Sunday, March 21, 2010

Review: Still Life with Woodpecker, by Tom Robbins (for the Retro Reading Challenge)

When I selected this book for my Retro Reading Challenge, I mentioned loving Still Life with Woodpecker when I first read it but also being warned that the works of Tom Robbins don’t really hold up much after you’ve passed the age of about 22. What I forgot to mention was that Still Life with Woodpecker is my favourite of all of the Tom Robbins novels that I’ve read, which includes his entire oeuvre up to and including 2000’s Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates. To me, none of the other books captured the same zany magic of Still Life with Woodpecker. Consequently, I thought it had the best chance out of the bunch of not being excruciating to reread for this challenge.

A little background: I read Still Life with Woodpecker for the first (and only other) time in the spring of 1994. I was still 18 and had just completed my first year of undergraduate. It had been a heady time, naturally. The previous eight months had exposed me to a new city, new friends, new experiences and a reading list of the heavyweights of Western philosophy, history and literature. Arriving on the first page of Still Life with Woodpecker just a few weeks after classes ended, I remember feeling a prideful frisson of recognition at this reference to Dostoyevsky:

“This is the all-new Remington SL3, the machine that answers the question, ‘Which is harder, trying to read The Brothers Karamazov while listening to Stevie Wonder records or hunting for Easter eggs on a typewriter keyboard?’”

This passage probably made my 18-year-old self very happy. Never mind that if one stopped and thought about this line for longer than a couple of seconds, one would realize that it makes absolutely no sense. It does nothing, conveys nothing, serves no function whatsoever. And it’s the second sentence in the novel!

Yes, but that’s not the point … I hear my 18-year-old self saying. In fact, this is a refrain that kept echoing in my mind each time I wanted to criticize some part of this novel while rereading it, a refrain spoken by every rainbow-belt-and-ripped blue-jeans-wearing goddess-of-bohemia coed who has loved this book. Reading Still Life with Woodpecker the first time made me feel sexy and alive. Reading it now just made me feel old and crusty.

The story, such as it is, revolves around Princess Leigh-Cheri, redheaded daughter of expelled monarchs from some unnamed European country. Brooding with vague angst in the attic of her family’s home-in-exile in Puget Sound, WA, Leigh-Cheri gets wind of a conference happening in Hawaii called Care Fest, the intention of which is to make the world a better place. Thinking this will help cure her late twentieth-century ennui, Leigh-Cheri travels to Hawaii to attend. There she meets fellow redhead Bernard Mickey Wrangle, AKA the Woodpecker, a terrorist who intends to blow up Care Fest with dynamite. His motivation for doing so is never clearly defined (but then, neither are most other aspects of this novel – plot, characters, themes, etc.) but you get the sense that Bernard is pretty bad news. Nevertheless, Leigh-Cheri falls madly in love with him and experiences a wild sexual, philosophical and emotional awakening as she learns more about Bernard’s flaky world view. His subversive activities cross paths with Leigh-Cheri’s parents’ political exile, which draws the ire of the CIA, which eventually results in Bernard’s supposed murder in an airport in Algiers and Leigh-Cheri getting engaged to a button-downed Moslem with unlimited wealth. Do you follow? Along the way, we learn about the cycles of the moons, the bliss of anal sex, the origin of pyramids, the history of Camel cigarettes, and how to make a homemade bomb using Fruit Loops and batshit. But of course we do. If it all sounds too ludicrous to fit successfully into 277 pages, you’re absolutely right.

Yes, but that’s not the point …

Despite all the wacky, left-field plot twists, one must admit that Tom Robbins’ books follow a fairly cookie-cutter template, and it’s this template that the older me has some serious issues with. His protagonists are almost always young, attractive females but his narrators are unmistakably older and male. This inevitably results in the narrator ogling his own protagonist in a dirty old man sort of way. In Still Life with Woodpecker, there are countless references to Leigh-Cheri’s “peachclam”, or variants thereof, to describe her genitals. It would be bad enough if Robbins kept his narrator’s consciousness separate from Leigh-Cheri’s; but there are numerous instances where he amateurishly melds the two using free indirect narration. Thus, Leigh-Cheri ends up referring to her own body, her own sexuality in ways that no woman ever would.

Yes, but that’s not the point …

Of course, the biggest problem I’ve developed with Still Life with Woodpecker is not with the story or the narration’s structure. It goes down deeper than that, to the level of its sentences and their descriptive choices. Robbins shows incredibly poor control over most of his metaphors. Check out this passage from early in the novel, describing Care Fest:

“Don’t think the news of that conference didn’t melt the ice off the dog dish at thirty paces. If her life span were a salad, Leigh-Cheri would have dived into the dressing to present that conference with a perfect crouton.”

Come again? What dog dish? What ice? At thirty paces? And what the hell does a salad have to do with any of it? Let’s try another one, from just a few pages later. Here’s Robbins attempting to describe Hawaii: “… Hawaii was, indeed, a travelogue tableau; a living Pap smear for the paradise flu.” If you have any idea what Robbins is on about here, for the love of God please email me at sampson[underscore]mark[at]hotmail[dot]com. This prose may very well have been conceived under the influence of various mind-altering intoxicants, but it was egregiously left alone by an editor’s pen, probably for the simple reason that it sounds cool – at least to an 18 year old who hasn’t read very much.

Yes, but that’s not the point …

So what is the point, then? I suppose the point would be whether Still Life with Woodpecker’s story can live up to the portent that Robbins establishes early in the novel. We’re reminded numerous times that the tale we are reading will be monumental for the last quarter of the twentieth century. I’m not sure I bought it – what with the novel ending with Leigh-Cheri and the Woodpecker getting sealed inside a pyramid together to spend even more time ruminating on the nature of the cosmos. But I do have to admit, the novel got a lot better by the end. Robbins was able to reign in his loopy descriptions and hippier-than-thou pontifications. I did sense some real-life resonance in the whole “I-guess-I’ll-have-to-settle-with-you” atmosphere of Leigh-Cheri’s engagement to A’ben Fizel, her Muslim fiancĂ©. And I still feel that the novel ends with the best sentence possible under the circumstances: “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”

I don’t regret rereading this novel; it did suit the purposes of The Challenge, and it certainly took a lot less time than rereading Stephen King’s It would have. But I can safely say that I’ve outgrown Tom Robbins. I’m happy to leave him to all the horny undergraduates who haven’t yet discovered Kurt Vonnegut, A Confederacy of Dunces, Evelyn Waugh, or any number of other authors or novels that are truly comic.


  1. Wow, great review, Mark! I didn't realize I had basically forgotten everything about this book until I read your review. But I definitely remember, even as a highschooler, being kind of creeped out by the way the characters were sexualized by the author (not that I would have been able to articulate that at the time).

    Am still slogging my way through The Mists of Avalon... why I chose such a gigantic book for this challenge, I will never know...

  2. Thanks, Amy. Glad you enjoyed it. And it IS really creepy, all that narrative ogling. There's something almost pubescent about it.

    Sorry to here The Mists of Avalon is such a slog. This is precisely why I didn't choose Stephen King's IT or some other lengthy tome from my teen years. But I'm looking forward to your review.

  3. Loved it at 20, still enjoy the wackiness at 40. Robbins is mad. The yarn is mad. The greater madness is people analyse it. It's meant to be fantasy; it means what it means to anyone on any given day. The two great concepts are 'I love you for free' and 'its never too late to have a happy childhood'. Both unattainable, both desirable in a dreamy, free love sense. Just a rockin ride of silliness - but fun escapism. When you lose your understanding of it, you might as well be locked up deaf in a pyramid.

  4. Thanks for that, Anonymous. Fair comments, all. Me, I tend to organize silliness into two groups - silliness that works and silliness that doesn't. SLWW didn't do it for me the second time around, but I can see how it might for some. To be fair, though, I have little use for 'escapism' at this point in my life. As Howard Jacobson said upon winning the Booker (for a supposed comic novel), "It's not literature's job to give you a holiday from real things." In fact, quite the opposite.

    Thanks again for your comment.


  5. I know I'm over three years late with this response, but I read your review, and although your criticisms are valid, I was curious why you're ignoring a great portion of the book: who knows how to make love stay? Beyond all of Robbin's typical pseudo-fairytale metaphors, the foundation of the book remains strong throughout. The woodpecker's role in the book is consistent in establishing that love has no rules.

    Personally, I like to imagine that Robbin's writing is a facade over an issue that is, in fact, troubling to many. I read this book at 20, and my father read it at 48. Our lives are completely different, but we've both suffered heartbreaks and understood completely that Robbin's was acknowledging the chaotic nature of love. If love was personified, it would be a terrorist who blows up buildings. It would be locked away in prison because it doesn't listen to anyone.

    I will admit, I have to be in the right mood to read Robbins, and I have to go into his novels knowing what I'm about to see. However, I think Still Life is an amazing depiction of love and its (lack of) rules.

  6. Hey Anonymous,

    Thanks so much for this very thoughtful comment. And no worries - it's never too late to leave a remark on a blog post here.

    You make some very valid points here, and I especially appreciate your comment about how love personified would be like a terrorist. This metaphor was something I'd either forgotten or missed outright both times I read the book.

    I do still stand by my assertions that this book is ultimately a poorly written rat's nest of prose, but you've definitely given me something additional to think about. Cheers for that.