Saturday, April 16, 2011

Jitterbug Perfume

By Tom Robbins

Four Things I Liked About Jitterbug Perfume:
1. Beets.
2. Magical realism.
3. Convergence of four narratives.
4. Sheer span and scope of the story - time, place, and content.

This book came highly recommended, but I wasn’t sure if it lived up to the hype until just about the last page. And even then, I wasn’t sure how I really felt about it. On the one hand, I’ve never read anything quite like it before, and I loved the way the last 20 pages coalesced the whole narrative into a final, momentous throb of significance. On the other hand, I was never fully enveloped into the story until those last 20 pages or so, and there was a lot about Robbins’ style I wasn’t sure he was pulling off. But maybe that’s part of the book’s greatness – that it is so wholly unique you don’t even know what to make of it. It certainly had me thinking the entire time, whether I was trying to draw connections between the apparently incongruous narrative threads, trying to construct meaning from a seemingly random assortment of themes and motifs, or savoring the smattering of perfect passages like melted chocolate on my tongue. In any case, I was never passively flipping pages, living only in the current scene while letting the previous one slip unnoticed out of my mind like the memory of last Monday’s breakfast. Instead I was collecting them one by one like cards in hand, on alert for the royal flush.

The novel begins with this line: “The beet is the most intense of vegetables.” And somehow, in the course of 388 pages and a couple thousand years, it evolves from rumination on the passionate qualities of the beet into an elaborate and philosophical tale of love, immortality, divinity, the sacrifices we make to modern life, and the intangible spark that keeps the human condition aflame.

The Prologue begins with a beet, then moves to Seattle, Paris, and New Orleans, before settling on ancient Bohemia, where the real action begins. In three parts, the novel primarily follows Alobar, a former king and his – for lack of a better word – wife, Kudra, who individually cheat death, cross paths, and unite to seek the path to immortality, with the help of the dying pagan god of basic human instincts, Pan. Yet while the majority of the novel is devoted to Alobar’s ongoing quest through the past, each section concludes with shorter chapters set in contemporary Seattle, Paris, and New Orleans, which follow three unlikely perfumers: a waitress by evening who tracks down an elusive formula trapped in the dregs of an old blue perfume bottle by night, the elite LeFever brothers who possess perfumery’s most infallible nose, and an enormous, fills-the-room-with-her-sheer-size-of-body-and-personality woman in charge of a rundown family business nonetheless devoted to the craft. The four separate narratives seem disconnected until the last 100 some odd pages, when Alobar’s time catches up to real time and converges with Seattle, Paris, and New Orleans.

The real power in Robbins’s writing (at least as I’ve experienced it) is in choreographing the ending. All the various threads of plots, characters, themes, and motifs were all smoothly and satisfyingly braided together into a snug and beautiful pattern worthy of an “Ooh” or “Ah.” For a book that starts with a beet, Jitterbug Perfume makes you think an awful lot about life: what it means, why its worth living, what comes afterward, who’s in control.

That being said, it is not a perfect novel. The language is outlandish, metaphors sometimes so much so that they could have been pulled from a bad metaphor list. I get that the extravagancy of Robbins’s style goes hand in hand with the extravagancy of his story, but I waffle as to whether not he pulls it off. And yet there are passages – sometimes single lines – of such acuity that they stop my eyes still on the page and arrest my attention. In lieu of a smooth conclusion, I think I shall simply live you with a couple of my favorite examples and let them speak of themselves:

“If the earth needs night as well as day, wouldn’t it follow that the soul require endarkenment to balance enlightenment?”

“Our individuality is all, all that we have. There are those who barter it for security, those who repress it for what they believe is the betterment of the whole society, but blessed in the twinkle of the morning star is the one who nurtures it and rides it, in grace and love and wit, from peculiar station to peculiar station along life’s bittersweet route.”

“People used to die from germs. Now they died from bad habits. That was what Dr. Dannyboy said. Heart disease was caused by bad personal habits, cancer was caused by bad industrial habits, war was caused by bad political habits. Dannyboy believed that even old age was a habit. And habits could be broken.”

Books Read This Year: 33
Top 100 Progress: 42/100

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