So now I've come across both a Switters and a switters, a character (upper case) and a person(a) (lower case--I'll try not to put him at the beginning of a sentence--you can find him rarely here, and also more regularly on quiblit.com). Fierce Invalids is a "books for buds" selection, and one of the more obvious choices. A student of chemistry may come across the German prefix zwitter at some point, signifying the embodiment of dual and opposing characteristics. Tom Robbins and switters both embrace this concept philosophically (though surely not biologically--that's enough semantics for today, kids), finding a middle ground between light and dark, purity and prurience, id and ego, animal and divine, and at the very center, where Apollo is bitching at that slob Dionysus over the racket of the incessant waves of yin pounding at the eternal shores of yang, they discover a profound silliness. Or is it enlightenment? Are you going to tell me there's a difference?
I don't want to tell you this is anything new. It's got to predate Hegel and Freud by three thousand years, the Manicheans (who doesn't love a heretic?) and those krazy koan kats by at least a couple millennia. We've had midworlds between heavens and hells for as long as people imagined elsewheres for gods, and there's no shortage of writers who like to play in that sandbox.* The humor is a newer angle, and Robbins takes it as what separates the modern from the primitive, what divides the enlightened from the subhuman tools who take shit too seriously. There are plenty of absurdist writers these days too, but Robbins does go a little beyond jokes as a defense mechanism or a social equalizer. (Still, an omnipotent god with a sense of humor is about the only way such a divine existence can be forgivingly supposed and, I think, is the soundbite explanation of the Jewish tradition of comedy.) Robbins' dichotomy as a writer is that he acts like he's discovering all of these things for the first time, but also that he reinvents them so very well.
It helps a lot that I buy into it. This is a great theme, and fun to explore. Along with a more interesting central character, it helped raise my enjoyment level of this one relative to the other Robbins book I read. Fierce Invalids allows the sequence between them to be more linear, which gives it a more coherent feel, which is another plus in this author's case. Robbins can paint a picture, and it's lot of fun how he gets you to think, but he doesn't really excel at big plot mechanics, and if Switters is a memorable character, it's a damn good thing we have all the opportunities we do to look into his head. His joie de vivre is infectious and all, but there's a fine line between the rejection of false moralities (quite well and good) and on creepy amorality. A couple of times Robbins has to work hard to reveal his characters to be not quite over this divide.
This book (and Jitterbug Perfume too) is broken down into a multitude of sections not more than a couple pages long. Each of these is like a miniature essay or vignette or story, varying slightly in tone from one to another, and it allows the author to chuck in more than the usual variety of philosophical speculations, character sketches, drama elements, and jokes and keep it looking natural. There's another balance that Robbins must hold with his humor, keeping it enlightening but not distracting, the playfulness looking genuine and not forced, and usually he steps right. The highly subdivided structure makes it easy to reject the couple of stinkers as outlying data points. I think it's great that this works for him. I imagine him coming to the keyboard for a few hours a day and cranking one or a couple of these inspired little pieces out (it really makes for a lot of gems), inching his whole story along that way. Keeping the prose flowing over a long stretch is very difficult, and breaking it frequently is one of those things that the pros can do, but you can't.
The ending of this one was a little abrupt, and left many conflicts unresolved. I hope there is more Switters out there--and more switters--to get at the truth that lies in the humor that lies in all the inherent contradictions. Some people get it.
* Sparked by a couple shared props in The Anubis Gates, I found myself frequently comparing Robbins to the delightful Tim Powers, who occupies similar balances of metaphysics, language, erudition, and humor. I think I give the edge to Powers, who holds back a little on the disruptively goofy elements, and who also celebrates himself a little less.