Tom Robbins Robbins, Tom (Vol. 9) - Essay

Robbins, Tom (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robbins, Tom 1936–

Robbins is a bestselling American novelist whom Michael Rogers calls "the new king of the extended metaphor, dependent clause, outrageous pun and meteorologic personification." Robbins uses fantasy as his basis: "I've always wanted to lead a life of enchantment," he has said, "and writing is a part of that." The plots of his two novels, Another Roadside Attraction and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, are a reflection of his rich imagination. Robbins says of himself, "My goal is to write novels that are like a basket of cherry tomatoes—when you bite into a paragraph, you don't know which way the juice is going to squirt."

[In Another Roadside Attraction] Robbins liberally mixes philosophy and social commentary with his circus, and his embarrassment at his own riches persists….

His riches are of course Consciousness-Three riches, the riches of sky castles and pastoral retreats from middle class nonsense, but he has as well an old-fashioned interest in mundane detail, and displays admirable powers of observation of the everyday world,… powers that would not be displayed if his alienation from the world ran deep. What is disconcerting is the mix of worldly and apocalyptic. No other up-and-coming talent I have run across has the mix so deeply built in, the mix that is our national social artistic literary tragical comical political academical confusion; and no other author I have run across is less sure whether to laugh or cry. So he does both.

The result is, I'd say, a fairly reliable composite of the current vagaries of Con-Three, which has been pushed into a defensive posture lately, presaging perhaps a new realism. No retreat from the woods and the resolutely interior life seems to be scheduled yet, but at least in the Robbins book there is a prevailing ironic awareness that marks all the fantasizing at a discount. My wholly unresearched guess is that because of this awareness the next book by Robbins will be sparer, straighter, tougher somehow. The question is how, and it is a question that goes far beyond Robbins. (p. 29)

Though the Robbins book has something of the heavy-handed spirit of Batman lurking in its origins, it is thoroughly beyond Batman in the sense that it wants to use melodrama again rather than ridicule it. Robbins is happy and assured when he is concocting further furbelows to his wild narrative, his story line, as he is not when he is trying to endow the story with theology and significance. The revolution with its attendant obligations seems to take a back seat in his life when he can be comfortably bourgeois again to the degree of accepting the least demanding and most familiar bourgeois literary conventions. (pp. 29-30)

Reed Whittemore, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1971 by The New Republic, Inc.), June 26, 1971.

"There are only three things that I like," proclaims Amanda, the heroine of [Another Roadside Attraction]. "These are: the butterfly, the cactus and Infinite Goof."… [The] concept of the Infinite Goof is surely the most important, embracing in a phrase the entire philosophy of the Californian novel….

Amanda announces the five things she believes in: birth, copulation, death, magic and freedom. The Goofish element in this is obviously magic. Logic, we learn from the mouth of the idiot, only gives a man what he needs. Magic gives him what he wants. (p. 365)

All the characters search for hidden meanings and deeper significances in whatever they see, but their search for the ultimate source of life is only half serious. Far more, their mysticism and pseudo-mysticism is a vehicle for worshipping this Infinite Goof.

The best of the Californian writers—and on the evidence of this novel I would put Mr Robbins among the very best—share an idiosyncrasy of perception and a vivid use of language which can only be explained in terms of a cultural renaissance….

Amanda's love of butterflies leads her to try and smuggle the larvae of every known species of butterfly into the United States. Unfortunately she chooses the musical instruments of an itinerant band for the purpose; customs officers discover this deception and imprison the band:

And almost immediately a rumour swept the land that butterfly eggs would get you high. The woods and fields were overrun by unlikely looking entomologists, and a sudden demand arose for nets, tweezers, magnifying glasses and the other trappings of zoology's most vast and gentle branch.

The author, you see, is no goof. He invites us to laugh at it all, as well as be moved to pity, tenderness, lust or whatever. No doubt the reality is not nearly so delightful…. All I can say is that the Californian novelists have used their intelligence, their wit and their extraordinarily sharp perceptions to make something beautiful of it all.

Almost every page has an arresting phrase or sentence in it. The hero, called Ziller, was born in Africa and reveals that the hyenas ate his after-birth. On meeting Amanda, he had the stink of Pan about him, and Amanda hears the telephone ringing in her womb. When they are united we learn that the butt-end of a rainbow filled the tiny room….

Throughout the narrative, we have a constant stream of semi-serious homespun philosophy which should make the solemn platitudes of English and near-English novelists blush for shame:

A sausage is an image of rest, peace and tranquillity in stark contrast to the destruction and chaos of everyday life.

Consider the peaceful repose of the sausage compared with the aggressiveness and violence of bacon.

Like a drunken Irishman, people will say. And so it is, with the same undercurrent of whimsy, much as one dislikes to use the word in the context of anything so fresh and vital. But the great difference between the Californian school and the drunken Irish school is a total absence of rhetoric and bombastic exhibitionism….

Either one is enchanted by it all, or one is not, of course. However, anyone who has not yet tried the Californian novel could scarcely do better than to start with Mr. Robbins's tale, which I found quite completely delightful, and by far the fullest and easiest introduction to the charm of the Infinite Goof I have yet seen. (p. 366)

Auberon Waugh, in The Spectator (© 1973 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), March 24, 1973.

"Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" is a Whole Earth narrative, a laid back "Tristram Shandy," a barbershop quartet of Vonnegut, Brautigan, Pynchon and Ishmael Reed doing a hymn to the White Goddess, a meditation on the rule of thumb, a manifesto for magic, and a retelling of "Another Roadside Attraction," Tom Robbins's first novel, now something of a hippie classic. "Cowgirls" has a mascot (the amoeba); a favorite recipe (stew) and 121 chapters plus interludes. Shiva couldn't keep all these balls in the air, but Robbins's blur-handed performance is definitely worth the admission….

[Be] advised that Robbins considers realism only "one of the fifty-seven varieties of decoration" and that liberation means reversing thirty thousand years of civilization. When the Great Mother reigned, so did magic….

Robbins says it's by pushing one thing to an extreme that "you force it into the realm of magic." Knowing like Pynchon, funny like Vonnegut, as winsome as Brautigan, Robbins allows the Hoo Doo force of "Cowgirls" to dissipate in routines and arguments. Sissy is made for levitation, not analysis, yet here's Robbins talking about piano wire and his own costume. Once again, it's the man up front…. Everything, including Wonder Bread, is animated; the book itself is personified. Some of Robbins's metaphors are only embroidered Kleenex. But when he has hyperbole on medium, metaphor transforms the ordinary into the fantastic. The first half has most of this textural magic; by the end, action and abstraction dominate.

Read solemnly, with expectations of conventional coherence, "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" will disappoint. Entered like a garage sale, poked through and picked over, "Cowgirls" is entertaining and, like the rippled mirror over there by the lawn mower, often instructive. Tom Robbins is one of our best practitioners of high foolishness. (p. 5)

Thomas LeClair, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 23, 1976.

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues comes as a magical gift, a brilliant affirmation of private visions and private wishes and their power to transform life and death. A tall tale and a parable of essential humanness, it is a work of extraordinary playfulness, style and wit….

With the agility of a mad photographer, taking quick shots from a hundred unexpected angles (the traditions of palmistry, the life of the whooping crane, the evolutionary significance of the opposable thumb), Robbins dazzles the reader…. As he does so, it becomes clear that, like William Blake, he is concerned with two main human types: those who live with desire as their guide; and those who suppress desire, fantasy and personal identity in the name of "reason"—that is, in the name of customary thought and conventionalized desires. (p. 152)

Robbins is not only a monkey-wrench thrower, and he is not an advocate of simple ignorance. Rather he would like to see human beings developed, not eviscerated, by culture. While his characters obstruct the routine grindings of civilization, they talk and suggest new cultural and psychic connections…. His characters delight also in fleshly connections, and in the midst of conversation lovemaking springs up like fields of flowers, and what is rare in literary intercourse, neither party is trying to win the other over or under….

What is most welcome about Robbins is not that he has ideas, though he does and they are interesting, but that he makes us see as funny things we take too seriously, and so releases us. We are used to novels in which laughter echoes off our fears; Robbins's laughter reverberates with our strengths.

His characters don't mount their private wishes and ride off into a countercultural sunset. For their desires they suffer painfully….

Robbins's characters suffer, and some die. In the process they make us realize that even the pain and death of a culture or a planet are tolerable. What is intolerable is to live without—without what? Magic and poetry, Robbins says. Neither may be the right word, but this glorious and extravagant novel reminds us that we live to create as well as to observe. Truth and beauty, like magic and poetry, are not found but reinvented, and beyond more familiar novelistic truths are others that shine brighter (p. 153)

Ann Cameron, "A Nose Thumb at Normality," in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), August 28, 1976, pp. 152-53.

[Tom Robbins] writes in a style aimed at what Sterne might have produced if he had been commissioned to revamp The Lord of the Rings with an eye to the higher porn market. This isn't intended as a compliment….

[The diverse topics of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues] are as well-worn as its narrative mode—hitch-hiking, feminism, pollution, mysticism, the expanding universe. 'You've travelled your whole life without destination,' an advertising artist tells the Kerouac-groupie heroine. 'You move but you have no direction.' 'What is the "direction" of the Earth in its journey,' she sagely responds in the accents of the Psalmist; 'where are the atoms "going" when they spin?'

It's dangerous to quote from writing like this out of context, of course, because its movements of tone and deflatory jokes often turn what looks like schmaltz into a kind of retrospective irony…. But as Swift always anticipated …, irony is hard to keep up. Robbins's predominant manner, despite the increasingly sparse punctuating jokes, is one of remorselessly whimsical didacticism…. Robbins's problem isn't that he doesn't make the most of the possibilities [in his story], but that he makes too much of them, particularly as allegory-fodder. Perhaps that wouldn't matter so much if his use of the cowgirls'-ranch scenario weren't so flagrantly pornographic. For someone writing on the side of feminism Robbins has an uncanny knack for male chauvinist trash…. (p. 219)

Jeremy Treglown, in New Statesman (© 1977 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), August 12, 1977.