At the beginning of Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, the narrator takes a break from narration to comment on technique, saying, "[n]ow, it appears that this prose account has unintentionally begun in partial mimicry of the mind." Here Robbins reveals a technique he has used in every novel, a stream-of-conscious narrative. Almost every one of his novels is told in the third person, using what one reviewer has called a "single omniscient meta-narrator . . . a device [that] allows him to take the reader on a spiritual journey." This narrator-asguru helps Robbins to develop a theme common to all his novels: the quest for enlightenment.
If, according to the narrator in Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, the mark of enlightenment is laughter, then another technique Robbins uses might also develop this idea. Figurative language and wordplay in general decorate Robbins's prose. Strong (if unorthodox) images abound from similes and metaphors. The reader pictures the gelatinous "cool as clam aspic" air of Seattle, or sees Maestra's eyes "like the apertures through which Tabasco droplets enter the world." He speaks of turtles that weigh "as much as a wheelbarrow load of cabbages" and describes "heavy-lidded caimans [that] did Robert Mitchum imitations, seeming at once slow and sinister and stoned." Robbins can take a common word apart and make a joke of it, as in, "a view that was all pan and no orama." Switters orders food from a Thai restaurant, remarking that the names of the dishes sound like "a harelip pleading for a package of thumbtacks." Another time, a group of clouds is compared to "a herd of white-trash shoppers just crawled out of shacks and sheds and trailer homes for the end-of-winter sale at Wal-Mart." Although some of the word play is extreme, even scatological ("If innocence was toilet tissue, Godzilla could have wiped his butt with Switters's smile"), the effect is usually humorous, keeping the reader on the brink of enlightenment throughout the story.
Also at the beginning of this novel, the narrator hints at plot, saying this, "is probably not the way in which an effective narrative ought properly to unfold—not even in these days when the world is showing signs of awakening from its linear trance." Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates is one of Robbins's most carefully plotted novels, but even a somewhat linear progression of events does not cause Robbins to shy away from tangents. On a discourse about bats, he discusses the winged creatures, explaining that women are afraid of bats because the creatures can become entangled in their hair. From the topic of bats, he further deviates to the notion that St. Paul decreed that women's heads must be covered in church "because of the angels," which, like bats, have wings. He explains, "In Paul's era, words for angel and demon were interchangeable." From here he continues his discourse of the "line between cowboy and angel," which, he says, is "no wider than an alfalfa sprout." So Robbins connects these tangents thematically with the rest of the story. His willingness to deviate from the Western, linear notion of the progression of a story is proof of Robbins's own study of and appreciation for Eastern literary techniques, which tend to be more circuitous.
Because of its concern with good and evil, Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates lends itself well to discussions about morality. Since Switters can be viewed as part-hero and part-rogue, debate about the nature of the change he undergoes in the story may ensue.
1. The principal theme of Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates is good versus evil, or in this case that good is the same thing as evil. Since the singular notions of good and evil govern the popular idea of morality, can Switters (who believes in this duality) have a...
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