Monday, November 19, 2007

Book review: Skinny Legs and All

This was my first foray into the philosophical stylings of one Tom Robbins.

I'll say this: the man displays true genius in his writing. His command of the language and ability to draw uncoventional yet compelling comparisons make me jealous. The comparisons can be over-the-top, often crude, and yet strangely musical. Descriptions of the mundane run for paragraphs, granting a magical quality to everyday sights and sounds that we regularly look past without a moment's reflection. In this, Robbins has a real gift. A gift that has no doubt been expanded and refined through long practice and hard work, but a rare talent nonetheless. Take this paragraph as an example:

Spring lies on New York like an odalisque on a harem sofa. Like an AIDS baby on a Harlem sofa. A big moon is rising. Like the odalisque, the moon seems filled to overflowing with sweetmeats and sperm, but the haze through which it rises is emaciated, phlegm-choked, and dappled with sores that almost certainly are malignant. Everywhere, softness snuggles up to hardness. Hardness says, "So what?" -- rakes in a scum of dollars, jams foot-long needles into its vein. Tender green leaves are unfurling on thousands of soot-encrusted limbs. The acrid, Mephistophelian odor of vehicular exhaust stands out sharply against the chlorophyll. When a person breathes, one nostril sucks in a witchy waft of poisons, the other the syrup-scented push of plant life. In the mingle of moonlight and headlamps, neon and leaf-glow, the skyscrapers are as beautiful as a procession of Hindu saints. Bubbling, winking, and crawling with light, they seem as full of sap as the maples in the park.

He goes on like that for two pages.

At other times, he slips into a loose form of poetry, which has no relationship to the characters or story whatsoever:

This is the room of the wolfmother wallpaper, the room where the black virgin fell down the chimney and burned a hole in the linoleum. Countless are the antelope hooves that have pounded this floor. No wonder the linoleum is worn.
In this room, the salamander was squashed between the pages of the rhyming dictionary, thereby changing poetry forever. Here, Salome walked around with a big red fish held high up over her head. Old Father spanked her with a ballet slipper, sending her to bed without milk or honey. Dance was changed in this room, too.

I'm sure those sentences are rife with symbolism and meaning, but it's way too much work to unearth all the associations. I appreciate the author's effort without expending the energy to figure out what the hell he's saying.

And finally, Robbins doesn't just have people as characters, but several inanimate objects as well. Painted Stick, Spoon, Dirty Sock, Conch Shell, and Can O'Beans are on a journey of their own, concurrent with the one starring Ellen Cherry, Boomer Petway, and Reverend Buddy Winkler. And while this sounds like possibly the strangest facet of the book, I can assure you it's not. I actually took comfort in their presence, because it was at least a recognizable writer's tactic: revealing the oddities of our beliefs, as viewed through the eyes of an outsider.

As you can imagine, this style of writing is simultaneously fascinating and tedious. The book contains very little of what might pass for 'plot' or 'character development' or any of the conventional devices employed by fiction writers to tempt readers into turning the next page. So in spite of Robbins' amazing ability with words, I can't say that I enjoyed reading this book or that I could recommend it to others.

However...there is something to be said for the over-the-top unconventional. I didn't realize just how much of rut my brain had fallen into, until I was halfway through this book and I started to think in different ways. Maybe I'm imagining it, but I actually felt like my mind was expanding. Being forced to draw relationships between disparate objects which I normally would not, to challenge the limits of my vocabulary and knowledge...this exercise for my mind seemed to wake up long-dormant avenues of thought. A couple spin classes (with a hot instructor) and some time on the weight bench, and those atrophied athletes of my imagination were up and running again. Not a full marathon of course, but they could jog along at a decent clip for a couple of miles without a stop at McDonald's. So for that reason alone, assuming you have the stomach to turn 400 pages without the benefit of a plot, I could recommend this book. Certainly, if one were an aspiring writer (...), it's probably worth the effort.

The book itself is a vehicle to pump Robbins' philosophy, which he does us the favor of summing up tidily at the end of the book. I'll delve into that tomorrow.


At 6:55 AM, Blogger millhousethecat said...

I don't know if I could slog through it. I could barely get through what you excerpted in your blog.

No plot? How do these people get published?

At 7:33 AM, Blogger sparrowlegs said...

I don't get the title. If you were trying to get my attention, it worked, because you had me at "Skinny Legs".

At 6:43 PM, Blogger luvskinny said...

I loved Skinny Legs and All. In fact, I liked it so much that I painted a still-life of the 5 inanimate characters. Both my daughters read the book on my recommendation. One loved it as I did and the other was noncommittal.I think a person needs not to be of a conservative leaning to enjoy the book. The best part is that it makes you laugh out loud and everyone can use a good laugh.


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