By Richard Brautigan
544 pp. Mariner Books. $20.
This is one of the most charming things I’ve read in a while. There’s not an ounce of cynicism or cruelty in this. It feels pure, innocent, compassionate. You just cannot read this without smiling.
I’d never heard of Richard Brautigan before, despite his name taking up a good deal of room on book spines throughout the bookshops of the Pacific Northwest. Apparently, Brautigan was something of a thing in the mid-to-late 1960s and early 1970s. Afterward, it seems, his star fell.
In some sense, I understand that, because this feels almost too wholesome for the times. It seems that literature now is required to be heavy, weighty, self-serious.
“The Abortion” is 230 some odd pages but it reads like half of that. And yes, it’s tentatively about an abortion but the subject is given so little thought that it really feels as though it’s about something else entirely.
The male protagonist, who appears to be Brautigan himself, runs a library that holds books by unpublished writers. The writer brings their book in, our protagonist logs it, and then they’re allowed to put it anywhere in the library they like. Richard Brautigan, an author long-forgotten, writing about a library of books no one has ever heard of seems somewhat fitting.
I especially enjoyed Brautigan’s descriptions of the books that get brought in and their authors. This part reads like a delightful short story in and of itself. One day a beautiful woman named Vida brings her book in, all about how much she hates her own body because of all the unwanted male attention and female vindictiveness it brings her.
Some have found it controversial that Brautigan, a man, is writing about a woman with a body so seemingly perfect (to the male gaze) that she despises it. I’m not quite sure why … I think he writes a female character better than a lot of other male authors do, and anyway, a writer should be able to write about whatever or whomever they want, regardless of race or gender. Whether or not they manage to do it well, of course, is another question entirely.
Maybe Brautigan’s ignorant of the politics of gender, maybe he doesn’t refrain from describing women’s bodies as a politically correct man should, but nothing in “The Abortion” comes off as crude or sexist, at least not intentionally so.
You’d expect a book called “The Abortion” to perhaps be about the 1960s culture wars and the fight for legalized abortion. But the part of it that is about abortion is likely to enrage so-called pro-lifers even more as the decision to have an abortion is never in doubt.
“Vida and I talked it over. The decision to have the abortion was arrived at without bitterness and was calmly guided by gentle necessity.
“‘I’m not read to have a child yet,’ Vida said, ‘And neither are you, working at 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. An abortion is the only answer.’
“‘I think you’re right,’ I said. ‘I don’t know about this library being a kooky place, but we’re not ready for a child yet. Perhaps in a few years. I think you should use the pill after we have the abortion.’
“‘Yes,’ she said. ‘It’s the pill from now on.'”
That’s it. The second-guessing and heartwrenching back-and-forth one would expect in such a book were it written today is absent entirely. You have to respect the clearheadedness of it all, the lack of hand-wringing.
The two simply go down to Tijuana (this in the days before abortion was legal stateside) and that’s pretty much that.
In writing about the titular abortion, I’m making it seem like a bigger deal than it is in the book. I write about it only because I’ve never read a novel where the topic is handled so well, so normally.
The truly lovely thing about “The Abortion,” is that absolutely nothing in the novel, not even the abortion itself, is political. After the politics and social divisions of the last few years, Brautigan’s novel really does feel like something out of a bygone era