Sunday, December 03, 2006

Immortal Folly I: Review of Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins

I didn't realize when I picked up Jitterbug Perfume that I was getting a contemporary fantasy (I grabbed it on the basis of author recognition, from a recommendation of sorts), although it certainly made it easier to generate some paired readings. It's got some of the familiar modern fantasy themes: the nature of immortality; a humanity that's both fleeting and indomitable; and the relationship of gods, men and belief. It also has a healthy and welcome dose of irreverent humor, plenty of sex, and it's drenched in the engineering and philosophy of scent. And vegetables.

The immortality story (taking my points in order) centers on the journey of Alobar, a medieval king who experiences an awakening of individuality on the eve of his own ritual sacrifice. In an era when life is cheap, fertility is quotidian and lewd, and death is a friend, he discovers an urge to fill the human experience to its most copious brim. He's ahead of his time, and, with a little divine nudge, he's ahead of ours too.

In flight from the locals he's betrayed, Alobar encounters the Greek god, Pan. Pan represents animal lust (eats, shoots, and leaves) and the most corporeal aspect of the god is his rank, gamy odor. The god, already old in the middle ages and dying from lack of followers, represents the old animal nature of man, the old-world philosophy of death. Alobar represents a new man, a complete bridge between the old ways and the new ones, free from death, and also quite nice-smelling. The death of the god at the man's feet, and Alobar's consumption of his gamy flesh is a sort of an anti-communion. He starts like Pan, but grows to be more, a complete human being, which is better than being a god.

In addition to Alobar's thread, there's plot moving along in modern times. Three parties are racing to independently develop a perfect scent, but the lack of a "base note," an elusive aroma component that should unite the fragrance, eludes them. Meanwhile, someone keeps depositing beets on their doorsteps.

Both the modern and ancient stories are filled with sex, but Robbins leaves the animal rutting behind with the gods, and manages to relish the life-affirming parts of the act (which, you know, is nice). The scent, taken as an enabler of higher thought (when he finally summarizes the uniting philosophy, it's more than a little silly), is a metaphor for this. This perfect aroma that the characters seek is the only thing that can cover Pan's Herculean B.O. problem.

Robbins has a lot of fun throwing around metaphors and playing with the language, and while the tone is overall humorous, he scores points for honesty in there too (and shows off some real erudition as well, however breezily). In all, half seriousness is a challenging undertaking. It's best to first establish yourself as either sincere or funny, or risk failing at both. Though Robbins is better at the humor, he tries to succeed at both, and rather than making it a doubly good book, it just makes it twice as long. The bigger problem with Jitterbug Perfume, however, was one of pacing. There was a lot of thematic development and character positioning, but the events of the plot just kind of happened at the end, no longer driven by very much dramatic tension. The revelation of the base note was anticlimactic, as was the philosophical info-dump, as were the denouements of the various love stories. Which isn't to say it's not a good read for the fun of it alone, but it kept me away from a higher grade.


--
I dithered a couple of days on this review. I had considered from the outset, and then even more after Maximo's comment in the previous post, describing the story ironically, reviewing it as a sexually repressed Bible-thumper type might review it (concluding, of course, that "Jitterbug Perfume stinks"). I don't know if I really served anything by going at it straight.

9 comments:

LentenStuffe said...

Keith,

Nice review, and I think you succeeded.

For another take on the animal metaphor, have you read J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello? It's beautifully done, spare, eloquent, super intelligent.

I've read a few of Robbins' books, sorta in honor of switters, and then there was the whole Fierce Invalids ... fiasco over at DailyKos! Anyway, I agree with your view here.

I found Robbins too transparent. I just saw through his pyrotechnics and felt all his circus animals were too much on display. I felt for a finish I could predict his narrative & descriptive choices almost before he made them, and I think it's the author's role to be a few steps ahead of his readers.

I'm wading through the new Pynchon now, Against The Day. First reactions, I think this cat is so overrated, like David Foster Wallace and W.T. Vollman. None of them are as good say as that Arkansas man, Donald Harington, or Richard Ford.

You're churning out these reviews. Man!

Keifus said...

That's pretty much why I picked this one up, too. I thought Robbins was great fun on the sentence level, but had some issues with theme and the pacing was a mess. Transparent, animals on display, that's a good way to phrase it. (Ha. Like I could do better with either, but you know.)

Coatzee sounds like it'd fit the theme I've chosen quite well. I'll try to get it before I'm done with the others, and include it. I've been intimidated by Pynchon--sounds like my reaction, whether positive or negative, would be extreme, and those are thick books to be taking a big chance.

My wife complained last night that I've been going through these books (got a boxful by the bed) lately like it's a job, which is something I find alarming. I mean, if it starts to feel like work, I may have to stop. But I've been doing the reviews for a while anyway--I figure even I'm unmotivated to write something more substantial or original, I can always crank out one of these to keep the muscles from atrophying.

K

Artemesia said...

Kiefus..
Re Archetypes..
Do you think the young Hugh Hefner was a wanna be Pan? And now..is he the Old Goat in silk pajamas?

And the sci fi writers would all like to be Homers,
putting their sky operas into our past as though they were, are and have been.

Too bad so much work sounds like clashing symbols.

You seem to be a great Dad..with a great pair of Katzenjammer Kids (spell?)
A

Keifus said...

1. Nah, the playboy thing convinces itself it's some sophisticated entity above animal Pan. Hefner and the gang are faux class.

2. Good call, you just did a good job of pigeonholing an entire genre.

3. Thanks. (and spelled right as far as I know.)

K

katty said...

I love to have differente kind of perfumes for every ocation, i think the perfume determine our personality. I usually feel identify with my perfume specially when i have a date and i know the boy buy viagra, so i know he could be powerful and i must to be really attractive.

Anonymous said...

Hi! Can someone PLEASE give me a detailed summary of what happens at the end of this novel? What happens to Alobar and Kudra, and Pricilla and Dannyboy? And all the other characters? I also couldn't for my life understand the thing about the bees...
Any explanation of the last 50 or so pages of this book would be fantastic! Thanks!

Cagney said...

This really helps me decided on rather I should read "The Scarlet Letter" or "Jitterbug Perfume" for my AP English class!

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