Fiction: “Jitterbug Perfume” by Tom Robbins

It’s taken me just about two days two hours (if I hadn’t spread it out over two days) to compile all of the quotes I’d underlined and dogeared during the read, and now, I’m almost struggling to coalesce my thoughts into words that can be understood.’

I’m also kinda tired (just finished my second 4-12 shift at work, number 3 is … well, later today, as you’ll read this, and bonus! it’s sale markdown night!), so coherency may be an overstated goal right now.

Okay, enough blather.

Jitterbug Perfume is dense. The good kind of dense. It was about … oh, three weeks ago, and I had just finished reading Bound and Determined, and my good friend Sarah had pretty much poked me in the back and told me to read Decadent (“Alaina! There’s a line where the dude says, and I quote, ‘Fucking her ass, saving her life’! You HAVE TO READ THIS.” — Sarah), and what else had I been reading? Oh, Big Sleep, and I had picked up a couple of other books but thrown them down again because oh god, the Book ADD. Anyway, I was walking through Border’s with Amelia, and I was looking for books that were a bit denser than I had been used to – I wanted something meaty, and possibly, non-linear (now that I think about it, I think I picked this up after watching “The Candidate,” the really sad episode of Lost from this season, and it finally struck me that, oh god, Lost was ending).

SO ANYWAY. While I was in Border’s, I picked up another book by Tom Robbins, but when I got home, the urge to reread Jitterbug Perfume poked me.  I had read it years ago, and I remembered that I liked it, and I knew bits of the plot, but after reading a book five years ago, you can’t really relate the plot. So here’s the part where I try:

Where to begin? Let’s start with Alobar.

When we first meet Alobar, he is king of a not-so-ancient tribe (about 900 AD, if my math is correct), and he has discovered a gray hair. Normally, that wouldn’t be a huge issue for people (even I’ve gotten over the fact that I’ve got a few, and when I found one at work a couple of years ago, I asked my boss if I could go home early for the stress). But for Alobar, that means trouble: see, the tribe executes the king once signs of aging appear.

Alobar is not ready for death, and that fact alone propels the entire novel. He does not want to succumb to death based on anything less than his own will. One of his wives, Wren, helps him fake his death, and he escapes the tribe and heads East to the Indian subcontinent. After a couple of decades, he meets a woman (Kudra) who also escaped her death fate: she was a widow, and custom dictates that the widow commit suttee. But Kudra had promised Alobar as a young girl, when he met her on the side of the road, that she would never do that. When her husband died, she ran away and met up with Alobar. Together, they agree to travel further into the realm of immortality.

Meanwhile, back in the present, three different people are attempting to create the next best perfume: a ‘boof’ of jasmine, a top note of citrus, but it needs a heavy base note to coalesce. Priscilla is looking in Seattle (in between working at El Papa Muerta, searching for the Perfect Taco); Madame Devalier and her assistant, V’lu, are working on the jasmine oil in New Orleans; and Marcel et Claude LeFevre in Paris are working on their own attempt at the perfume. No one can discover the base note, but someone keeps leaving them beets on their respective doorsteps….

In addition, there’s Pan, the last animal god who befriends Alobar and Kudra in the past. There’s also the Last Laugh Foundation in Seattle, founded by Dr. Wiggs Dannyboy, an expert on immortality. Everyone is somehow connected, and in the end, you’re left with a message: Erleichda, which is ancient-speak for lighten up!

I don’t want to give away the ending, or the overall message, but these are some excellent quotes I pulled from the novel:

From Alobar, on Death:

“I do not fear death. I resent it. Everything must die, apparently, and I am no exception. But I want to be consulted. You know what I mean? Death is impatient and thoughtless. It barges into your room when you are right in the middle of something, and it doesn’t bother to wipe its boots.” [51]

Here’s the reason for my attempt to approach life with no fear (and, occasionally, no shame):

“How can you respect that sort of weakness, how can you admire a human who consciously embraces the bland, the mediocre, and the safe rather than risk the suffering that disappointments can bring?” [96]

Again, from Alobar, regarding the variety of life (and the cheapness of Death):

“If the gods would tax ecstasy, then I shall pay; however, I shall protest their taxes at each opportunity, and if Woden or Shiva or Buddha or that Christian fellow — what’s his name? — cannot respect that, then I’ll accept their wrath. At least I will have tasted the banquet that they have spread before me on this rich, round planet, rather than recoiling from it like a toothless bunny. I cannot believe that the most delicious things were placed here merely to test us, to tempt us, to make it the more difficult for us to capture the grand prize: the safety of the void. To fashion of life such a petty game is unworthy of both men and gods.” [97]

On the unfairness of Death:

And it is divine authority, is it not, that insists that we must die? That grants us consciousness for a few decades, then, no matter how gloriously we have used it, snatches it away? Surely, the human race committed some heinous atavistic crime for the gods to inflict it with mortality, as they have… [142]

The best reason to maintain a positive attitude on life:

To him, it seemed now to largely have been some form of play. And he vowed that in the future he would strive to keep that sense of play more in mind, for he’d grown convinced that play — more than piety, more than charity or vigilance — was what allowed human beings to transcend evil. [197]

This — this right here — this is my biggest fear (even worse than snakes). This is what wakes me up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat:

“Well, now, what about those people who die temporarily on the operating table? They seem to have very similar experiences. Leaving their bodies behind with relief, feelings of great tranquility and love, reuniting with deceased friends and relatives. And most of them describe an encounter with some kind of light…”

“Who knows? Maybe it signifies that the best is yet to come, which suits me, I guarantee. On the other hand, we know that the brain remains electrically alive for up to thirty minutes after the heart and other vital organs have ceased to function. So these ‘heavenly’ experiences o’ the temporarily dead may be merely an archetypal drama unfolding upon the stage o’ departin’ consciousness, a farewell performance of a powerful mythological allegory. And when the brain turns the juice off a half-hour later, boom, the curtain falls once and for all; the show is over, and there’s no waitin’ up for the reviews. Ultimate solitude. As for the light, well, all o’ matter is condensed light. We came from light, each of us, so where’s the wonder that we return to it in death?” [281]

Firstly, the idea that there’s nothing there after that half hour of brain function terrifies me. And, as I said in my review for Stranger, I don’t like talking about my beliefs about death and how religious beliefs may tie into it, because it’s extremely personal for me, but I can say that this book totally validates my fear of death.

Secondly, I read this section a week after the finale of Lost, and if you’ve seen the episode (or read about it), you have to see the similarities. Lindelof/Cuse must have read this book at some point.

And, penultimately, Alobar’s take on the modern world:

“No, my friends, what bothers me today is the lack of, well, I guess you’d call it authentic experience. So much is a sham. So much is artificial, synthetic, watered-down, and standardized. You know, less than half a century ago there were sixty-three varieties of lettuce in California alone. Today, there are four. And they are not the four best lettuces, either; not the most tasty or nutritious. They are the hybrid lettuces with built-in shelf life, the ones that have a safe, clean, consistent look in the supermarket. It’s that way with so many things. We’re even standardizing people, their goals, their ideas. The sham is everywhere.

“But wait, now. Don’t let me spoil the party. Things will change, eventually, believe me. You can count on change. Even now, I’m curious about what’s going to happen next.” [319]

Finally, because in the end, even after “The End,” it’s all about Lost:

“Are you sure Dear Abby is a man?”

The girl brightened. “Oh, yeah,” she chirped. “Bald old guy in a wheelchair. Lives in Australia or someplace.” [267]

The idea of Locke as Dear Abby just sends me into hysterics every time.

And if we understand the message of “lightening up” and Erleichda and positive thought, that should mean I’m on the path to immortality.

Grade for Jitterbug Perfume: 5 stars


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