Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Sombrero Fallout

Richard Brautigan Sombrero Fallout (1976)
I read and enjoyed The Hawkline Monster about thirty years ago, and yet somehow never quite got around to that second Brautigan novel, not even out of curiosity when Pump recorded their Sombrero Fallout album and named it after this - Pump being the vessel in which Andrew Cox had set forth across the musical landscape, and Andrew Cox being my buddy who departed for that great off licence in the sky back in 2009. This copy of Sombrero Fallout turned up in a second hand book store, and in doing so drew to my attention how rarely it is that his books seem to turn up in second hand book stores; which, I suppose, is at least part of the reason. I couldn't just walk away from it, although truthfully, there was something which put me off. I've known a few Caucasian males with a thing for Japanese or otherwise Asiatic women, and whilst I can think of one dude who isn't a weirdo - at least not for that reason - I've often found myself deeply suspicious of this attraction which, in some cases, seems based almost entirely on the exotic credentials of the gals in question. That they're small, supposedly inscrutable, childlike, and passive seem to be the considerations at the core of their appeal amongst a certain type of male; and for what it's worth, I always thought Shonen Knife were shit as well.

Anyway, I felt like Sombrero Fallout might pander to this tendency, at least based on the cover, and happily I was very wrong. Yukiko, the ethnically Japanese woman who walks out on her slightly neurotic Caucasian lover constitutes subject rather than object within the narrative, and is exotic only in the thoughts of her spurned partner.

As the novel opens, our man tears something he's written from the typewriter and tosses it into the waste paper basket. The reject is a tale of what happens when a sombrero falls from a clear sky to land in the street of a small town, and the story expands under its own steam within the confines of the waste paper basket. The sombrero is seen by the mayor and two others, an argument ensues, which quickly expands by chain reaction into a full scale riot complete with a body count. Meanwhile the guy who decided not to write the story spends an hour failing to come to terms with his rejection by Yukiko, and so reveals why she probably made the right choice.

Brautigan has an extraordinary focus on the details of the story almost to the point of it being nothing but detail, as though his business is with the atomic structure of the narrative. This focus presents something which appears deceptively simple and feels somehow nourishing, like it's good for you in the same way as an avocado. In some respects it reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut's writing, but more sleek and efficient, with everything right where it needs to be and not a tangent in sight. Brautigan also seems to share Vonnegut's concerns about the future of the planet and the stupid shit humanity gets caught up in from time to time.

Sombrero Fallout is vaguely an allegory of the convoluted relationship between Japan and America, or at least about aspects of the same; but it's an allegory in the sense of certain Surrealist paintings being allegorical, just as Magritte wasn't necessarily painting men in bowler hats. Here we have the sombrero as  mushroom cloud, and the dissolution which comes in its wake, which turns out to be more or less all that is needed to tell the story. Sombrero Fallout therefore feels very much like a complete thing in itself, self-contained and close enough to being a perfect novel as makes no difference.

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