From one repository of dreams to another. A four hour train ride yesterday allowed me time to start and finish Richard Brautigan’s gentle little book, The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966.
Our unnamed narrator is the custodian of a very peculiar public library in San Francisco. No one visits to read the books – the books aren’t even available to get checked out – and there is no indexing system to keep track of the books. Instead, this is a library where aspiring authors of all ages (“all the losers and the dingalings”) submit the books they’ve written for safe-keeping. Our unnamed narrator takes his job as custodian of these books very seriously. He welcomes each book, each author, with respect and sensitivity – whether it’s five year old Chuck with his book “My Trike”, or fifty year old Charles Green who’s had his book rejected by publishers 459 times.
“I’ll show you how we honour a book into the library. ‘Welcome it’ is the phrase I use…. and you have to be friendly, too. That’s important. To make the person and the book feel wanted because that’s the main purpose of the library and to gather pleasantly together the unwanted, the lyrical and haunted volumes of American writing.” (p. 71-72)
Sounds like an ideal job to me – if it came with one day a week off and a decent wage, I’d be beating down the door to get hired. Our unnamed narrator has manned the library for three years, day and night without ever leaving – faithfully and alone. And then one day Vida shows up, her own book under her arm. Vida shows up, with her ethereal face and her Playboy body – her “grand container”. Vida shows up, and never leaves.
“What an abstract thing it is to take your clothes off in front of a stranger for the very first time… Your body almost looks away from itself and is a stranger to this world.” (p. 45)
When Vida becomes pregnant, they leave the library to procure an abortion in Tijuana, Mexico. I never had Brautigan pegged as an overly particularly political writer from the other works I’ve read (A Confederate General From Big Sur, The Hawkline Monster, Dreaming of Babylon), so I wasn’t sure how the eponymous abortion would be written, what proportion of the book it would inhabit. I was a bit nervous that it would be a cheap plot device, shock value and nothing more – but the issue is treated surprisingly humanely.
The decision to have the abortion was arrived at without bitterness and was calmly guided by gentle necessity.
‘I’m not ready to have a child yet,’ Vida said. ‘And neither are you, working in a kooky place like this. Maybe another time, perhaps for certain another time, but not now. I love children, but this isn’t the time. If you can’t give them the maximum of yourself, then it’s best to wait. There are too many children in the world and not enough love.’ (p. 55)
Even though the decision is reached quickly, it’s not one that Vida or the librarian take lightly. They’re ambivalent toward the decision – it’s the right decision for them at that time, but not one they’re happy to undertake.
“Some children were playing in front of the doctor’s office… We were no doubt a common sight for them. They had probably seen many gringos in this part of town, going into this green adobe-like building, gringos who did not look very happy. We did not disappoint them.” (p. 127)
The book is typical Brautigan, light and absurd, with a host of unreal characters – but it’s narratively quite straight, and far more solemn than I was expecting. A lot of reviews make the book seem funnier, lighter, than I found it – but perhaps like most cult American authors of that early-to-mid-20th Century style (from Hemingway to Kerouac to Thompson), Brautigan’s standard audience is made up of undergraduate boys who’ve never seen a woman naked outside of a computer screen, who think Nietzsche is the ultimate height of Western thought. Sympathising with Vida, as a woman of childbearing age who could potentially face the physical experience of abortion (or at least faces the spectre of unwanted pregnancy), gives quite a different experience of the book than does sympathising with the librarian.
I’ve enjoyed other Brautigan books (particularly The Hawkline Monster), but I enjoyed this book in a different way, particularly any description of the library. The library can be seen as a metaphor for plenty of things – the hedonistic 60s, the abortion itself; great moments, all the joy of production, which ultimate leads to nothing – but perhaps that’s a stretch. I’ll leave the metaphors to more expert readers, and just enjoy Brautigan’s inimitable turn of phrase.
“I know it’s going to rain.
Clouds have been playing with the blue style of the sky all day long… but so far nothing rain has happened.” (p. 11)