIL returns to the community along with a handful of followers, planning to show the residents what iDEATH really is. The residents know only that "something" is about to happen -- for all they know, inBOIL could be plotting to kill them all. Many suspect that Margaret knew and did not reveal details of inBOIL's real plan, thus "conspiring" with the evil men. She is semi-ostracized from iDEATH, and at the beginning of the novel the narrator reveals he had ended their relationship because of these events.
Review: Maybe the only interesting thing here is the question of how the book views communal living. The members of iDEATH all seem to be quite happy, living their simple lives in which not very much happens. But they also seem to pass their lives in a curiously anaesthetized state: they are unconcerned by the gruesome deaths of inBOIL and his gang, and Margaret's brother reacts to her suicide by saying, simply, "It's for the best. She had a broken heart." Perhaps only Margaret, who shares inBOIL's interest in forgotten things, is capable of suffering a broken heart. Her former friends react to her death by bricking up her room, filled with forgotten things, according to their custom. They're unemotional and ahistorical, and do what thou wilt is the whole of their law. Although this book is viewed as a hippie tract, it seems perhaps to be more skeptical of its times than one might expect.
The community of iDEATH is the embodiment of the 1960’s hippie dream - set in a environmentally friendly community, where the buildings are built round, and from (watermelon sugar), nature, the inhabitants live, eat and sleep communally. The life is slow and easy, work gets done when it is needed by who wants to do it. Brautigan also incorporates aspects of Eastern philosophy such as living with ancestors – in iDEATH it is almost literal, as the dead are buried in glass coffins at the bottom of the river so that they are always there.
Despite the bucolic nature of iDEATH acts of violence lie at the heart of the novel. The narrator and others mourn the loss of the Tigers’ beautiful singing, while acknowledging that the community had to hunt them to extinction as they preyed on its members. Then inBOIL and his followers commit suicide by cutting off their thumbs, ears and noses, bleeding to death on the floor of the trout hatchery, after he promises to reveal the truth about iDEATH. As he lies dying he states, “I am iDEATH”. Margaret, who is questioned about her obsession with the Forgotten Works, hangs herself.
Are the deaths of inBOIL and Margaret, and the name of the community itself, suggesting that in order for iDEATH to succeed certain aspects of individual personality must be lost? It is interesting that inBOIL and Margaret both are obsessed with the Forgotten Works where there are buildings, books and objects belonging to a previous civilisation. (Watermelon is nominally a post-apocalyptic novel). For the rest of iDEATH these items should be left to decay or disappear – they are at worst dangerous; at best pointless.
In the majority of utopian novels the suppression of the self and acceptance of things as they are is portrayed as bad but Brautigan appears more ambivalent. If the community members remain happy and contented does it matter? The unnamed narrator is puzzled by the deaths of inBOIL and his followers, saddened by the death of Margaret but also believes that they these deaths may have been for the best – that inBOIL and Margaret made iDEATH a less happy place to be. It is the same with the Tigers – the community made the decision to be safe at the cost of losing beauty. People miss the songs of the Tigers but they don’t dispute the necessity of the killing them all.
Is Brautigan really saying that it is acceptable to lose some aspects of human behaviour in order to reach a placid middle place of acceptance? The characters that we are expected to empathise with in the book certainly suggest that. These characters however are completely naïve; they don’t question the world the way an ordinary person would do. To a large extent they are philosophically and intellectually empty – they don’t accept the world of iDEATH because it is the best possible world, they accept it because it is their world.
There is always the possibility that iDEATH is a personal utopia for Brautigan. He suffered from mental problems throughout his life and perhaps iDEATH is a fictional manifestation of what he would have given up in order to achieve some level of inner peace. (He later committed suicide, aged 49, after talking about it for years – he was not discovered for a month).
In the end, In Watermelon Sugar is your typical Richard Brautigan novel – full of lovely descriptions of sunsets and rivers and the colours of watermelon sugar but empty of the many of the attributes that make up a good novel. That doesn’t mean the book isn’t worth reading, there are worse ways to fill a quiet Sunday afternoon or a lazy summer evening than relaxing with Brautigan’s prose.
Opening Line: “In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar.”
Closing Line: “It would only be a few seconds now, I wrote.”
Quotes: "I'll tell you about it because I am here and you are distant."
“We take the juice from the watermelons and cook it down until there’s nothing left but sugar, and then we work it into the shape of this thing that we have: our lives.”
Rating: Very good and original.