Still Life with Tom
Tom Robbins is all about sex. From phallic-fingered heroine Sissy Hackshaw in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues to modern-day Jezebel Ellen-Cherry in Skinny Legs and All, Robbins’s ability to build exotic and out-there tales around the oldest and most exciting of human pursuits leads readers down tracks so familiar yet so utterly absurd, with the author taking what we know about love, passion and fidelity, and jerking it ever so slightly to remind us just how enjoyable it is to look at life from a whole other position. Be it from the point of view of a lusty spoon or perhaps a lowly cigarette box, altered perspective is something else on which Robbins’s particular style of writing thrives. To him, it’s what makes the great race so darn interesting.
Robbins’s latest novel, Villa Incognito continues this tradition, taking an odd groups of characters and throwing them into a situation that on the surface might seem entirely implausible, but when told with Robbins’s delicate and deliberate phrasing and exquisite character development, suddenly feels not only believable, but somewhat familiar as well.
The book begins where so many of Robbins’s tales do—with the introduction of a character to eventually become the story’s centerpiece. In this case, it’s Tanuki—a Japanese badger-like creature with a scrotum like a hot-air balloon, shape-shifting abilities and penchant for sake. Tanuki’s affair with a Japanese farm-girl sets in motion this story of philosophy-spewing American MIA soldiers, a famed traveling circus, an Autumn-loving romantic and her clown-obsessed sister, a drug-smuggling priest, and the most death-defying high-wire act you’ve ever seen.
Such is the way with Tom Robbins. Nothing is even simple and nothing is ever normal. Robbins takes every literary cliché that comes his way and twists it into something so extraordinary, so rare, that it’s no surprise the man reputedly takes 10 minutes to write a single sentence. Robbins’s patience and preciseness—not to mention his unique perspective—is exactly why the world needs him and his wildly elaborate tales.
Robbins’s style of writing may have been slightly more prevalent in the ‘60s, when the likes of Tom Wolfe, Ken Kesey and Kurt Vonnegut were at the top of their respective games, but now, these latter-day great thinkers have been replaced on bookstore shelves by yet another written-in-his-sleep “thriller” from James Patterson. These authors took (and in Wolfe and Vonnegut’s cases, still take) the issues of the day from political restlessness to ideas of individual freedom within the corporate construct and built engaging stories littered with theories and philosophies on these particular topics.
In Villa, for example, Robbins places his Vietnam War MIAs in a situation seemingly unthinkable—that of soldiers missing in action who decided to stay lost—using them to challenge the American government’s stance on warfare, the soldier’s commitment and the eventual treatment of veterans. And, again, it’s all about perspective. MIA Stubblefield, for example, has this to say about his situation:
“You sign up to go to war, there’s a clause in the contract that says, ‘I agree to get shot at.’ It’s not hidden in the fine print either. It’s right up front . . . So what happens when you get shot at? You get hit or you get lucky. You’re killed or you’re wounded or you escape—either to go home or to get shot at some more at a later date. And sometimes, of course, you may be captured. And sometimes, in the chaos of shooting, nobody is quite certain of your fate. You go missing . . . Granted, for your spouse, you parents, your siblings et cetera, it must be terrible not knowing the fate of a loved one . . . But it’s not appreciably more terrible than any other fruits of armed conflict. There’s nothing deliberately personal, barbaric, unfair, cruel, or perverse about it. It’s just a natural feature of the mad game of war, a possibility that should be weighed before you sign that contract or accept that invitation.”
Here Robbins is doing what he does best, sympathizing while challenging. Many of Robbins’s characters harbor this very same trait—an acceptance of status and circumstance with a desire to explore other avenues and possibilities with regards to what is best for them: MIA Foley struggles in his search for the meaning of God (“The person who cannot welcome ambiguity cannot welcome God”), circus star Lisa Ko struggles to find herself (“There is some sense, some intuition, that this thing that makes me so unusual is actually shared by all human beings”) and Tanuki’s struggles to find his place in the universe (“Time has a big mouth and small brain”).
While Robbins shines when raging in detail about contemporary society’s inconsistencies, it’s in his more subdued moments that he excels, poking his literary stick with delicious subtlety at other wide ranging issues, such as organized religion, euthanasia, drug-smuggling, sexuality and promiscuity. A romantic interlude, for example, between Stubblefield and a 16-year-old girl beautifully shoots a giant hole in theories of underage sex with this gem following the couple’s brief but tantalizing foreplay:
“For them not to have fucked then and there would have required such a reversal of the laws of nature as to cause Newton to spin in his coffin and NASA to discontinue the space program.”
Or this, again from Stubblefield, on patriotic American citizens in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks:
“In their secretly nervous hearts, they’ve convinced themselves, poor little delusional narcissists, that their nation is the most powerful that ever was or even will be, ignoring the still vaster empires that have crumbled in the past, conveniently forgetting that the U.S. has only existed for a mere 225 years, and refusing to consider for a nanosecond that in another 225 years it very well might be gone.”
Robbins manages, in so few words, to turn contemporary thinking on its ear. He’s been doing it since the world-changing events inside Captain Kendrick’s Memorial Hot Dog Wildlife Preserve in his first novel, Another Roadside Attraction in 1971, and he continues to do it, seemingly defying literary physics with outlandish characters in often preposterous situations all neatly tied together with beautifully crafted narrative and emotional and revelatory dialogue.
Villa Incognito is a complex book, that proves the world needs Tom Robbins to offer fresh and glorious insight—with no reservations whatsoever—about those little pieces of humanity and society that flummox us most.
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