Saturday, April 3, 2010

FN Retrospective: Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins

When I speak to an audience about olfactory genius in the literary world, someone invariably asks about Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. Don’t I agree that it’s a great novel about the sense of smell?

My response is polite but deliberately vague. I read it when it first came out—back in 1984. What I remember is an overly-long and overly-zany comic tale featuring characters with names like Bingo Pajama and Dr. Wiggs Dannyboy. While Robbins dropped a detail here and there to prove he’d done some research on the perfume business, it was clear that he was also peddling a lot of hokum.

So I tell people yes I remember it but I’d have to read it again before opining on the quality of Tom Robbins’ olfactory genius.

The guilty weight of these accumulated semi-promises caught up with me this past Thanksgiving as I was looking for something to read between dinner and falling asleep on the couch. So I pulled Jitterbug Perfume off the shelf and hit the sofa.

It took me fifteen minutes to get past the first page:
The beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot. The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies. 

Slavic people get their physical characteristics from potatoes, their smoldering inquietude from radishes, their seriousness from beets.
I felt like I’d arrived late to a dorm party where everyone is already high and giggling nonstop over a silly in-joke.

Not being in the mood, I traded the book for the TV remote and started looking for a football game—any football game. In this on-again, off-again way it took me several unpleasant weeks to finish the novel. 

Jitterbug Perfume is one of Robbins’ patented elbow-in-the-ribs, yuck-it-up phantasmagorias, overstuffed with trippy analogies, shaped by goofy plot twists, and studded with stoned philosophical interludes about history, religion and sex, along with pointless mini-disquisitions such as the one on the specific sequence in which waitresses order drinks from the bartender. The story takes place in present-day Seattle, New Orleans and Paris, but also follows the adventures of Alobar, a fourth- or fifth-century Bohemian tribal king, as he defies death and aging and wanders the globe in search of the secret of eternal life which involves creating the perfect perfume. Alobar is followed on travels by Pan, the invisible, goaty-smelling and ever more enfeebled Greek deity. In a nutshell, Robbins’ theme is that life is extended by laughter and a light heart, and that perfume is a bridge to the infinite. 

There are only two options: You will find this outlandishly entertaining or else quickly decide that it’s not your cup of psylocybin. 

Still not sure? Here’s Robbins describing the nose of perfumer Marcel LeFever: 
It functioned as a catalytic laser, oxidizing the passion that slept in a violet, releasing the trade winds bottled up in orange peel; identifying by name and number the butterflies dissolved in chips of sandalwood and marrying them off, one by one, to the wealthy sons of musk.
Rhapsodic poesy or claptrap? It depends on whether or not you like your imagery supersized:
the frosted cobblestone streets resembled marshmallow plantations at harvest time
(Barf.)

Kundra, Alobar’s consort, is “thick-thighed, broad-hipped, and heavy-breasted, but so slender of waist that a snail with a limp could circle her beltline in two minutes flat . . .” At one point Kundra becomes sexually aroused: “She realized with a shock that she was so wet that children could have sailed toy boats in her underpants.” Her nipple “stiffened with pleasure, much as an aged veteran will sometimes stiffen with patriotism.”

Robbins is an inexhaustible fire hose of overdrawn imagery. 
“The Middle Ages hangs over history’s belt like a beer belly. It is too late now for aerobic dancing or cottage cheese lunches to reduce the Middle Ages. History will have to wear size 48 shorts forever.
He can’t help himself; the similes pour forth:
Every toilet bowl gurgled like an Italian tenor with a mouthful of Lavoris . . .

the king set upon his harem like a starving rat let loose in a peach barrel.

The shaman grinned like a weasel running errands for the moon.
After a pondside orgy of Pan’s, “dried semen frosted the thighs of napping nymphs, clots of it floated in the shadowy waters like weavings wrenched loose from the looms of the trout.” 

[Wow, this is some great shit. Pass the lighter.]

Robbins even descends to bad puns. Paris in the 17th Century is “a city that was primed for the Age of Reason, a populace that was beginning to put Descartes before des horse.”  “As to the quality of the [17th Century] beer we cannot testify—perhaps a taste of it today would leave us sadder Budweiser.”

And on and on. And on.

Gradually, as the weeks passed and I made my way page by page through this sticky sweet mass of metaphor, I began to get a strange sensation. Although I hadn’t opened Jitterbug Perfume in twenty-five years, I felt as though I’d read this stuff quite recently. The feeling was especially strong in this passage about beet pollen, the missing ingredient of Alobar’s perfect perfume. It is 
honey squared, royal jelly cubed, nectar raised to the nth power; the intensified secretions of the Earth’s apiarian gland, reeking of ancient bridal chambers and intimacies half as old as time.

However, on Nature’s cluttered dressing table, there is no scent to truly match it, not hashish, not ambergris, not decaying honey itself. Beet pollen, in its fascinating ambivalence, is the aroma of paradox, of yang and yin commingled, of life and death combined in vegetable absolute.
The florid tone and the overwrought imagery seems so familiar, so current:
It comes out of the bottle speaking French, loudly, and with a grave formality. They were still using overt animalics in those days — the smell of beaver armpit — which were considered feminine.
Where could I have read it?
an astonishingly perfect piece of scent work, an equilibrium of palely spiced fresh air moving through a dusky orange grove. . . . It is less watercolor, more oil painting, peaceful as a Buddha, elegant as linen, fresh as grass cooling in the evening.
Wait, it’s coming back to me:
reminiscent of a teenage girl in a summer halter top strolling on a Jersey Shore boardwalk that bathes her in its smells: hot cotton candy, sticky saltwater taffy and a whiff of Mega Hold hair gel heating in the sun.
I think I’ve almost got it:
What comes through, however, is a noirish, Raymond Chandler-meets-Russell Simmons masculine, dark-spicy-clean, asphalt and Pirelli tire on a black Lamborghini. Sensual street. Its strategy was sheer force, like slamming you with the velvet rope guarding a hot nightclub.
Yes, of course! Tim Robbins has been reincarnated as the perfume critic of the New York Times. That explains everything

[Pass the doobie, bro.]

13 comments:

BitterGrace said...

Awesome

Fernando said...

Hear, hear! Thanks for saving me from ever attempting to read Robbins! Kundra sounds as if she came right out of one of those comic books for adolescent boys...

Avery Gilbert said...

BitterGrace:

Wait longer to exhale and it's even better.

Avery Gilbert said...

Fernando,

You're quite welcome. And now that you mention it, the cartoonishness of Jitterbug Perfume would make a far better manga than novel.

Ambrosia said...

Well, as one of the Perfumers who has actually created a "Pan" perfume and a "Goddess" perfume inspired by "Jitterbug Perfume", I have to admit that I love his over the top zany writing style...
what really got me about the book itself, (and ultimately inspired the perfumes) was the way it described the actual impact that scent has opn us humans. Pan himself is a powerplayer in western pagan mythology, because of his erotic and hypnotic effect on human female sin particular. And Robbins story rightly focuses this on his his Scent! Human psychology is HUGELY scent driven. Our biochemsitry centres around a vast array of scent molecules as communication messengers....and a good perfumer knows and works with this.
I found the challenge of re-creating Pan's testosterone laden sex scent in a perfume absolutley fascinating...]
DElving into ancient literature about musks and the use of strange root tinctures to find the perfect "mad goat in rut" scewnt in a form that modern noses will like a s a perfume was such a cool creative journey!(and to date it is still one of the best selling perfumes I ever created too!....)
"Goddess" was my interpretation of the magical beet pollen scent they used to counteract Pan...something so fine and elicately beuatiful, yet at the same time powerful enough to carry itself against even the basest of musky funks....

It ended up being the battle of flowers verus root and woods. Earth against Air...Patchouli and Vetiver against Damask Rose and Jasmine....

You see, even the perfumers who love Tom Robbisn end up being literary ramblers, grin!
I think I may have to Blog in answer to this now too, grin!
http://perfumebynature.bogspot.com

Ed C said...

Has anyone here smelled beet pollen? Is the smell anything like Robbins' description? Has anyone tried to extract it? Of course authors sometimes make stuff up, but I'm curious if there's a worm of truth at the bottom of his bottle.

Avery Gilbert said...

Ambrosia:

Fair enough. The way you took perfumistic inspiration from Robbins' tale is more compelling to me than his novel.

Robbins draws caricatures and places them against a background of late-70's truisms colored with Day-Glo markers. Pan works because to some extent the Greek gods are caricatures.

When it comes to the bestial side of human odor, I prefer the dark etchings of Roald Dahl's Bitch.

De gustibus and all that . . .

Avery Gilbert said...

Ed C:

I asked myself the same thing. Googled around and found nothing.

Exit question: Does any pollen have a scent?

P.S. Robbins quotes Eric Maple, in whose 1973 book The Magic of Perfume: Aromatics and their Esoteric Significance one can find most of the hippie-dippie soul-as-perfume theorizing he plays on. Published by The Aquarian Press.

Naturally.

Avery Gilbert said...

Ed C:

P.P.S. Perhaps you should ask Ambrosia how she formulated her interpretation of beet pollen in Goddess.

~x~ said...

i was just given this when i mentioned my delight at smelling rockrose for the first time,as it's a note in perfumes.

i also said how i didn't get through it.
now it's in my bag for the trip home, but, alas, no doobage.

Brad said...

Tom Robbins' silliness is a way to weed out the kind of reader who the author would no more want to share a toke with than tell a story to. Among the hippy-dipster musings and schoolboy-minded wordplay that are the author's shameless indulgences, Robbins puts forth a strong argument for the passion of living. Lighten up!

Avery Gilbert said...

Brad:

Take away the silliness and I'm not sure there's much left. Whatevs. Consider me weeded out.

Brad said...

There's no separating silliness and truth in Robbins, so if you take away the silliness then you really don't have much left. I relate to his books the way that I relate to the first good rock music that I discovered as a teenager--a tether to a youthful heart that I will not cut lest I grow dull and self-important, not the main staple of my artistic diet anymore but man will I pig out if I smell it cookin!

BTW, shoulda put "lighten up" in quotes in my first comment as I was quoting the theme of the story.