In case you missed it, last month I jumped over to OutlandishLit to debate the relative weirdness of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Atomik Aztek with Heather at Based on a True Story. We both had strong points to make on some seriously weird books!
I have to say, weird books are the shit. They are the best. Some of my earliest favorite books are downright strange. A little odd, a little challenging, perhaps confusing. I’ll take any of it. I love a book that doesn’t follow a traditional path or takes you somewhere you’ve never been before.
Tom Robbins is basically the definition of weird books.
The bulk of Robbins work grows out of his time spent in Seattle in the 1960s. Heavily involved in underground radio, and the budding art scene in Seattle, Robbins initially began writing music reviews before moving on to his intricate and complex novels.
If I were to describe Robbins writing… well, I’d struggle to find the words. Robbins’ writing is punny, full of unweildy analogies, a bit fantastical, and often filled with poetic and flighty phrasing. Yet there is intense thought and planning behind what may seem to be stream of consciousness – Michael Dare described Robbins’ writing style in the following manner:
When he starts a novel, it works like this. First he writes a sentence. Then he rewrites it again and again, examining each word, making sure of its perfection, finely honing each phrase until it reverberates with the subtle texture of the infinite. Sometimes it takes hours. Sometimes an entire day is devoted to one sentence, which gets marked on and expanded upon in every possible direction until he is satisfied. Then, and only then, does he add a period.
It’s amazing, as a reader, to understand Robbins’ process – particularly when the end result is filled with so much whimsy and ease. It’s inspiring to think that whimsy can be the result of painstaking analysis and editing.
For someone just starting out with Robbins, I would recommend going for one of his novels. I have yet to read one that wasn’t amazing. A few of my favorites are Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (almost a western about a woman with extremely large thumbs, her hitchhiking prowess, and the migratory pattern of whooping cranes), Skinny Legs and All (a complex narrative addressing the many veils of society in and the freedom and release from removing those veils), and Still Life With Woodpecker (a post-modern fairytale about a redhead and an outlaw – plus some aliens and bomb building).
With any Robbins novel, there will be story within story. There will be anthropomorphic objects, and there will be a heavy dose of mysticism and politics. Anticipate all the free love, drug use, political rebellion of the 1960s – and an aside or two on the merits of yams.
One thing you will find running through all of Robbins work is a very unique portrayal of women. Some would call it sexist, some may call it feminist. I call it worth reading.
My absolute favorite of all the Robbins’ novels I’ve read has to be Jitterbug Perfume. It’s perhaps more epic than some of Robbins other novels, incorporating four distinct storylines that interweave at various points. Jitterbug Perfume is a bit of an ode to beets, ancient gods, and sex. The story itself is multi-layered and complex, leading you to an intersection between the different narratives where characters cross paths. There is a hint of mystery and a lot of mysticism, a dash of time travel and a whole lot of weird.
In 2014, Robbins released Tibetan Peach Pie – my least favorite of his books. Perhaps attributable to it’s quasi-memoir route, it’s the least weird of all his books. While you can still get some aspects of Robbins unique writing, it pales in comparison to his novels.