Yearning for Meaning by Ada Wofford

The Lack of Everything in Willard and His Bowling Trophies and the Meaning of Memory in Homecoming Season 2

(Warning: Contains Spoilers)

One of my favorite things to do as a writer is to take two seemingly disparate ideas, whether they be in the form of literature, music, film, essay, or even science, and to bring them together in an analysis. Typically, this happens purely by chance and this time is no exception. Willard and His Bowling Trophies is an odd little novella written by Richard Brautigan (known primarily for his novel Trout Fishing in America). If it weren’t for my book club, I would have probably never read this “perverse mystery.” The book is short and plainly written. It’s so short that you can easily finish it in an hour or two. After reading the book I happened to watch the second season of the Amazon Prime original series Homecoming.

On the surface, these two pieces could not have less to do with one another. Willard and His Bowling Trophies was written in the mid 70s and the artsy hipster characters reflect that in their conversations and lifestyle. There’s a small cast of characters consisting of Bob and Constance (a young couple who have developed a BDSM kink after an infection of genital warts drove them to seek alternative methods of love making), their downstairs neighbors John and Pat (a film maker and school teacher respectfully), and the Logan Brothers who have recently turned to a life of vagabonding and crime whilst in pursuit of their precious bowling trophies. The whole premise sounds ridiculous because it is; the plot is insane, the characters are banal, and nothing really happens. Then, when something finally does happen, it doesn’t make any sense. It only took me an hour to read this book, but it felt much longer.

It’s obvious that this book is an exploration in existentialism—the universe is meaningless and so on and so forth. But what Willard and His Bowling Trophies manages to do that’s interesting, is to highlight our desperation for meaning in this meaningless universe via our connection to things. Nearly everyone in the book has had something taken away from them in some way. Bob has had his sex life taken away by his infection, which has left him clumsily attempting BDSM in hopes of recovering this lost aspect of his life. This loss has also caused Bob to become a bit of a ditz, constantly misplacing things and thinking slower. Constance has noticed this and has fallen into a deep ennui over her loss, the loss of her once bright and virile husband. Even the book of Greek poetry Bob constantly reads consists only of fragments of poems; the rest lost to the annals of time.

The Logan Brothers lose the one thing that gave their meaningless lives meaning, their bowling trophies. As a result, their mother loses the thing that gave her life meaning, her sons. The Logan brothers devote their lives to finding their stolen bowling trophies, a pursuit that essentially serves to perverse the meaning of their lives—Turning it from a meaning that brings peace and happiness, into a meaning akin to a crusade; resulting in the Logan Brothers using their life’s meaning as an excuse for thievery and murder. One brother takes to drinking to substitute his loss while another resorts to simple daydreaming. In fact, the three brothers remain nameless except for the one who introduces himself as Johnny Logan, but only does so in one of his daydreams. Back in reality, the brothers are shadows of themselves; stripped of the very thing that gave them satisfying meaning in life.

The only characters who don’t appear to have lost anything are ironically the two characters in possession of the bowling trophies, John and Pat. John and Pat did not steal the trophies, they found them in an abandoned car and decided to take them home one day. The reader never learns who actually stole the trophies or why. Although John and Pat are the only characters not to have something important taken away from them, their lives are still filled with emptiness—Going to the movies, having sex, repeating conversations, and eating sandwiches in bed while watching Johnny Carson. Their lives are as empty as those of Bob and Constance a floor above them, only John and Pat are comfortable with the emptiness; almost as if it’s the only thing they have ever known. One can’t miss what one has no knowledge of.

And this is how Willard and His Bowling Trophies connects to the second season of Homecoming. Homecoming is a mystery show that involves the testing of an experimental PTSD treatment. The second season explores the corporation that produces this treatment and the effects this substance can have on individuals. It’s a berry extract that, when taken in large enough quantities, completely wipes one’s memory. In an act of revenge (and it’s justified revenge, trust me) two of the characters dose the entire company at a party to erase their memories so that they can destroy the remaining crop of berries and essentially, put things back as if they had never happened.

The final scene involves two characters who realize that they have been drugged and are waiting for the extract to kick in, fully conscious of the impending results. Even though the people behind this operation acted immorally, it’s difficult not to feel bad for them as they reflect on everything they’re about to lose. It’s as if we are witnessing these characters await death even though they will wake up alive and physically healthy. What this is illustrating is that to lose one’s memories, to wake up tomorrow a completely blank slate, is to essentially die. These characters were ambitious, and they were successful because they never stopped pushing forward, never stopped planning, never stopped striving, and they know that all the work they did will disappear along with their memories.

This is especially significant for the character Temple who in the beginning of the season was timid and worked as the receptionist but by the end, she was cutthroat and had a top position in the company. Little by little, Temple made concessions. She ignored her conscience here and there until she couldn’t hear it at all. This final scene speaks to the concept of authenticity and genuineness that exists in all of us but only remains if we cultivate and nurture it. Everyone drugged in that final scene had allowed their morality to slowly slip away. It took a purely genuine act to reverse this—Erasing their corrupted minds and forcing them to start over. All of this ambition, which led to the atrophy of their morality, was of course driven by want. I chose the word want over greed because we tend not think of ourselves as greedy, but we can all admit that we want things—And this lesson applies to all of us.

In Willard and His Bowling Trophies, John and Pat are these freshly erased minds. They have no real ambition, no real yearning. They do not suffer because they do not want. Bob, Constance, and the Logan Brothers all suffer because they yearn for what has been lost. Their meaning in life and their happiness were connected to what they have lost and so they have lost their meaning and their happiness as well. If only they could be dosed with the mysterious berry extract and wake up new, ignorant to having lost anything. In both Homecoming and Willard and His Bowling Trophies, it was their yearning for meaning in this meaningless universe that served as the crux of their suffering.

And so, I will end this article with a quote from Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, a quote I’ve used in reference to so many stories:

This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the time being it is their only link.

About the contributor

Ada Wofford is currently avoiding their inevitable 9-5 enslavement by being a Contributing Editor for The Blue Nib and studying library science at UW-Madison. They hold a BA in English literature and have been published in a handful of journals.

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