Tom Robbins was one of those authors whom I always heard referenced, but never understood their contribution to literature. This was finally remedied in Robbins’ case by an old friend of mine who (citing a conversation we’d apparently had but which I only vaguely remember) pushed Still Life With Woodpecker into my hands and insisted that I read it. It surprised me, and that’s difficult to do.
A shallow retelling of the plot would go something like this: Leigh-Cheri, a teenage princess living with her exiled royal parents in a drafty CIA-supplied house in
Oregon, has sworn off men (and all hope, apparently) after one abortion and one miscarriage (the latter while in the middle of cheerleading). All of this is changed when she meets a terrorist in Hawaii and falls in love with him, has all sorts of kinky sex with him, and the brings him home, where he is soundly rejected by her parents and eventually imprisoned for prior crimes. While waiting out his relatively short sentence, Leigh-Cheri finds the meaning of life in a pack of Camel cigarettes, and eventually other hijinx ensue. I won’t remark on the ending in order to preserve it for potential readers, though it should come as no surprise that the machinations of the plot are not the reason you pick up Still Life with Woodpecker.
I won’t pretend to understand everything that Robbins intended; maybe the book is, as I’ve heard casually suggested, merely a pretty piece of poetry that plays at depth; perhaps it is a richly-woven tapestry of allegory, poetry, and philosophical insight. Perhaps it is an acid trip gone sexual.
The pervasive theme seems to be a conflict between technology and humanity—or, more appropriately, between the mechanized/technological and the “organic”. It is also about the conflict between the left-brained and the right-brained; between people of the “sun” and people of the “moon” (Robbins’ narrator’s parlance); between squares and hippies; between the wonderful, squishy humanity of sex and the chemical, soulless nature of some contraceptive devices; between the safe and standard and the dashing, daring, and dangerous. In some ways Robbins both illustrated the conflict from the era in which he wrote, as well as anticipated the conflicts to come in the nearly 30 years between then and now. Perhaps it says something that these core conflicts are essentially timeless1. Robbins’ narrator (some version of Robbins’ himself) begins the novel by extolling the virtues of his brand new Remington typewriter, on which is his constructing the very tale we are reading; at various intervals, Robbins breaks from the action in order to expression slightly more disappointment with the typewriter’s performance vis-a-vis the nature of the story which seems to so exquisitely elude the ability of a machine to capture. The last few pages are hand-written, the typewriter having been discarded, and finalize the fates of the characters and cap up the thematic thrusts. It’s not the most subtle narrative device ever employed, but it’s certainly clever enough.
Layered on top of Robbins’ surrealist comedy2 are all these questions or pointed suggestions about an unexamined life—it is the prerogative of the reader, of course, to decide that Robbins is full of shit and his characters are babbling nitwits. Leigh-Cheri is, after all, something of a flighty bimbo with big boobs and poor taste in men, too easily drawn to facile solutions to her perceived problems3, and too prone to fanciful invention—and she’s the most likable. Either we were not meant to sympathize with the characters, or the book was written for people of a different temperament than I
Perhaps the single most memorable line I’ve ever read about Robbins was written by Frank McConnell: “If Thomas Pynchon were a Muppet, he would write like Tom Robbins.” Take the same madcap plots, and the same overtures toward narrative depth, and the same genuine lyricism, but then give it a soundtrack of “Rainbow Connection.” It doesn’t necessarily make it bad or simplistic, but it does make it difficult to compare Robbins’ literary equivalent of The Muppet Movie with the Citizen Kane of a more meaningful author.
On a purely rhetorical rubric, of course, I can give Robbins nothing but high marks. It’s true that Robbins sometimes digresses from a simple expository passage in order to wax grandiloquent about something, but consider, for instance, this tangential paragraph about tequila:
Now, tequila may be the favored beverage of outlaws, but that doesn’t mean it gives them preferential treatment. In fact, tequila probably had betrayed as many outlaws as has the central nervous system and dissatisfied wives. Tequila, scorpion honey, harsh dew of the doglands, essence of Aztec, crema de cacti; tequila, oily and thermal like the sun in solution; tequila, liquid geometry of passion; Tequila, the buzzard god who copulates in midair with the ascending souls of dying virgins; tequila, firebug in the house of good taste; O tequila, savage water of sorcery, what confusion and mischief your sly, rebellious drops do generate!
Immediately afterward, the tequila-drinking Bernard blows up a conference of UFO conspiracy theorists—cue the laugh track and the sad trombone sting. Robbins’ tendency to vacillate between the poetical and the prosaic actually reminds me somewhat of David Foster Wallace, though of the course the comparison is superficial and goes no further. It does have the effect of discombobulating the reader, who must either give up trying to figure what Robbins’ is trying to accomplish—if anything—and simply enjoy the ride.