Even Cowgirls Get the Blues: Overview

EvenCowgirlsGetTheBlues(1stEd)Have you ever read Thomas Pynchon and thought, “Man. This would be pretty awesome stuff if I could even begin to grasp what on earth he’s talking about”?

If so, Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get the Blues may be for you.  For all its postmodern whimsy, it’s an actual book with an actual, accessible plot. It’s charming when it’s not being absolutely ridiculous. But then again, ridiculousness is part of its charm to some, I’ll wager.

Tl;dr Synopsis

Sissy, our protagonist, has huge thumbs. I’m not sure if there’s a figurative meaning for that, but if there is, I don’t mean it figuratively. I mean the thumbs on her hand are huge.

She hitchhikes with them. She has a lot of thoughts. The author also has a lot of thoughts.

Sissy’s travels take her to an all-girl ranch, run by Bonanza Jellybean, that is nearly utopia.  Everything in the novel hinges on this place. Even when Sissy leaves shortly after arriving, her heart stays there.

Interesting miscellany ensues. Endangered birds are fed peyote. There is folklore around something called the clockworks, which is difficult to describe, especially since I don’t understand it. A pervy old would-be philosopher on a hill spouts cryptic tidbits of what’s either spiritual knowledge or nonsense. The author interjects himself for a chapter and then scolds himself for interrupting the story.

But it all winds up coming to this: when the world conspires to take the all-girl ranch from the posse, they fight for it. I won’t spoil the ending from there.

Writing Style

Quirktastic. Absolutely off the wall. The beginning of the book is a chapter on amoebas. His style is juicy and visceral, full of colors and joyus screams. You also don’t know what each chapter may bring. At one point, there’s a subchapter: 111a, to be precise. It concludes with “DANGER: RADIATION. Unauthorized personnel not allowed on the premises of chapter 111a.”

Robbins is creative writing at its most creative, and his writing style is postmodern (or “po-mo,” if you’re an insufferable M.F.A. candidate) as can be. The content is a different story–Robbins takes himself quite seriously in many cases. But as far as style goes, he is just as I said before–an accessible Pynchon. He manages to weave an actual, interesting, followable plot in the midst of his zaniness.

Characters

Ah, but here’s the gripe. Normally when I find characters to be the fault of a novel, it’s because they’re trite, cliche, or otherwise unremarkable. Here, they’re all remarkable. That’s because they’re all the author.

It didn’t start out that way. Sissy was unique in the beginning. The Countess is fantastically unique (at least before he gets his marbles rattled). And Bonanza Jellybean, bless her literary figure’s heart, remains unique until the end. But almost all the rest of the characters–Sissy, Dr. Robbins, the Chink (that’s his name, for real)–they all become one voice. One philosophical, cooky, offbeat voice, but one voice nonetheless. It’s like reading an Ayn Rand book. You get the feeling that all characters are just vehicles for the author to speak, as himself.

Some of the girls at the ranch are different from the author. But they aren’t unique. They are archetypes representing different schools of feminism, with Delores Del Ruby being the radical separatist and Debbie being the cultural feminist.  And frankly, they turn into the author at the end, too.

But, oh, my Jellybean. In all her simplicity, she is separate from the author and free of roles. All she wants, and all she’s ever wanted, is to be a cowgirl. And her belief that all people should be able to be whatever they were meant to be, that pure simplicity, makes her the most endearing.

But before I leave the characters section, one note. It’s interesting that who I can only assume is meant to be the villain of the novel, the feminine hygiene magistrate Countess, is one of the best characters in the book. Robbins, who to his credit has written a fantastically girl-centered, girl-empowered, feel-good book, clearly does not identify with the one in his book characterized by his hatred of women. So he separates his voice out from the character and just writes an awesome, funny, unusual, despicable character with prissy tastes and raunchy but to-the-point conversation.

My thoughts? Robbins, over the course of writing the book, fell too in love with some of his characters. He and his characters all started to meld together until no one was distinguishable.

Highlights

“It was about two minutes on the tequila side of sunrise.”

What a great line.

Also, enjoy your time at the ranch, readers. It’s a great place to be. The scenes at the ranch are the best parts of the book, and you will feel as hollow as Sissy did when you have to leave.

I should mention, too–the fun of this book is a highlight. It’s serious at times, but for the most part, it’s an enjoyable, light pleasure cruise of a read without being mindless. It’s like watching a coloring book be filled in with a crazy genius holding the crayons.

Who Should Read this Book

You have to like the off-color and some raunch to enjoy this book. You also have to have a special love of language for its own sake, I think. There are a lot of meandering chapters. But for the most part, this is a really delightful book, and its accessibility is appreciated, considering the genre.

For What It’s Worth (A.K.A. My Opinion)

I had a good time reading this. It put a smile on my face. But it wasn’t all sunshine for me as a reader.

You got the first glimpse into my issue when I discussed the characters. And you may recall that I said the style was postmodern, but the content was not. That’s because the content wasn’t flippant about reason and purpose and deep thought–in fact, it was all up in those things. And that’s the exhausting part, for me. The philosophizing and deep-for-the-sake-of-deep was tiresome, and the characters just wound up being the mouthpiece for the author’s ideas in the end. It’s a little hard to take. Sissy’s thumbs, for instance–you got the feeling there was supposed to be symbolism in there about her being especially evolved (you know, opposable thumb times ten or something), but you also got the feeling it was never really fleshed out in the author’s head. He was just going to throw it out there, and people who got him would get it. Okay, that’s fine. But it’s not exactly brilliant writing.

And there’s more. There’s a huge spiel about how everything in nature is a circle and there’s all the philosophy about time and clocks, and frankly, none of it feels like it was well thought out. It really is like reading Ayn Rand sometimes. “I’m a philosopher! I have big thoughts! Check out these vague and undeveloped big thoughts!” When conversation after conversation goes on like this in the book, I kind of wanted to skip ahead.

But those are harsh words for a book that I enjoyed a lot. I won’t say I’ve never read anything like it, but many readers probably haven’t, and I don’t think I’ve read anything in the genre that was this fun. This is a great avant garde starter book.

 

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves: Overview

So I read this collection of short stories in lieu of a 2012 winner. Yes, it is called St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and yes there is a story about girls raised by wolves in there. It’s by Karen Russell, who was absurdly young when she assembled this. It has officially ruined my Pulitzer adventure.  Why? Now my Kindle is loaded with every Karen Russell book in preparation for my upcoming read-a-cation in the Caribbean. Forget my Pulitzers. I found my new favorite author.

This book was outrageously creative–fantastically quirky–but so stirring. It is wild and other-worldly, feral and foamy and vivid. Karen Russell is my age, and she makes me feel both years younger and years older than her.

Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky talks about defamiliarization being the key to good literature. In essence, those authors who can take the everyday and mundane and show it in a fascinating new way are those who succeed at their craft. It’s funny–I think what makes Russell so great is the mirror image of what Shklovsky says. She creates these mysterious, completely foreign worlds that are startling and disorienting, but she adds such a human vulnerability to them that they have a heart-aching resonance. She takes the unfamiliar and re-familiarizes you with it.

Have you ever seen an abstract piece of art that was not a recognizable reflection of the world we live in and yet pulled at something deep inside of you? Picasso’s Guernica is good for that. I know some people feel that way about Dali. Magritte does it for me…LaBelleCaptive

Russell’s story reminds me of these images. They themselves are kind of whimsical and kooky, but there’s a real element of sadness or striving or connection in it all–a familiarity in all the creative rainbow swirls and shards of surrealism. Anyway, this book. For real.

Tl; dr Synopsis

There are a series of ten very imaginative short stories, taking you places you only dream of but solidifying the details that would be fuzzy in your sleep. There are manufactured blizzards for adult playtime. There are minotaur/human families. There are sleep disorder camps and learn-how-not-to-be-a-wolf-child camps. There are giant shells set up like a tourist trap, seaside version of Stonehenge. There are communications with the phosphorescent ghosts of fish. It is outrageous but not confusing, because there’s always a very familiar human element keeping you grounded. The stories aren’t just nonsense. They’re meaningful. And they’re over way too quickly. Perhaps my only complaint is that every story left me wanting more and almost feeling cheated.

Writing Style

Vivid! Fast moving. Never stilted. Full of colors and flashes and metaphor. Easy to follow.  Almost as good as her stories, which is saying a lot.

Characters

Mostly children. It makes sense–these feel like children’s worlds, and readers wade through the intricacies of these strange new places in an appropriately hesitant, childlike way. What are the rules here? Russell writes very sympathetic children, or at least has a way of making us feel the way they feel.

Highlights

“From Children’s Reminiscences of the Western Migration” is so beautiful. This short story was the least cosmic, but it stuck with me the longest. It does a lot better of a job bringing the Oregon Trail to life than the game where all your friends drown in three feet of water. Oh, but the family patriarch in this story is a minotaur. It’s a gorgeous story about family and stubbornness and the slow, ugly, mob-like behavioral turns inherent in group dynamics.

Who Should Read This Book

Literally every person on the planet. Literally. It’s a fantastic time. It isn’t just that I appreciated the book and all its qualities. I had an absolute blast reading it.

Get on my Christmas list before December because everyone I know is getting this book.

Tinkers: Overview

I love diving deep into books and focusing on specifics like motifs, character development, and author technique. But after a bit of feedback from a fellow blogger, I realized that I may be alienating readers a bit (who, of course, won’t have the exact same reading itinerary as me) with these posts. So I figure that, in addition to my more in-depth examinations, I’ll do an introductory overview post for each book I read that caters to those who haven’t read it.

So here it is: an intro to 2010’s Pulitzer The Tinkers by Paul Harding. (I skipped 2011’s A Visit From the Goon Squad because I’ve already read it. If you haven’t, go buy it right now. It’s absolutely spectacular.)

Tl;dr Synopsis

An old man is sick and dying in his house. His father was a rural merchant who sold things out of a cart. It alternates rather rapidly back and forth (every few pages) between the son’s last moments and stories from his father’s life. The two stories don’t really intertwine until the end. It’s a fairly quick read and can be tackled in hours rather than days.

Writing Style

Harding has a Dickens-meets-fantasy style with long, rolling sentences that meander from the fantastic to the curt and realistic. Fans of the prose will call it poetic, deep, and imaginative. Critics will call the prose long-winded and claim that any creativity found inside has been far too diluted by the word count to have any potency. Here’s a sentence typical of the book:

“Cold hopped onto the tips of his toes and rode on the ripples of the ringing throughout his body until his teeth clattered and his knees faltered and he had to hug himself to keep from unraveling.”

Characters

The son is sick and nervous about dying. He turns out to be a bit of a swindler. He works on clocks. Yep…that’s about it for him. His father is epileptic and a dreamer, kind but unpredictable. He makes a living (barely) by toting around a cart and selling sundries to countryfolk. We get to know him a little better than his son, but not by much.

Highlights

At one point, the dying son thinks the ceiling, roof, clouds, sky, and whole universe is falling on him, one by one. It’s surreal and imaginative, and it’s very well done.

There’s also a charming dynamic between the merchant father and a hermit. They only meet briefly in the book, but the section that detailed their interaction was the part I remember most fondly.

Who Should Read this Book

This is a solemn, slow-moving book with a lot of abstraction. Harding thinks nothing of making use of four or five coordinating conjunctions in a sentence, and he thinks nothing of making a sentence an entire paragraph. He also experiments with short, Hemmingway-like descriptions in the passages that describe the father’s life, but he eventually throws that experiment in simplicity by the wayside. This is a book that is attempting to be high art, and if you’re looking for plot or easy reading, this is not your book. This book is more longform poetry than novel. So if you love poetry, this might be your jam.

For What It’s Worth (A.K.A. My Opinion)

Certainly, the novel has some imaginative parts, but they almost always fall flat. This book, to me, has all the flavor of a communion wafer. It’s sterile. Most who know my taste would probably imagine I’d love Harding’s flowering, abstract style of prose. I’m not 100% sure where this went wrong.

I think I’m getting an “art for art’s sake” vibe coming off this book, and the “art” of his prose just doesn’t cut it–in fact, most of his passages don’t work at all. His description and metaphor have the ring of a student in a fine arts grad program trying to find the ground under him. He’s struggling to be deep and haunting, but he’s just creating passages that don’t make any sense and aren’t poignant in the slightest. Here’s an example of this:

“When his grandchildren had been little, they had asked if they could hide inside [his grandfather clock]. Now he wanted to gather them and open himself up and hide them among his ribs and faintly ticking heart.”

Uh.

Or how about this? In the story, the son’s leg muscles stiffened as he got closer to death, spawning this passage from Harding:

“When his wife touched his legs at night in bed, through his pajamas, she thought of oak or maple and had to make herself think of something else in order not to imagine going down to his workshop in the basement and getting sandpaper and stain and sanding his legs and staining them with a brush, as if they belonged to a piece of furniture.”

What.

This sort of passage just doesn’t work. It isn’t just that his wife (nor anyone, for that matter) would actually think of that. It also doesn’t add anything to the story. It’s just words and imagery for their own sake, and that imagery isn’t good enough to stand alone as art. The problem with empty, nonsensical passages is that you run the risk of losing your audience. When your words aren’t worth much, people will start scanning.There isn’t enough reward to justify the work of reading.

This isn’t so much the case in the beginning–it’s easy enough to follow the cadence of present/deathbed to past/father’s life to present/deathbed. But then things start switching from third person to first person and back again. It reminds me of the end of Beloved, except the confusion caused there by the switching from person to person and viewpoint to viewpoint reflects the madness that’s taken over the house, blurring the lines between individual delineations. In Tinkers, it just seems like Harding is trying to be experimental without much of any direction.

I’d be interested to hear from anyone who disagrees with this assessment. I’m easily swayed. Meanwhile, if you haven’t read the book, there’s your essentials plus my bonus peanut gallery comments. Hopefully readers can feel a little more included in the conversation if I pop off posts like these when I finish a book.

Did you know 2012 didn’t have a Pulitzer winner? One of the books in the running was Swamplandia by Karen Russell. Since I happen to have bought her St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves on recommendation from a former professor, I think I’ll read that as my stand-in for 2012. Yes, I just read 2010’s and I’m totally out of order. Yes, that isn’t even the Russell book that was nominated. I’m a free spirit.