Structure has been a recent focus of my reading. How a story unfolds is increasingly more important, and when a story is layered with four story lines I feel I’ve got a book that is worth getting excited about.
“Breathe properly, stay curious. And eat your beets.” This is the guiding principal of immortal life according to Alobar. But there is more to living a thousand years: take baths, have a lot of sex, and choose life. Alobar is king, but as soon as his age begins to show he will be killed out of the fear that the weakness of the king will bring weakness to the Slavic community in the year 900. Alobar chooses to not accept death as a part of life and so begins the epic journey of a king that will become a janitor.
Most develop an obsession with beets while reading Jitterbug. Alobar attributes his strength of mind to the bloody vegetable. On his cross-Asian trek to escape death and discover the secrets of immortality, Alobar meets the goat god Pan, the Lamas monks of the Himalaya, and the Bandaloop. Already not aging, he finds Kudra who has chosen to run away from her life and live as a widow instead of dying in the funeral pyre where her husband’s body will be consumed (lovely Hindu tradition). “From the thick parabolas of her eyelids to the pronounced balls of her now bare feet, she was nonstop curve…” Kudra is obsessed with smells, her childhood was spent helping her family sell incense, but her adult life has been as the wife of a rope maker. The only thing these two have in common is the choice of living over dying, but together they become soul mates.
Every 10 pages or so, Robbins mentions sex. The encounters with Pan are especially vivid, but Kudra knows Kama Sutra from her marriage. Sex. It’s exciting, funny, creative, life giving. This book is dirty, absurd, and lovely.
The other three plot lines revolve around perfume in three cities: Seattle, New Orleans, and Paris. Priscilla is a genius waitress/chemist trying to recreate the scent found in a blue bottle. M. Devalier is a perfumer interested in creating a new scent focusing on pungent Jamaican Jasmine flowers (Bingo Pajama is a street flower salesman with bees swarming around his head as accompaniment). And the Lefever family is a fragrance power company in Paris. The connections are obvious and this may be the weakest part of the book, but it’s told in small pieces between the epic of Alobar and Kudra. I looked forward to the breaks from immortality, but that theme comes back with Priscilla and her love affair with the Irish Dr. Wiggs Dannyboy.
I like the challenge of multiple perspectives (I want a second reading of The Savage Detectives after reading this) and the ultimate unity of all four stories coming together for a complete feeling. Jitterbug feels done when you finish it, but everything isn’t wrapped up. There is no answer to immortality, not everybody gets what they want, but the perfume has settled.
Tom Robbins’ style is not for everybody. He’s crude most of the time, funny all the time, and flirting with deeper philosophical questions throughout. The wild metaphors and puns can touch readers the wrong way. His writing has a sense of magic realism that can be compared to some worlds created by Kelly Link. This is the first I've read by him, I know I’ll read more.