Robbins, Tom (Vol. 32)
Tom Robbins 1936–
(Born Thomas Eugene Robbins) American novelist and short story writer.
Robbins writes wildly playful novels which express his view that "playfulness is a form of wisdom and not of frivolity." The tone of his novels is not a denial of the more sobering aspects of life but an advocacy of "joy in spite of everything." He communicates this message through the philosophies his characters present as well as through his elaborate writing style. Outrageous puns, nonsequiturs, oxymorons, and digressions on top of digressions characterize Robbins's narrative. His novels question not only literary conventions but also societal assumptions about the best way to assure human satisfaction. Robbins incorporates alternative ideas from such diverse sources as pantheism, Eastern mystical religions, and New Physics.
Robbins is often considered a literary descendant of such post-modern writers as Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, and Kurt Vonnegut. Like these authors, Robbins acknowledges the absurdity of modern life, rejects conformity in favor of individual expression, and uses elements of metafiction in his writing. He often speaks directly to the reader, commenting on the work in progress or appearing as a character in the novel. However, unlike his recent forebears—who often write black comedy and present a bleak prognosis for the modern world—Robbins's tone is optimistic and his humor usually lighthearted.
Another Roadside Attraction (1971) earned Robbins praise from most critics. However, the novel was not a popular success until the paperback edition was published in 1973, when it began to attract a cult following. Robbins's greater success in paperback is often attributed to the fact that his novels, which irreverently question and satirize those social conventions which fail to increase the level of joy in people's lives, are appreciated especially by the young and the unconventional. Robbins's second and third novels were brought out in paperback immediately and became bestsellers. Mitchell Ross dubbed Robbins "Prince of the Paperback Literati."
Another Roadside Attraction displays the characteristics typical of Robbins's fiction: an outrageous plot, unusual characters, and imaginative use of language. It is narrated by Marx Marvelous, an academic whom many critics identify as Robbins's alter-ego. Robbins's main concerns in the novel are to advocate the joyous acceptance of the mystery of the universe and to portray the romance between Marx and the heroine, along with Marx's journey towards self-awareness.
In Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976) Robbins focuses on an attractive heroine, Sissy Hankshaw, a woman with nine-inch thumbs who is an obsessive hitchhiker. Sissy moves between New York City, where she is a model, and South Dakota, where a cosmetic health farm has been taken over by a group of feminist cowgirls. As the narrative traces Sissy's travels, such themes as the human relationship with the universe and the importance of individual freedom are explored. Although some critics find Robbins's digressions and wordplay to be self-indulgent, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues was on the whole very well received.
Still Life with Woodpecker: A Sort of a Love Story (1980) is the least critically acclaimed of Robbins's first three novels. In contrast to the complicated plots of his earlier works, the story of Still Life is simple and, according to some critics, slow-moving and fable-like. In this tale of a modern environmentalist princess and her "metaphysical outlaw" lover, Robbins maintains that individual romantic and personal fulfillment are more important than social activism; he rejects dogma, believing that "good can be as banal as evil." Despite Robbins's efforts to communicate his message, some critics did not find Still Life with Woodpecker deeply meaningful. For example, Donald Hettinga argued that the novel "never becomes more than a clever package of words." Many critics, however, appreciate Robbins's creative use of language, as well as his celebration of the human spirit and his perpetuation of upbeat values.
In the recent Jitterbug Perfume (1984), a typical varied cast of characters traverse time and space in search of both the ultimate perfume and the secret of immortality.
(See also CLC, Vol. 9; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980.)
In recent years we have seen wild enthusiasm, much discussion, and some handwringing for the likes of Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, and Thomas Pynchon. The latest discovery is Tom Robbins.
Several qualities distinguish the novels by these contemporary cult figures from those of authors such as [Henry] James. The most obvious characteristic is their enormous popularity, which entails equally large financial rewards….
A second characteristic of these recent novels is a fascination with travel, but the sort of travel that precludes round-trip fares and forty-five-day limits. Concerns of time and cost do not matter, because neither the destination nor the purpose is always very clear. In Robbins's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, the heroine, Sissy Hankshaw, "the world's greatest hitchhiker," freely admits that "it was the act of hitchhiking that formed the substance of her vision," and that she was never really going anywhere. Movement itself, rather than any specific place, is the goal, and Kerouac, rather than Kafka, is the guide….
A third distinguishing quality of these popular cult novels is the appearance of the wise man who usually comes from the Far East or at least the Third World. Indian mystics, Oriental sages, and an occasional witch doctor behave as if they have cornered the market on Truth…. Cowgirls features the Chink who, depending upon the circumstances, is equally...
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R. V. Cassill
Old fashions of escape literature never die; they come back with new drapes, dyes and hemlines, and the cotton candy of yesteryear is now laced with cocaine to dull the ache in teeth rotted by sugar. Fairy tales that charm the young invite their elders to scan them as symptomatic fantasies of flight from the anxieties of the age. So there's something for everyone in ["Still Life With Woodpecker"], Tom Robbins's medley of antique fairy tales, Aquarian shibboleths and didactic Yippie formulas for living the good life across the rainbow from the reality principle. The speed of his ricocheting metaphors may well hustle you past the patent falsity of the moral that crowns his tale of a princess and her princely savior….
[All the] whirligigs of plot spin out opportunities for the elaboration of the Woodpecker's thought, which is the chief sweetener in the whole concoction of metaphor and whimsy.
Choice—"the word no mirror can turn around"—is the supreme good in Woodpecker metaphysics….
Poor Leigh-Cheri. One would like to tell her and all her sister princesses that the old Woodpecker has only got her out of the doll's house of faddish movements by inducting her into a doll's universe. For the noble faculty of choice is here presented as operative only between the "Yum" and the "Yuk" of existence. Such pitiable reductions from traditional hedonism are the "alternate mantras" with which the Yippie...
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Donald R. Hettinga
In considering contemporary fiction, John Barth writes, "My own analogy would be with good jazz or classical music: one finds much on successive listenings or on close examination of the score that one didn't catch the first time through; but the first time through should be so ravishing—and not just to specialists—that one delights in the replay." Tom Robbins's Still Life With Woodpecker does not fare well with this kind of test. As witty as the novel is in places, it never becomes more than a clever package of words.
Wrapped up in the package is, the subtitle tells us, "A Sort of a Love Story." A pretty silly one, in fact: an exiled princess falls in love with a commoner who is also an outlaw. Her lover is captured and imprisoned. The princess remains faithful until she misinterprets a message from the outlaw as a rejection of her love. On the rebound, she gives her favor and her troth to an Arab prince who has been courting her. However, on the night before the wedding the princess discovers her outlaw lover escaped and waiting for her. They are discovered in midembrace. The confrontation initiates a period of trial in which the two lovers discover each other's true character. All that remains is the novel's catastrophe—not necessarily bad news, we should remember—before the princess and the outlaw "live happily ever after."
The sort of love story, then? A fairy tale, although Still Life, of...
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Sue M. Halpern
Emma Goldman would like Tom Robbins. Having amassed a youthful following with his earlier novels, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Another Roadside Attraction, Robbins uses his latest offering, Still Life With Woodpecker, to instruct his constituency on matters of free will and social responsibility. He is riotous yet resolute, not subtle, but shrewd.
Still Life With Woodpecker is a fable for and against the last quarter of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, Robbins relies on the elements used by classical fabulists. There is a beautiful princess, a loyal handmaiden, a barren attic, exile and court intrigue, many varieties of frogs and, most important, an anarchist prince. In this, it is a formula novel. (p. 415)
[It] is a fable. Before there can be a happy ending, there must be truth. Before there can be truth, there must be mystery and confusion. Somewhere in the ruins are a pack of Camels and a deserted romance.
If this sounds silly, it should. Still Life With Woodpecker is an imbroglio of outrageous details. Usually they are playful and funny; sometimes they are overdrawn. But as a farce, Still Life With Woodpecker is apocryphal, for Robbins's relentless attention to detail is subterfuge.
Like most fables, Robbins's story is told in service to his moral. Unlike most moralists, however, he is a latter-day libertarian disguised as a saint...
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Can innovative fiction address the world and its problems, yet remain free of the limiting conventions of realism? Following the achievements of the avant-garde, can there still be fiction with feeling? A newly emergent group of writers in the late 1970s has defined itself in response to these problems. Best characterized as the authors of "bubble gum fiction" (as "bubble gum music" of the last decade was an answer to the abrasiveness and stridency of the period's heavier rock), William Kotzwinkle, Tom Robbins, Rob Swigart, and Gerald Rosen have tried to write a socially responsive fiction which does not sacrifice the aesthetic gains of the great sixties innovators. (p. 123)
The first underground classic of bubble gum fiction is Tom Robbins' Another Roadside Attraction…. Robbins, a former student of religion and practicing art critic, brings a wealth of philosophical interest to the writing of this novel. He feels that the excessive rationalization of Western culture since Descartes has severed man from his roots in nature. Organized religion has in like manner become more of a tool of logic and control than of spirit. Robbins' heroine, Amanda, would reconnect mankind with the benign chaos of the natural world, substituting magic for logic, style for substance, and poetry for the analytical measure of authority. But to show the reader how magical, suprarational connections work, to involve the reader in recomposing the world...
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The novels of Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction (1971), Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976), and Still Life with Woodpecker (1980), are set mostly in Washington state and the Dakotas, yet at first glance seem to have little in common with the formula Western or with Western writing in general. However, a more than cursory reading of Robbins's novels shows that climactic showdowns and shootouts are present, conflicts between unambiguously good and bad guys are, at least temporarily, resolved, and heroes do ride off into the sunset. When the construction and themes of his work are examined, it becomes clear that Robbins has reworked in an unusual style many of the conflicts familiar to the genre.
By redefining and reorganizing the confrontation of the individual and society, he has been able to go beyond the dead-end of the formula Western to suggest new resolutions to these conflicts that traditionally have been embodied in most Western fiction. As is the case with many other Western writers, Robbins's romantic vision enhances and idealizes the American pioneering spirit. However, while Robbins clearly believes in the value of individualism and diversity, he also seems to recognize the need for some kind of social structure, even if it may be radically different from anything we have now. Through this vision his characters work out the conflicts between their love of free, primitive, pantheistic lifestyles and...
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If Thomas Pynchon were a Muppet, he would write like Tom Robbins.
That may be, indeed, a large part of the problem in reading Robbins. He's so cute: his books are full of cute lines populated by unrelentingly cute people, even teeming with cute animals—frogs, chipmunks, and chihuahuas in Still Life With Woodpecker. No one ever gets hurt very badly …, and although the world is threatened by the same dark, soulless business cartels that threaten the worlds of Pynchon, Mailer, and our century, in Robbins it doesn't seem, finally, to matter. Love or something like it really does conquer all in his parables, with a mixture of stoned gaiety, positive thinking, and Sunday Supplement Taoism. (p. 153)
But these are harsh words for a writer who is, undoubtedly, the underground undergraduate enthusiasm of the seventies…. Furthermore, writers as reticent as Graham Greene and as reticent as Pynchon himself have expressed high praise for his work. And (dammit, let's be honest) Robbins is, as a storyteller, as engaging and as fun to read, as cuddly, as anybody currently working at the trade.
But should we trust a cuddly novelist? The last twenty or so years of American fiction have taught us that comedy, satire, the absurd are all powerful tools for mapping the shape of the apocalypse upon whose edge we tremble. But how can we handle a writer who is comic, satiric,...
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Although the fiction of Tom Robbins may not yet appear on the syllabi of many surveys of contemporary literature, his novels seem to have something like the same following among college students as the fiction of Barth or Pynchon did before they became fully legitimated as makers of elitist art. It is interesting from our point of view, however, that concepts from physics, which are for the most part implicit as structuring principles in the art of the more established novelists, are treated in the fiction of this relative newcomer as concerns that must be reckoned with openly. Robbins boldly assumes his reader's familiarity with the fundamental precepts of the new physics and proceeds to explore their metaphysical implications as if that were the inevitable consequence of confrontation with these new ideas. (p. 149)
Another unique aspect of Robbins's fiction relating to physics is the recognition that the unitary conception of being in the great religious philosophies of the East (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism) is far more compatible with discoveries made in the new physics than the dualistic Western model. As Fritjof Capra nicely demonstrates [in The Tao of Physics],… the Eastern emphasis upon the unity and interrelatedness of all things in a cosmos that is forever moving, alive, and organic is rather strikingly close to the understanding of the life process implied in the new physics. Although Robbins is aware of the...
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Jitterbug Perfume has a large and exotic cast of characters, all of whom are interested in immortality and/or perfume. There is Priscilla in Seattle, a "genius waitress" who spends her off hours trying to invent the ultimate perfume. In New Orleans, we have Madame Devalier and V'lu, sometime potion-merchants now in search for the same jasmine-based scent as Priscilla is. In Paris there are the LeFever brothers of LeFever Fragrances…. Back in Seattle, there is Wiggs Dannyboy, a Timothy Leary work-alike who's given up acid for immortality research. And most important of all, there are Alobar and Kudra, immortal lovers who trek from medieval Bohemia to present-day Paris by way of a Tibetan lamasery, the Bandaloop caves in India, Byzantine Constantinople, Pan's Greece, frontier America, and the after-world.
The Alobar and Kudra story is the living heart of this book; somehow these two seem to have solved the problem that exercised Robbins in his last book, Still Life With Woodpecker: "Who knows how to make love stay?" Alobar and Kudra stay in love century after century. (pp. 1, 9)
What do perfume and immortality have to do with each other? They are both related to memory. Marcel (!) LeFever makes the point that familiar smells seem to bring back memories more effectively than, say, photographs or tape-recordings…. [When] Kudra dematerializes and visits the afterworld, she learns that each soul brings...
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When Tom Robbins published "Another Roadside Attraction" in 1971 and then topped it with "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" in 1976, it appeared a new madman-genius of fiction had been loosed from the American counterculture. But the counterculture grew up, and in 1981, when he put out the humdrum and commercial "Still Life with Woodpecker," he sold some books, but phrases like "sold-out" and "burned-out" kept coming to mind.
Well, not true. The old Tom Robbins is back, and with his newest novel, "Jitterbug Perfume," he proves he is fully as crazy as ever, as full of astonishing word play, unimaginable characters and swooshing flights of observation. "Jitterbug" is as funny and weird and wise and wide-ranging and bizarre as even the most jaded ex-Robbins fan could ask.
It is about beet pollen.
And a thousand-year-old man. And three succulent women, and one aging fat one. And Pan, and perfume, and Paris, and permanence, and perfidy. And sex.
Robbins writes about sex the way Roger Kahn writes about baseball, the way Calvin Trillin writes about food, the way Boswell wrote about Johnson, and none of his books lack a woman of such sexual pliance and aptitude that most people probably could live happy, fulfilled sex lives just savoring Robbins' leftover fantasies.
["Jitterbug Perfume"] is generally about the value and enhancement of life and the creation of the ultimate...
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Tom Robbins is Carlos Castaneda in motley, Leo Buscaglia in love beads. Like his earlier books, "Jitterbug Perfume" is not so much a novel as an inspirational fable, full of Hallmark sweetness, good examples and hope springing eternal. Its message is a simple one—"it is better to be small, colorful, sexy, careless, and peaceful, like the flowers, than large, conservative, repressed, fearful, and aggressive, like the thunder lizards." While the world has changed substantially since 1971, the year of Mr. Robbins's first novel, "Another Roadside Attraction," his odd corner of it has remained intact, caught in the amber of 1960's romanticism….
Mr. Robbins's style is unmistakable—oblique, florid, willing to sacrifice everything for an old joke or corny pun…. Here and there, like SMILE buttons pinned to the narrative, are wry digressions on plant life and arcane lore. The cast is always the same—the lumpy, stolid authorities; the wavering skeptic (usually played by the author); the seekers after truth, who, if pure of heart, are soon initiated into the higher mysteries; the outlaws, one male and one female (the goat god and the mother goddess), stamped with shining individuality and a salty holiness. There are homilies about balance and fullness and cautionary tales about succumbing to reason. The heroes are Thoreauvian idealists preaching sexual enlightenment. Reading Mr. Robbins, you could almost believe that not everyone went...
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