Thursday, May 27, 2010

Getting to Tom Robbins Finally at Long Last

Tom Robbins is one of those authors whose name floats around. It's just suspended there in the lit-sphere, waiting for someone to pluck it with follow up reading of the work behind the name. I'm betting you other avid readers of earth can name many authors who fit the Robbins mold I've described. For instance others whose names in my anecdotal experience float are Kurt Vonnegut, David Foster Wallace, Jack Kerouac, Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon, and David Sedaris. Basically, the essential formula for determining this (the first and last equation I've put forth to date here at the B-1stein) is, how famous or up-and-coming is the writer? + how many conversations do I have with other people about authors? Which is probably how anyone learns about the great talents in this or that esoteric genre of interest. So congrats to me for bringing to light nothing new! You'll find nary a floating name in most casual conversations. You might learn something you didn't know about Lee DeWyze, on the plus side. (He's from Mt. Prospect -- a little town adjacent to my own, Des Plaines.)

Tom Robbins, himself, has long been in my periphery, if not quite in my line of sight. I've had several acquaintances speak of his great storytelling, so I recently followed up on the recommendation of one of them. I was told to read, "Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates." And I read it! With a title like that how could I not be interested? It's a line taken from the Arthur Rimbaud poem, "A Season in Hell." And listen, irrespective of what you might have heard, I'm not John Lithgow's character in "Footloose," so Rimbaud's Satanic impetus to Robbins' title did nothing to dissuade my interest.

Some findings -- the plot, oh geesus g-damn the plot! It's fairly sprawling (spanning four continents, maybe five). And though it's not beyond wrapping your mind around and certainly not fragmented in the way I'm told "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" is, it's still sprawling and deep. But so are a lot of books. That's not what makes it interesting. What does is the philosophizing of the main character, Switters; his frenetic charms and enthusiasm, and the various situations he finds himself in and the various circumstances that make these situations all the more challenging -- his being relegated to a wheelchair for most of the story is not the least of them.

Now I was less sold / impressed by a number of Robbins' metaphorical images -- although my suspicion is these are intentionally hit or miss. Robbins is aware they sink or swim, and it's part of the risk. Take them or leave them, but there they are, Robbins seems to say, indifferently.

Here they are:

"The sun dropped into the horizon line like a coin dropping into a slot. The ocean bit it to make sure it wasn't counterfeit."

"Now, however, with the river as sleepy and sullen as pupils in ninth-grade algebra . . ."

"Stop whining, Potney. Whining's unattractive, even when your whine sounds like Kenneth Branagh eating frozen strawberries with a silver fork."

". . . belted white worms that resembled the severed fingers of the Michelin tire man . . ."

"Bobby's face was changing expressions faster than Clark Kent changed underwear."

". . . laying down enough burnt rubber to blackface the cast of the Amos 'n' Andy show for most of a season."

"The land spread out before him like a pizza. Its topography was flat, its texture rough, its temperature hot, its hue reddish yellow, studded with pepperoni-colored rocks; and, at the moment, it glistened as if drizzled with olive oil."

and so on

To be fair, I found most of his metaphorical images to be effective and many of those to be quite good. The bad above, as I see it, are in the minority. But they do seem bad to me, which I've decided is worth sharing. That should not discourage you from reading "Fierce Invalids" -- OH NO! On the contrary, read it. It's ribald. It's thought provoking. It's a bible for all of us who think books like The Bible are way, way too serious and doctrinaire.

Actually my favorite element of its plot was the paradoxical synthesis of that which is considered antithetical -- this a trope that appears throughout. It's a romantic's argument, when boiled down. But I've decided that shouldn't diminish something necessarily. I mean, romantic or no, our lives are about compromise. You make compromises every day, no doubt. You might say something you don't entirely believe for some purpose in a great range of possibilities. And while that's a lie at the same time it isn't. You're wise enough to see the difference, that there are mitigating circumstances that have caused you to alter what you say.

Or admitting to oneself one's fallibility, and being open and honest with it (which I've observed others do and seen how it can paradoxically be a strength, if used in moderation) -- my own demonstrated just now as I attempted to spell fallibility thus, "failiblity" and then, even worse, "failability." This is likewise how you fight dogma, or so the book suggests. There can most definitely be things you believe in with all your heart and soul but then do not at all, simultaneously.

At the story's end, which I'll submit this part because I know it doesn't give very much away and because it's relevant to what I am saying!, Switters imagines an organization devoted to the ideals that he has spent the story promulgating to most everyone he meets. He imagines its members to be those with whom he has felt the greatest shared understanding of these ideals, helping him to disseminate the ideals of tempering.

They probably wouldn't name it, this new organization of theirs. Cult of the Great Snake would be presumptuous and far-fetched; and he was pretty tired of angels, as Hollywood, gullible Christers, and New Age loopy-doodles had combined to give them a trite, fairy-godfather image. Most definitely, the group would not have a creed. Unless it was something modest and non-doctrinaire, such as, "The house is on fire, but you can't beat our view."

They wouldn't even believe, especially, in their mission; not in any fervent way. If they believed too adamantly, then sooner or later they would be tempted to lie to protect those beliefs. It was a small step from lying to defend one's beliefs to killing to defend them.

Switters is told at one point that he is attracted to purity of a kind. His fellow CIA compatriot, Bobby Case, puts it like this: "I get the feeling you're attracted to . . . well, I reckon I'd have to call it innocence." Switters falls desperately in love with a nun and a sixteen-year-old girl, so I would say Case has a point, even if a touch on the nose.

Switters is a strange guy and it's a strange tale, and that's why the whole thing works just so well. Swell, even!

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