Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Recent Read: Amphibians, Tarot, and Theories of the Economic and Extraterrestrial Kind

About a week ago or so, I finished the latest novel by contemporary fiction rock star and resident narcissist, a club in which he is paralleled by many but potentially matched by few, Tom Robbins. Set in slumbering and rain-splashed Seattle over the course of a single long Easter weekend, the narrative is broken into short chronological increments, detailing the foibles and adventures of Gwendolyn Mati, a young and ambitious Filipina stock broker who is muddling through a stagnant relationship with a wealthy but boring philanthropic Christian, fiery lust for a new and mysterious stranger, and economic decay as the market crashes everywhere. Typical for Robbins, the characters are bizarre and varied, simultaneously twistedly cartoon-like and realistic; Gwendolyn and her gang do not disappoint. Included in the cast is a born-again, purported reformed jewel-thieving primate, an obese and occasionally perversely promiscuous psychic, and a Native American who utilized funds speculated from stock investments to purchase one single van Gogh sketch. Although it was immediately clear within the first few sentences that this would not become a favorite of mine, or even a favorite among his works, I persevered, generally prone to complete a book once begun.

I had read a few of his novels a number of years ago, at the crux between high school and university, those fluid times of loose and free late adolescence. Pliable and easily entertained, amused, amazed, the methods by which Robbins rode language captivated me, a sort of devolution from something refined and tamed to something new and strange and wild, bucking and hawing like a flaming bronco. Although it has been a few years, according to my memory, these works, such as Skinny Legs and All and Even Cowboys Get the Blues, seemed to have a sense of control, of purpose. Within the first few pages of Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, the wanton and flamboyant use of literary and rhetorical device, with no sense of rhythm or clear warranty, almost repulsed me; thankfully, the intrigue of the plot and the slow reveal of character intentions inspired sufficient motivation to swallow the disgust and move onward. I can appreciate the contortion of language into something new, something I had not previously imagined, but only when performed artfully, and not with petulant flair of a child, flaunting certain feats and goading one to see just what they can do.

Unfortunately for this novel, the greatest fault and mistake was in the chosen point of view: a second-person narrative perspective. An avid admirer and devotee of Lorrie Moore and her seminal work Self-Help, I, quite rightly, hold extreme and austere expectations when it comes to use of the second-person voice. For a novel of this length, in which Robbins cultivates a very specific personality and physique and history for his narrator, the second-person simply could not be sustained. For me, this device requires a delicate skill, a shorter form, and a more vague embodiment of the narrator, such that I, truly, can believe the perspective when the text repeats over and over to me: "you."

Despite these obvious flaws and the occasionally obnoxious postures with language, the novel is worth a read; given the current crumbling of the global socioeconomic machine, downward velocities that are rippling east and west, Robbins' meditation on materialism and capitalist forces as predominant, self-selected influencers of identity is worthwhile. Ultimately, he does halt and take some caution when exuding the importance of human connection and the utter transience of all things produced-purchased-consumed through fabrications of want and need. In a sense, a sort of life is short, so live it, philosophy; unfortunately, given that, if I had the opportunity to make my reading choice again, I probably would have opted to pass on this one.

(image taken from Wal-Mart)

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