May 30, 2003

Delightfully lost in a thicket of words

Tom Robbins has cut out a nice little niche in contemporary American literature, but I don't really know anything about it. I've never read his stuff. So I approached his new book, Villa Incognito, with only a pamphlet from his publisher, the word of a friend who told me about his middle school obsession with Robbins, and curiosity. Any author whose stated intention is for his books to serve as "can-openers in the supermarket of life" sounds promising to me.

To jump right in, what's this book about? Well, if you've read Robbins, I suppose you'll be expecting something like this, but the book is about mythical Japanese woodland creatures and their habits of mating with humans, the peculiar lives led by their offspring, over-intelligent and idealistic Vietnam MIAs inhabiting the highlands of Laos while running a humanitarian heroin operation, the Southeast Asian circus enclaves in general, scrotums, and the peculiar love story that connects it all. And there's a bit of the old Robbins philosophizing as well. The man likes big problems, and here he takes on the cultural rift between East and West, the inhumanity of government policies, and the tension between purely theistic and animistic religions. It's not light stuff, but Robbins pulls it off.

To be sure, the plot winds and weaves; at times it seems a bother even to think that things might be related. But all the little story lines, however tangentially or fully intertwined, revolve in a quickening gyre that keeps you plugging along. The characters (in a book so disparate there's no need to name them or to try to pin them down) launch into rambling tales of their own, only to be swallowed back by the movement of the book as a whole. And all of it is held together by the fact that Robbins is extremely funny.

Observe: the first sentence of Villa reads, "It has been reported that Tanuki fell from the sky using his scrotum as a parachute." This kind of thing is the heart of the book--Robbins's descriptions, not the plot and the places, but the manner in which they are communicated are what's compelling. What Robbins does for spring ("Spring was on the land like an itch. The whole countryside seemed to be scratching itself awake--lazily, luxuriously, though occasionally scratching so hard its nails hit bone, that old cold calcium that lies beneath our tingles."), and birth ("She made it sound as if, following an hour or two of pressure in her lower abdomen, a big quivering gob of plum jelly had suddenly shot out of her to slide down her thighs...Like a tadpole winnowing out of a cocktail straw.") is both funny and original.

Robbins dabbles in weighty subjects, but he doesn't fully engage them. Instead he pokes and foils from afar. His vindications and refutations are interesting, but there isn't much substance to argue against, or with, for that matter. The author's presence hangs over every sentence, defying you to forget he's there. What could be a burden in most books is all right here, simply because Robbins is a lot of fun to read. The book never gets bogged down, and always returns to its foundation: the humor, the winding story, and the quality writing.

There is a poem spaced intermittently through this book, a song from one of the characters, about said villa incognito. Maybe this poem, like the other tangential plots, ties together the frayed strands, neatly cauterizes them, fully forms the themes, characters, and ideas of the book. Honestly, I don't know and I don't really care. I'm content with the damn-goodness of Robbins's writing.