Rocky Mountain News
By Jenny Shank, Special To The News
May 16, 2003
Tom Robbins answers the phone in his New York City hotel room with the deadpan greeting: "Intensive care."
When asked if the speaker is Tom Robbins, he replies, "You know, I haven't looked in the mirror yet. But I'm afraid that you've got the right party. I tell you, I am about one scalpel away from a frontal lobotomy, so take it easy on me. If you were to see me this morning, you would think I was just one enormous liver with two red eyeballs sticking out of it."
Robbins' modus operandi has always been to disarm readers with humor and outrageous metaphors, then engage them in discussions of life, philosophy and language. Judging by the throng of passionate followers who flock to his readings and snap up copies of his books, he is doing something right.
Robbins, who comes to Denver on Monday to promote his eighth novel, Villa Incognito, won't disappoint fans who have come to expect a wild ride from his books. The new novel, set in Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and the United States, concerns Tanuki, a lusty, sake-swilling animal from Japanese folklore, the women who love him, and a trio of Americans who went missing in action in Vietnam and instead of returning home, set up a jungle utopia that can be reached only via a dodgy high-wire crossing.
Exploration of ideas
Robbins is up to his old linguistic tricks in Villa Incognito, continuing on his joyful quest to put two words together in ways that they have never been put together before.
"The very best part of writing for me is to create situations in which language can happen," he says.
Robbins' characters and plots are often so outlandish that it can seem as though he conjured them from the ether, but when he explains the elements of Villa Incognito, it becomes clear that they are logical explorations of his ideas and experiences. To account for his interest in Tanuki, Robbins tells a story that stretches many decades.
"When I first moved to Seattle in 1962, I was right out of college, I had no money, and I found a little Japanese restaurant called Tenkatsu that served a substantial bowl of miso soup for 25 cents. So I took my lunches and my dinners there, and I could attend to my gastronomical and nutritional needs for 50 cents a day.
"And in the window of that restaurant was a statue of an animal up on his hind legs. I thought it was a bear, but it had this enormous scrotum, which I thought was rather odd. I assumed it was some kind of virility symbol or totem, but what was it doing in the window of a restaurant? I was too shy to ask about it. It became a familiar figure to me, but I didn't really know anything about it.
"So now we fast-forward to 1987, and my financial situation has changed, along with many other things, and I've purchased a condo down on the waterfront in Seattle. I was in Los Angeles shopping for furniture, and I went into a Japanese antique store and there was this figure."
Robbins bought the statue that reminded him of the one that stood in the Japanese restaurant.
"I was overcome with this wave of nostalgia for Tenkatsu, and how comforting that place was for me, and how it got me through those lean years."
Eventually, a guest at Robbins' house recognized the statue as Tanuki, from Japanese folklore.
"Tanuki is a kind of trickster figure," Robbins explains. "The primary trickster figure is Kitsune, the fox" - who also makes an appearance in the novel - "and Tanuki is sort of the Jerry Lewis to his Dean Martin. The fox is the straight man - which I suppose is taking things to the extreme to call a trickster a straight man. But Tanuki is not the powerful figure that the fox is. What he represents to me, at least, is the liberated state of elevated innocence. He's all appetite, but in the way that a baby is.
"If you have a baby in the house, it's like having a Zen master on call 24 hours a day, because they're so pure."
The other elements of Villa Incognito were also percolating in Robbins' subconscious for many years.
"The most important phrase in the vocabulary of any creative artist is 'What if?' and back when the MIAs were in the news, I began asking myself the question, 'What if there were MIAs that had chosen to stay missing?'
"What would their motives have been for deciding not to come back? What sort of lives would they be leading? And is it possible that both their motives and their lives might be vastly different from what most people would assume?
"And then in this mysterious, complex way that writing fiction evolves, I started folding the MIA story into the Tanuki story."
Robbins is a patient, painstaking writer, and when he is working on a novel he sets a goal of two pages a day.
"You try not to leave a sentence until you think it's as good as you can make it, which is not a way that I necessarily recommend to anyone else to write. It's probably a ridiculous way to write, but it works for me."
Robbins' technique also demands patience from his fans, who usually have to wait four or more years between his novels. This technique, however, is responsible for the characteristic jumbles of subconscious influences in Robbins' novels.
"I'm primarily an intuitive writer. Which is not to say I don't think about what I'm going to write. I think about it 24 hours a day, practically, when I'm actually involved, embedded in a book. But I learned long ago - I've been doing this, well, actually I've been writing since I was 5 years old, and I've been writing novels for 30 years - so I have learned to trust my intuition.
"And I try not to keep too much of the plot or too many of the ideas in my conscious mind. I like to leave them to marinate down in the green ooze at the bottom of my brainpan and kind of squeeze them out, little by little, like toothpaste from a tube."
Robbins says his novels are "very carefully plotted, but not in advance. I can't imagine doing that."
"I was on a panel in October with John Irving," Robbins says, "and he announced to the audience that he could never begin a book unless he knew exactly how it was going to end. And I was astonished by that. Someone - I think it was (V.S.) Naipaul - said that if you know what is going to happen in advance, then the book is dead before you write it."
At 66, Robbins seems to be a contented man, grateful for his admiring readers and the attendant commercial success of his books, with few complaints about his career. He does allow, however, that he has "mixed feelings" about book tours.
"I get a lot of love when I'm out on tour. I just actually flew in from Albuquerque, and I was touched and honored and surprised by how many people came. About 500 people showed up for my reading there, and I was surprised by how many of them said that my books had touched their lives, and in many cases had changed their lives. And I never set out to do that. . . . So it really is a treat for me to get out and meet readers, to see who's reading my books, to make sure it isn't totally the lunatic fringe.
"But at the same time it is enormously tiring, even when I'm not in New York and out drinking red wine half the night. By the time I get to Denver, I will have turned into Casper, the Friendly Ghost. I'll just be an empty, dead sheet with a smile painted on it.
"But I still look forward to coming to Denver. My last book sold more copies in Denver than in any other city in the United States. There are good readers in Denver and you have a wonderful bookstore in the Tattered Cover."
Two characters in Villa Incognito move to Boulder at the end of the book so that one of them can attend the Naropa Institute, "and also I was kind of giving a little nod to the Denver area because they've been so good to me," Robbins says.
Still another Colorado connection in the story has to do with a song that Robbins interweaves throughout the novel, written by one of the characters. Robbins originally began writing this song at the request of Colorado jam band supreme The String Cheese Incident, which asked him to give them some lyrics.
"At that time I had only three verses, and they weren't as polished as those that actually ended up in the book. And they told me that they didn't think there was enough there."
The longer version of the song Meet Me In Cognito might tempt SCI, as it abides by the first jam band commandment: Never end a song when you can continue it.
And the meandering, self-reveling music of a jam band would be the perfect accompaniment to Robbins' unrestrained and linguistically nubile prose.
Jenny Shank's short stories have appeared in The Michigan Quarterly Review, CutBank and other publications, and one was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Denver.
Copyright 2005, Rocky Mountain News. All Rights Reserved.
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