Villa Incognito by Tom Robbins

Nikki Tranter

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.

Villa Incognito

Publisher: Bantam Doubleday Dell (US); Random House (Australia)
Length: 256
Price: $27.50
Author: Tom Robbins
US publication date: 1969-12

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.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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