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?
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.I felt like I’d arrived late to a dorm party where everyone is already high and giggling nonstop over a silly in-joke.
Slavic people get their physical characteristics from potatoes, their smoldering inquietude from radishes, their seriousness from beets.
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 . . .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.”
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.
[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.The florid tone and the overwrought imagery seems so familiar, so current:
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.
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.]