Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Jitterbug Perfume

Jitterbug Perfume, Tom Robbins
Reread: 26 May to 29 May 2013
5 / 5 stars

Before I knew that magical realism was a thing, I loved Tom Robbins. Before I fell hard for postmodernism, I fell for Tom Robbins. Before I had developed a literary taste that I can be proud of, there was the beacon of hope for me that is Tom Robbins.

There aren’t many things I loved in high school that I still love now: Listening to the same Dashboard Confessional CD on infinite repeat, running to Livejournal to unselfconsciously document every oh-so-significant spike in my emotional temperature and wearing brightly colored tights under fishnet stockings are all things I’ve let slip into the past but Robbins has seen me through all the milestones and minutia of my teenage and twentysomething years.

Jitterbug Perfume was not my first foray into the weirdly wonderful and wonderfully weird worlds that Robbins builds from the gossamer threads of imagination unbound (I'm actually not sure which one popped my Robbins cherry but I do know I first read this one during my last summer of college when I was a live-in nanny -- which was a surprisingly good summer for bibliomania, actually). It is, along with Skinny Legs and All, tied for the honor of being my favorite of his, and both novels are longtime mainstays of my desert-island reading list. So when my craving for Robbins got to be too demanding to be delayed any longer and the heady of perfume of spring was calling too loudly for the only companion novel that successfully captured the power of scent in words, I knew I could rely on this book to deliver everything I needed and more.

It is tempting (like, it is taking an inordinate amount of self-control to fight the impulse) to say something about how beets are the beating heart of this novel but that's only because I have a sick, unironic penchant for puns. Really, this is a story that spans 1,000 years (or about as long as I've been staring at the computer screen while waiting for this review to write itself C'MON BOOZE LUBRICATE MY THOUGHT PROCESS NOW) and connects Seattle to New Orleans to Paris to Bohemia of yore with the wafting of a fragrance. There's also a very loyal swarm of bees serving as the halo a modern-day Christ figure would wear and Pan comes and goes to prove that man creates and destroys gods with a fury and jealously no spiritual figurehead would ever dare to act on. And a fallen king who proves that love can last more than a lifetime and winds up behind bars in the process (if that's not a metaphor for modern times, I don't know what is).


You know, I thought a little liquid creativity would help me here but it is just so damn hard to express how much and why I love this book and how excited I am that, almost eight years later, it is actually even better than I remembered. This is so much more than beautifully playful prose, a caution against taking oneself too seriously lest you forget to stop and smell the beet pollen, more inventively evocative metaphors than a whole hockey team could shake some really long sticks at -- just to mention a few of the things that established my seemingly eternal entrenchment in the Tom Robbins fan club so many years ago. That's not to say that I wasn't thoroughly tickled by those elements this time around but the more subtle aspects of the storytelling were what really got to me during this most recent reading.

This book is a little disarming because it addresses so many issues, Big Ticket and otherwise -- life, death, love, immortality and the conflicted yearning for it, what happens on the other side of death, the individual vs. societal norms, the search for perfection, scientific pursuits, religion (and the lack thereof) -- in such a lighthearted, unexpectedly connected way that its moments of seriousness pack a brutal but enlightening punch. A character who triumphs over death for a good millennium is bound to lose more than he gains in his willful longevity, and his moments of introspective contemplation are a little hard to watch unfold, especially as some of the other characters are revealed to be carrying around the kind of sadnesses that compel them to keep moving; I can now appreciate that there is a definite Pynchonian element of contrasting goofiness of the highest order against some truly sobering sorrows to maximize the impact of each emotional extreme.

I was a little worried that, like so many things I've outgrown, my love of Robbins's unique storytelling might now be a thing of the past tense. But he so intricately layers and pieces together so much in his books that there is plenty to notice for a first time (like how Jitterbug Perfume really does follow the format of a hero's journey, complete with help of and hindrances from mythical beings, a never-say-die determination to reach the finish line, the occasional occurrence of wine-dark liquids, and even a visit from a cyclops) and even more to rediscover anew.

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