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Villa Incognito
by Tom Robbins
In the sprit of open-mindedness I decided to give TR another chance when I found this book, written in 2003, at my friend's house (read the review of Tom Robbins below to understand the boundlessness of my magnanimity). Despite the fact that it starts by talking about a character's nutsack for a couple of pages [not kidding], I found myself enjoying it. Robbins seemed to have settled into the act of writing; it's less self-consciously show-offy than Still Life with Woodpecker, and he's learned to let the comedy come from the story instead of inserting slapsticky one-liners every other sentence. (I dunno, maybe he's been getting better for years, and maybe Woodpecker is uncharacteristically awful. But I don't think so; people love the fuck out of that book, call it his masterpiece. I think of it as another good example of how I don't need to read a book to know I'll hate it.)
     Villa Incognito is a light book whose characters think they're living in a heavy one. Despite painstaking physical description and copious detail, those characters come off as fuzzy and insubstantial, not people so much as jerry-rigged bundles of eccentricities, vocations, clothing, and identifying marks. The plot is shallow and abritrary, which might not have been a problem if the characters were interesting enough, but they're not. A pivotal character is supposed to come off as a Falstaffian version of Brando's Colonel Kurtz, but Robbins fails to demonstrate the character's charisma convincingly; it's like a movie whose main character is supposed to be a world-class artist, but when they show you the art on screen, it ruins it, because it was just made by the art department.
     In terms of the narrative style, I kept feeling like he kept a stitched sampler over his writing desk that said SHOW DON'T TELL instead of HOME SWEET HOME, like he internalized the cardinal rule of college creative writing classes and carried it with him into his professional career. He takes the doctrine to a chilly extreme, so the book contains an awful lot of what and not much why. I'm not saying that Robbins should explain every character's actions, but I'd prefer it if I believed that he could. As it was, the characters just did stuff, and might as well have done the exact opposite without a reader even batting an eyelash.
     So far this review may seem negative, but I did enjoy reading this book at the time, maybe because I kept expecting it to be horrible, and it was just mediocre. Faint praise, I know. But it means that there's hope for him -- having learned to quell the awful stylistic tendencies of his misspent (though lucrative) youth, all he has to do is learn to create characters that people care about, and he'll be on his way! Wa ha ha!
     Still, two things in the book reminded me of the older Robbins that I really hate. The first is the scrotal obsession of the first chapter, which I won't belabor. The second was a three-page reverie about mayonnaise. It starts as a description of a character's love for mayo (he's from North Carolina, and has been living for years in Laos without access to it), but when Robbins gets impatient, the omniscient narrator takes over and spins a wordy tribute to Hellmann's that's too clever by half, and feels totally out of place. It seems like just the kind of thing that you'd see mentioned in a review, like: "Look for the side-splitting elegy to America's favorite spreadable condiment, mayonnaise -- that section alone is worth the price of the book! Bravo, Mr. Robbins, you've done it again, with your keen observation of American culture and its obsessions!" Yarf. [by the way, imagine that made-up quote but stick DeLillo in it instead. Seems totally plausible, doesn't it? Double yarf.]
     All right, I've said enough. I can't really recommend it, because there are too many other important things to read in this life. But I honestly can't give it less than a 5. And that's pretty good!
.: . . . .5:2. . . . :
4/14/2006 • link

5 comments:


Anonymous dirty_snowflake said...

Still Life with Woodpecker & Villa Incognita are pretty meh. I was not a big fan of Another Roadside Attraction either. I've always preferred Jitterbug Perfume and Skinny Legs and All. IMHO those are his 2 best books. When he gets on a roll, his prose can be very rich and textured.

So call me Jezebel, but make sure you do it in the room of the wolfmother wallpaper...

4/14/2006 7:33 PM  

Blogger tuckova said...

agreeing with dirty snowflake: you should read jitterbug perfume or skinny legs and all. if you do not like them, you do not and never will like tom robbins. but it's better to start with the best and work down.

do not, under any circumstances, read "fierce invalids" unless you really, really, really love the man, because otherwise it is unbearable. it may be unbearable even then.

4/16/2006 1:44 AM  

Blogger tuckova said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4/16/2006 1:45 AM  

Anonymous Arford said...

What I don't get is this: you hate Tom Robbins because he's "self-consciously show-offy", and yet you're a big fan of David Foster Wallace, who might as well have "self-consciously show-offy" tattooed on his forehead. I enjoy both writers (although I prefer DFW), but then I like self-conscious showoffs.

Oh, and I second what tuckova said about Fierce Invalids, and Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas is even worse.

4/17/2006 8:33 PM  

Blogger Gina said...

When I was younger, I was highly impressed by Tom Robbins' writing, because it was so...zany. I also liked his ideas about civilization killing the nature in us and all that. But now that I'm older, and have read his latest books, and do a lot of writing myself now, I totally get what you mean about his word-spinning. More so in his recent books than in his earlier ones, it seems--it's like he does it just to do it, either without a point or making the same point he made in other books. It kinda seems rather self-serving to me now. We get it, got it a long time ago. But I still will probably continue to read what he puts out, just to see if I still agree with myself.

Although, I have to say Skinny Legs and All is still my favorite book of his. Still re-read it every so often. In that book, his jabberwocky had a point. It fit the story. And I liked the themes he put forth, which were relatively fresh, back in the 90's. It might be especially relevant now, being as the Middle East/Israel conflict is a large part of the story.

5/14/2006 5:58 PM  

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