Tom Robbins Robbins, Tom (Vol. 32)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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...

(The entire section is 10,914 words.)