And the Two Become One: A Discourse on Transcendance and the Role of the Meta-Narrator in Three Novels by Tom Robbinsby Rush Payton (email@example.com)
Copyright © 1995 by Rush Payton (Reproduced here with the permission of the author.)
Personally, I ask four things of a novel: that it make me think, make me laugh, make me horny, and awaken my sense of wonder. If many months have passed in which I've not encountered such a book, I know it's time to try to write one. I take out a sheet of blank paper and simply commence. (98)It takes little more than a casual reading of Tom Robbins's six novels -- Another Roadside Attraction (1971), Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976), Still Life with Woodpecker (1980), Jitterbug Perfume (1984), Skinny Legs and All (1990), and Half-Asleep in Frog Pajamas (1994) -- to realize that Robbins's novels live up to these expectations. They are playful stories full of metaphysical imagery and romantic tendencies -- stories filled with sex, drugs, encounters with spirits and discussions between deities. On the surface they appear little more than "pop" stories aimed at a specific audience and catering to its interests. In any one of the six novels, the reader is confronted by an ideal of non-conformity that dates back to the "Summer of Love," when the young were freaky and the Establishment was worried.
Yet to dismiss Robbins as just another writer of 60's nostalgia is to do a great injustice to both the author and his body of work. Indeed, all six of Robbins's novels reveal a deep appreciation and understanding of American culture, including its literature and philosophy. Mark Siegel argues in his work Tom Robbins that Robbins is essentially a post-modern western writer:
By redefining and reorganizing the confrontation of the individual and society [a typical device of both Modernism and Post-Modernism], he [Robbins] has been able to go beyond the dead-end of the formula Western to suggest new resolutions to these conflicts that traditionally have been embodied in most Western fiction. (6)This is undeniably true -- Robbins's fiction does indeed mirror the "frontier spirit" of America with not only a post-modern twist but also a hopeful solution to the World's problems. Yet to stop here would be to miss the real genius of Robbins's work, which is the development and use of the narrator throughout the novels.
In essence, Robbins develops a single omniscient meta-narrator over the course of all six of his novels, a device which allows him to take the reader on a spiritual journey into the heart of contemporary society. Robbins's meta-narrator acts as a guru guiding his readers on their journey, eventually leading us to a transcendence of the imaginary split between the self and the other that keeps humanity in an existential isolation from their world. By integrating the self and the other, Robbins reveals to us how it is possible and why it is beneficial to transcend reality itself as we have been programmed by our society to perceive it. In short, Robbins encourages us to take responsibility for our own perceptions of the world while simultaneously reminding us that no individual or societal institution knows the ultimate truth. Robbins's first, third, and fifth novels succinctly show the stages in the development of this single meta-narrator and the spiritual journey towards transcendence that he takes us on. These three novels, Another Roadside Attraction, Still Life with Woodpecker, and Skinny Legs and All, serve as the most pivotal in Robbins's body of work, illustrating the major steps both in the unfolding of the meta-narrator's persona and also of Robbins's own growth as a first-class writer of American literature.
When it was first published in 1971, Another Roadside Attraction seemed destined to be a financial failure. It was not until the book was published as a paperback that it began to catch on. Six years later it was in its ninth printing and had sold more than 500,000 copies (Siegel 9). There is little doubt that much of the cause for Roadside's popularity rests in its development of counterculture stereotypes brought from the not so distant past of the rebellious 1960's. Another Roadside Attraction is essentially the story of two hippies who meet and fall in love while working for the Indo-Tibetan Circus and Giant Panda Gypsy Blues Band. In the course of their tale, the reader is introduced to many counterculture individuals, as well as the more mainstream Americans they encounter. In the spirit of the Sixties, the narrative intermixes sex, drugs and spiritual questing. Despite its preoccupation with questioning authority and encouraging the use of naturally occurring substances, such as marihuana and psilocibin mushrooms, which the Establishment labels as narcotics, Roadside is important as the novel in which Robbins establishes the characteristic features of his meta-narrator.
Another Roadside Attraction opens with the statement by the narrator
The magician's underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami. However significant that discovery may be -- and there is the possibility that it could alter the destiny of each and every one of us -- it is not the incident with which to begin this report. (3)A mere three paragraphs later, the narrator states that he
is no journalist, nor is he a scholar, and while he is quite aware of the potential historical importance of his words, still he is not likely to allow objectivity to nudge him off the pillar of his own perspective. And his perspective has as its central focus, the enormity of public events notwithstanding, the girl: the girl, Amanda. (3-4)Immediately, the narrator establishes that not one but two stories will be running concurrently, and that the integrity of the story concerning the magician and his underwear will most probably be jeopardized by the narrator's own choice of focus in the story, which is the girl Amanda. The narrator enforces this focus over the next nine pages as he provides "snapshots" of Amanda's past which demonstrate -- broadly -- the stages that she goes through in her development as a person up until the time that she meets her husband, a magician/drummer/artist named John Paul Ziller. At this point the careful reader becomes aware of the fact that s/he is dealing with a self-reflexive novel, defined by Abrams as a novel that "incorporates into narration reference to the process of composing the fiction itself" (168). This is seen clearly on page thirteen as the narrator intrudes upon the text with a biographical note.
The biographical note itself deals with the husband rather than his wife Amanda. It is interesting to note that while the narrator here does intrude upon the story with his own opinions and judgements, we still do not know who is speaking to us or why the story is important at all -- other than the fact that it deals with a magician, his underwear, and a girl named Amanda. These blatantly self-reflexive biographical sketches continue through the entire first part of the novel, introducing the reader to the characters who will become the core of both stories -- Plucky Purcell, baby Thor, Ziller's baboon Mon Cul, and of course Ziller and Amanda. Noticeably absent from this biographical input is any mention of the narrator. Instead, the narrator reminds the reader that he is still present through the tone that he establishes in his choice of the events that are related. For instance there is the description early on in the novel when Amanda meets a Navaho Indian painting pictures in the sand. When she asks of him what role the artist is to serve in our world, he replies: "The function of the artist ... is to provide what life does not." This scene, and countless others like it, establish the metaphysical dimension of the story which is almost exclusively developed in the characters of Amanda and Ziller. The other two adult human characters -- Plucky and the Narrator -- serve to counteract this metaphysical dimension, representing the more "realistic point of view" held by those in the sciences and business. Take for instance Plucky's tirade against capitalism: "the solutions to all issues are determined not by what will make the people most healthy and happy in their bodies and their minds but by economics" (ARA 39). As Plucky perceives everything as coming down to a matter of the buck, he clearly represents an antimetaphysical character. The narrator also represents the more analytical side to life, but that is a fact withheld from the reader until deep into the third part of the novel. At the end of the first section, the narrator does little more than remind the reader that his version of the story is biased by his point of view. When Amanda asks whether his account of the story will be important to historians and the like, he replies under his breath that "if it's history they want, they'll have to accept it on my own terms. I'm not without a sense of duty in this matter -- but duty to whom is quite another business" (ARA 44). This reminds the reader of the novelization that occurs to any history while it simultaneously underscores the reality of a meta-narrator that is guiding the story towards its conclusion.
Part two of Roadside concerns itself primarily with the story of how it came to pass that Ziller and Amanda opened the Captain Kendrick Memorial Hot Dog Wildlife Preserve, and also how it came to pass that Plucky stole the corpse of Jesus Christ from the bowels of the Vatican. The corpse and, more importantly, its theft by Plucky is the focus of the story concerning why Ziller's underwear is found in Miami.
What?!? The corpse of Jesus Christ! Of all the things that Robbins could have had Plucky steal from the Vatican -- from the Holy Grail on down to the Pope's personal collection of pornography -- he has him steal the corpse of Jesus Christ. This is but the first blow in an sustained attack that Robbins leads against not only Christianity, but every other religion that traffics in "future rewards rather than in present realities" (ARA 28). Robbins's views on religion tie him strongly to many members of the American literature and philosophy canon: figures such as William James, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. This connection is also evident in Robbins's narrative focus, which links him concretely with writers such as Henry James. Take, for instance, what Joseph Beach says of Henry James in the introduction to James's The American:
It is not the average surface facts of human nature that interest him, the gross welter of passions and instincts seeking to satisfy themselves in a world of material stimuli; it is rather human beings as spiritual entities striving to realize themselves in the realm of ideals. His people do not represent a statistical average of human nature, since his leading characters are all devoted to what we may call the fine art of living. They are not striving, like the common run of mankind, to get what they can from the grab bag of life, or simply by some form of material success to establish their personal prestige. They are consciously playing a game in which the pieces are spiritual values, making every move with scrupulous regard for the rules, and striving in this game to make the highest possible score not in competition with the other players but in concert with them. For the object of the game is not to beat someone else, still less to win by cheating; the stakes of the game are "beautiful human relations," and the highest score goes to the player who best succeeds in maintaining such relations. (vi-vii)While the above paragraph was written about Henry James, it could just have easily been written about Tom Robbins. This is illustrated with the disclosure of Marx Marvelous as the narrator of Another Roadside Attraction.
Robbins introduces Marvelous as the narrator at the end of Part Two of the novel, explaining that many of the events he relates transpired before he arrived to manage the roadside zoo, and that he has made use of "letters, journals and considerable oral accounts" to piece his story together (ARA 114). While this does indeed explain how Marvelous knows so much about the inner workings of the Zillers' minds, it also alludes once more to the influence of Henry James. James, following the Russian writer Turgenev's example, built his stories from:
a germinal "idea", or representative situation or character, involving something specially significant in human nature, and then proceeding to evolve the whole complement of characters and action best suited to the embodiment of this idea. (Beach vi)With Marx Marvelous as the narrator of Another Roadside Attraction, Robbins is able to introduce two of the great mysteries of human existence as his "germinal ideas" simultaneously: the human need for a Divine presence, and the act of falling in love. That Marx is in love with Amanda, there is no question. This fact is established from the outset of the novel with Marx's insistence on his own choice of focus in the telling of the story and the acknowledgement of the conflict of interest that this focus inevitably will produce. Yet despite a sustained attack on the validity of Christianity throughout the first half of the novel, it is not until Marx Marvelous tells his story that the reader begins to see the larger questions that Robbins is posing through him.
The reader is finally introduced at length to the narrator through the interview with him that Amanda conducts for the position of manager at the roadside zoo. During this interview the reader learns that Marvelous is a scientist whose most recent job was as an intellectual working for the East River Institute of Brain Power Unlimited, a "think-tank" in New York. Here again the dichotomy between the metaphysical and the analytical is emphasized: the East River Institute that Marx comes from is in New York, a place of fast paced lifestyles and big business, while the Zillers reside in Washington state, miles from the nearest big city. Also Marvelous, being a man of science, is inclined to seek out absolute truths as the path to wisdom, a path that two such metaphysical creatures as Amanda and Ziller refute as limiting in its scope. After all, to accept anything as absolutely true -- for instance that two plus two equals four, or that the Bible is the truth -- is to automatically cut yourself off from the possibility that you may have been wrong, that sometimes two and two doesn't equal four. It is loss of faith in absolutes that leads Marvelous to the Zillers.
Marvelous's last job at the East River Institute was a prolonged study of the deterioration of "traditional Christian values" in the United States sponsored by Christian leaders in government and the church. As part of the process of gathering information for this project Marvelous infiltrated the large counter-culture that existed in the last years of the 1960's. While Marx clearly states that he believed he would find a nihilistic group of anarchists in the free-love and peace movement, he just as clearly states that what he actually found were young people living moral, holy lives of a new sort:
They [the young people] practiced -- not believed in but practiced -- a live-and-let-live philosophy of tolerance and tenderness, they adhered to an almost severe code of ethics. Their protests and demonstrations, while they may have gotten out of hand at times, were never mindless acts of rebellion; they were aimed at improving conditions for all mankind. The young radicals weren't seeking personal power or economic gains, they were agitating for a more honest, healthy and democratic society. (ARA 158)While this system of values, centering as it does upon love for all people, sounds curiously Christian, one need only look at the history of the Crusades, the Salem Witch Trails, or more recently the killing of doctors by so-called Pro-Lifers, to see that the fundamental difference lies in the emphasis on the word practiced. In Marx's view at the time, the revolution occurring in the realm of "traditional Christian values" was actually a return to the foundations of these values. Yet, despite Marvelous's optimism that this change was good, the consensus of his superiors at the Institute was that the symbol at the core of Christianity, Jesus Christ, had been lost in the technological explosion and that what Americans needed was to be retrained to recognize that symbol again in a new and improved way, one that took into account the space-age mentality. Marvelous, however, disagreed in that he felt it was the religious institutions that needed to be retrained, and he was further convinced that the study he was involved in proved that this overhaul was already on the minds of Christian leaders. In short, he thought that Christianity was merely experiencing a revolution that was necessary to its continued existence. Alone in his study on Good Friday, however, Marvelous experienced an epiphany of staggering consequences:
We [Marvelous and his colleagues] had assumed that what was unfolding was a Christian drama. We regarded the crisis as a Christian crisis and presumed that whatever religious changes were occurring were occurring within the framework of the Christian system. (ARA 160)The epiphany that occurred to Marvelous was that Christianity is dead. There was no revolution afoot, rather it was evolution. Essentially, Marvelous came to see that mankind is in the process of a spiritual evolution, a step in our combined growth as a species that necessitates replacing the outdated Christian model of the universe with one that is new and more significant to our modern world. This idea of spiritual evolution is the central focus for the meta-narrator over the entire body of Robbins's work. This spiritual evolution begins with the confrontation between Marx's new ideas on Christianity and his strict Christian upbringing.
Marvelous, in the interview with Amanda, describes his mother as "a ferocious one-woman band for Baptist Fundamentalism" (ARA 161). Having been raised quite literally to believe in God and Jesus or else, it is little wonder that Marvelous experiences such angst at the realization that much of what had shaped what he believed was itself not true. This angst led Marvelous to change his name to Marx Marvelous in the first place. Here it is of critical importance to note that by exposing the fact that Marx Marvelous is actually someone else, Robbins is superimposing another narrator over the one that claims to be Marx Marvelous, in essence once again emphasizing the self-reflexivity of the novel while simultaneously establishing the presence of the meta-narrator. By placing Marvelous in such a transitional state, Robbins is able to pose through him what he sees as the fundamental question of our age: If it's not God, then what is it? If not A, then is it B, or C, possibly F? And more importantly, how are we to know what it is, or what it may be, when we see it? In posing these questions, Robbins does indeed reflect the "pioneer spirit" that has shaped so much of America's history. The major difference is that the pioneers of America's past were primarily exploring a physical frontier, while Robbins's frontier is one of spirituality. This emphasis on the idea of a new religion evolving out of the old will become the central theme that ties all of Robbins's novels together and demonstrates the movements of a single consciousness as the guiding force behind the novels. The beginnings of this narrator behind the narrator can be seen in the ambiguity with which Marvelous's tale ends.
The most important event in the end of Another Roadside Attraction, despite the deaths of J.P. Ziller, Mon Cul, and Plucky, is the decision by the characters not to reveal to the world that Jesus Christ was never raised from the dead and, consequently, never ascended to Heaven. In short, they decide not to play God themselves and kill Christianity, perhaps prematurely. They feel that exposing the meta-narrative that has guided the whole of life as we know it as false without a new one ready to take its place would be skipping a link in the evolutionary chain, attempting to skip a grade, so to speak. Of course, this leaves it up to the narrator, and the reader, to provide for him or herself that new narrative. In the case of Marx Marvelous, that search begins with the search for love -- love, in particular, with Amanda. Yet, at the end of the novel, Marvelous realizes two things about Amanda: "One: she loves me deeply. Two: she is completely indifferent as to whether she ever sees me again" (ARA 336). Even Amanda's and Marvelous's separation is left ambiguous; after all, she loves him deeply, but doesn't care if she sees him again. Will Amanda and Marvelous actually ever meet again? By Robbins's third novel, the reader is convinced that, at least in Robbins's mind, they never parted.
Tom Robbins's third novel, Still Life with Woodpecker, is his most "traditional" novel to date, as well as his shortest. It is also the novel that has received the least critical praise. Most critics view Still Life as a complete failure. As Donald R. Hettinga notes: "Robbins's attempts at social commentary produce rather flat characters acting in predictable situations. Surveying these elements, we sense Robbins merely trying for effects" (Hettinga 124-25). What Hettinga and other critics fail to see is that Robbins's "attempts at social commentary" are largely a smokescreen for the essential function of this novel, which is the use and continued development of the meta-narrator in guiding his readers on their spiritual journey. In this novel the meta-narrator takes a great leap in terms of style and self-awareness that allows for the future greatness and ultimate transcendence contained in Robbins's fifth novel, Skinny Legs and All.
Of course, using the term "traditional" to describe Still Life is subjective. It is Robbins's most traditional novel in that there is primarily only one plot in the story -- which is the love affair between Leigh-Cheri and Bernard Wrangle. The question that their love poses is how to make love stay, a question that has plagued mankind for time unknown. Bernard and Leigh's tale is essentially a love story, a device that reinforces the tendency towards the traditional and the exploration of the primary question at the core of the novel.
At its core, Still Life is concerned with the love affair between Princess Leigh-Cheri and Bernard Mickey Wrangle, a.k.a. the Woodpecker, and how they plan to make their love for each other stay. He is an admired, and wanted, outlaw who employs high explosives as a tool to shake up society and keep things in perpetual motion. She, on the other hand, is a member of the Furstenberg-Barcalonas, displaced nobility left over from a coup in their homeland, who now reside in Seattle, Washington, under the care of the C.I.A. When the two arrive separately in Hawaii for the Care Fest, a gathering of environmental leaders and environmentalists in general (she to participate, he to blow it up), they meet and fall in love. This establishes a connection not only with the last thoughts on love as a possible hope for mankind's new salvation contained in Another Roadside Attraction, but also with the traditional fairy tale and the western genre: a princess and an outlaw falling in love in the far west of Hawaii. More importantly, however, the characters of Bernard and Leigh-Cheri serve as the next incarnation of Amanda and Marx Marvelous from Another Roadside Attraction, and their love affair continues the exploits and explorations begun there.
Still Life with Woodpecker was published in 1980, nine years after Another Roadside Attraction, and the characters of Leigh-Cheri and Bernard Wrangle represent this nine-year difference in the evolution of the characters established with Amanda and Marvelous. For example, Leigh-Cheri, as an outgrowth of Amanda, is no longer a child of the peace and love movement of the 1960's; rather, she comes of age in the aftermath of the Manson murders, Disco and living through the Carter years. Despite her aristocratic lineage and the cultural climate she grew up in, Leigh is described as living the typical life of the stereotypical American teen:
She had a room in the north end of the second floor [of her parents' home], a room with a full-sized bed and a comfortable chair, a desk at which to do her schoolwork, and a dresser filled with cosmetics and underwear. There was a phonograph dedicated to the faithful reproduction of rock 'n' roll and a mirror dedicated to the flattering reproduction of her own image. There were curtains at the windows and heirloom carpets on the floor, while upon the walls posters of the Hawaiian Islands rubbed edges with photographs of Ralph Nader. (Still Life 10)Of course, the "heirloom rugs" do emphasise her blue blood, but fortunately, Leigh wants only to do good with the influence she has as a Princess, specifically in the field of environmentalism.
This interest in the preservation of the Earth is a direct tie to the character of Amanda in Roadside. Of course, given the distance in time between the two characters, there are differences. For example, the character of Leigh-Cheri is concerned with saving the Earth, while Amanda was concerned with connecting with it. This represents the change in general that has occurred in human's minds during the span of time between the two characters -- a change from the generically proactive Sixties to the Quallude comforted late Seventies and the Cocaine charged early Eighties. Another key to seeing Leigh as the evolution of the Amanda character can be found in their differing attitudes towards sex. While Amanda was very liberated sexually, she was also quite willing to accept the responsibility of this freedom (pregnancy and the possibility of emotional attachment, for example). Leigh-Cheri's experiences have, on the other hand, led her to a different conclusion. For instance, Leigh-Cheri becomes pregnant by the quarterback of her college's football team, a fact for which he refuses to take responsibility. While pondering what to do about the situation, Leigh-Cheri miscarries while cheering on the sideline for the team. The resulting embarrassment and ridicule force her to take two actions: first, she quits college, secondly she becomes celibate. She is not willing to take responsibility for her own actions when intertwined with the actions of others, hence the decision both to leave school and begin celibacy. Her resolution concerning celibacy meets its greatest temptation, however, with Bernard Mickey Wrangle -- a.k.a. the Woodpecker.
Bernard Wrangle lives the life of an outlaw to the extreme of wearing all black, all the time. Yet there is more to this character's belief in outlawism than just his choice of attire. Bernard's insistence on the outlaw as the only truly productive member of society is a natural outgrowth of the character of Marx Marvelous. While Marvelous was captured in the question of what to do once he realized that what he had once believed to be the truth was not the truth, Wrangle has decided on a course of direct action based on what he believes society needs: mainly to be shaken up. Bernard describes his beliefs on page 63 of Still Life:
All people who live subject to other people's laws are victims. People who break laws out of greed, frustration, or vengeance are victims. People who overturn laws in order to replace them with their own laws are victims. (I am speaking here of revolutionaries.) We outlaws, however, live beyond the law. We don't merely live beyond the letter of the law -- many businessmen, most politicians, and all cops do that -- we live beyond the spirit of the law. In a sense, then, we live beyond society. Have we a common goal, that goal is to turn the tables on the nature of society. When we succeed, we raise the exhilaration content of the universe. We even raise it a little bit when we fail.It is clear that Bernard would have chosen to expose the corpse of Jesus Christ in Roadside to the general public, to commit the ultimate in shaking things up, so to speak. Bernard considers it his function as a witness (note, not a member, but a witness) of American society to change the very nature of that society, and damn the consequences. This in itself shows a remarkable shift in the consciousness of the meta-narrator from Another Roadside Attraction. Gone is the confused frame of mind brought about by the ideological confrontations experienced by Marvelous, replaced instead with an anarchistic desire to do something. Yet Bernard is not completely without responsibility. When he unwittingly kills a graduate student working on a male contraceptive pill in one of his bombings, he takes up the study himself as part of his self-inflicted punishment for killing an innocent bystander when he blew up what he believed was an empty building on a University campus. In fact, this concern for the female on the part of the male is what ultimately leads Leigh-Cheri to sleep with Bernard in the first place. After he gives her She-Link -- a natural Chinese contraceptive -- Bernard states that "Later, I'll teach you lunaception: how to observe the way your hormonal cycle coordinates with light. You can learn to synchronize your body with moon phasing and be knock-up proof and in harmony with the universe at the same time. A whale of a bargain" (Still Life 102). Such concern for her womb, a trait she has found wanting in other men, acts as the final catalyst to propel Leigh into Bernard's bed. Yet once their love is consummated, they find themselves back at square one -- the question of how to make love stay. This question allows Robbins to introduce a concept that not only holds a partial answer as to how to make love stay but also provides a key to understanding his vision and the importance of the meta-narrator in his body of work.
The question of how to make love stay is put to an interesting test in the relationship between Bernard and Leigh. Soon after they return to Seattle, Bernard is discovered by the F.B.I. and placed under arrest for the many bombings that he has committed in the past, as well as for his numerous escapes from justice. His lawyer plea bargains a deal that makes him eligible for parole in twenty months, and Bernard is placed in ultra-solitary confinement in a cell that the authorities belive not even Houdini could escape from. Desperately in love with Bernard, Leigh converts the attic of her parents' home into an almost exact reproduction of the conditions in Bernard's cell in an effort to remain with him, at least in spirit. Bernard has stated earlier in the story, that while he refuses to smoke when not in prison, he always keeps a pack of Camel cigarettes with him in case he is arrested: "In jail, a cigarette can be a friend. Otherwise, my Camels are just a front. It's an excuse for carrying matches" (Still Life 72). While his jailers refuse him access to matches, convinced that this will keep him from igniting a bomb and escaping, they do allow him a pack of Camels. When Leigh first decides to symbolically imprison herself along with Bernard, the first action she takes is to purchase a pack of Camels.
After several days of confinement, Leigh begins to focus in on the cigarette pack for lack of anything else to do. She begins to ponder the deeper significance of the pack and its subtle nuances. Delving deeper and deeper into the pack's design, Leigh delves deeper and deeper into her own subconscious mind, eventually entering into the pack itself and beginning to search there not only for the answer as to how to make love stay but also for Bernard. After all, if she can enter into the magical world within the pack, perhaps Bernard can also. This emphasizes the metaphysical dimension of Robbins's work begun in Another Roadside Attraction while it simultaneously connects with the hope of love as a solution for humanity's problems that is emphasized at the end of Roadside. Leigh's world within the Camel pack grows to the extent that it even has its own unique characters. She describes sitting next to an oasis questioning any "traders, raiders, belly dancers, ali babas, and caravan executives" that happen her way if they have seen Bernard. They in turn ask her for a cigarette, to which she replies:
"But I can't open the pack. . . If I did all this would collapse. A successful external reality depends upon an internal vision that is left intact." They glared at her the way any intelligent persons ought to glare when what they need is a smoke, a bite, a cup of coffee, a piece of ass, or a good fast-paced story, and all they're getting is philosophy. (Still Life 167)This passage establishes Leigh's essentially metaphysical perception of the universe while it also underscores Robbins's self-reflexive style and the presence of the meta-narrator. She is, after all, claiming that we each create our own conceptions of the universe, and that this conception is the only real one; while the narrator is acknowledging the fact that he realizes the reader may have wanted simply a story, not a philosophical discourse on where love comes from or where it goes when it leaves. Soon, however, Leigh finds that Bernard won't be found in her world within the Camel pack.
Leigh, as a Princess, is subject to American's craving for a junk-food diet of media sensationalism, a problem she shares with the British monarchy and O.J. Simpson. As a result, it is not long before the press picks up on her self-inflicted imprisonment and gleefully spreads the news, prompting other estranged lovers to copy her actions and imprison themselves also. When Bernard gets wind of this in jail, he makes use of the underground mail system to sneak a letter out to Leigh condemning her activities. In this letter, Bernard states that their "personal relationship has become public soap opera, a low-budget interview with Barbara Streisand, and a sport on the order of flagpole sitting and phone-booth stuffing" (Still Life 201). He concludes his letter with the observation that all his and Leigh's relationship truly was was "some barking at the moon" (Still Life 201). In short, Bernard is asserting the once their love had gone public, it had lost its essence. Bernard here is making an observation of staggering proportions: It is not the relationship that is important, but rather the love itself. The relationship is embodied in the chemistry embodied of the two people who share it, but love is the actual emotion that is a product of this chemistry, the essence that transcends the people involved. Bernard is saying that it is not the other person that is ultimately important; it is the love that these two people share. This is true also of an individual's relationship with the Divine. It is not the actual interaction between a person and his or her god that is truly important; rather, it is the belief in the existence of this being. The actual mechanics of the ritual aren't important, it is the essence behind them. In light of this it can be said that the secret to making love stay has nothing at all to do with making a relationship last, but rather staying in love with whom, or whatever. This is what Bernard alludes to when he writes to Leigh: "You and I are no longer sucking the same orange" (Still Life 201).
Leigh has, essentially, put her longing for the Divine and her need for love in the same basket that is Bernard. In doing so, she has lost the distinction between the self and the other that is necessary to survival and evolution. The careful reader realizes that this is the same danger that faced Marx at the end of Roadside, a danger that was avoided by Amanda's ambiguous feelings towards him. As all that had once guided his life was abruptly pulled out from underneath him, he desperately clutched at anything that could fill the void, in Marx's case, Amanda, who serves as both the object of his love and his link with the divine. Of course, in Still Life, the problem of maintaining one's identity and subjectivity in the face of such an intense emotion as love is transferred from the male to the female, but this places no hindrance to comprehending the fact that this struggle is a natural extension of the explorations begun in Another Roadside Attraction and that Leigh and Bernard are truly the new "incarnation" of the characters of Marx and Amanda in Roadside. Also carried over and evolved from Roadside is the control of the story by the meta-narrator, which is established from the first page of the novel.
Still Life with Woodpecker begins with a prologue which introduces the reader to Robbins's continued self-reflexive style and the meta-narrator behind it. While this meta-narrator does not reveal his identity, mirroring to a degree Roadside, he does provide clues as to the fact that he is the same meta-narrator that told us the story of Amanda and Marvelous. The most concrete material proof of this is the typewriter used by the meta-narrator, a Remington, the same make of typewriter employed in the creation of Another Roadside Attraction:
This is the all-new Remington SL3, the machine that answers the question, "Which is harder, trying to read The Brothers Karamazov while listening to Stevie Wonder records or hunting for Easter eggs on a typewriter keyboard?" This is the cherry on top of the cowgirl. The burger served by the genius waitress. The Empress card. I sense that the novel of my dreams is in the Remington SL3 -- although it writes much faster than I can spell. And no matter that my typing finger was pinched by a giant land crab. This baby speaks electric Shakespeare at the slightest provocation and will rap out a page and a half if you just look at it hard. (Still Life ix)In a typically brilliant beginning to his story, Robbins presents first the tool of the meta-narrator, a tool that takes on greater importance as the story continues. In this same prologue Robbins also introduces the fact that the meta-narrator is telling us a story:
I have in my cupboard, under lock and key, the last bottle of Anais Nin (green label) to be smuggled out of the Punta del Visionario before the revolution. Tonight, I'll pull the cork. I'll inject ten cc. into a ripe lime the way the natives do. I'll suck. And begin ... If this typewriter can't do it, I'll swear it can't be done. (Still Life x)This demonstrates a marked difference from Roadside in that, in this introduction, there is no allusion to the importance, historically or otherwise, of the story to the reader. This becomes interesting when one considers the fact that with this prologue the meta-narrator tells us he is convinced that it is the typewriter that can tell the story with him serving merely as the driver. In essence, this places the telling of the story in the position of primary importance rather than the story itself, mirroring the ideas contained in the novel on transcendence, for example, Bernard's and Leigh's story demonstrating that it is not the relationship that is important, but rather the love that it represents. This should come as no great surprise, however, as the telling of the story is also of primary importance in Roadside. What is surprising is the meta-narrator's coming to grips with the typewriter, and thus, the story itself and, most importantly, his own self-consciousness as the author.
At the end of Phase one of the novel, the meta-narrator begins to have doubts concerning the ability of his typewriter to tell this story. Despite all its high-tech advantages, matte blue paint job and dinging bells, it seems that the machine threatens to chase away the writer's muse. He begins to desire a more natural typewriter, for instance, a
carved typewriter, hewn from a single block of sacred cypress; decorated with mineral pigments, berry juice, and mud; its keys living mushrooms, its ribbon the long iridescent tounge of a lizard. An animal typewriter, silent until touched, then filling the page with growls and squeals and squawks, yowls and bleats and snorts, brayings and chatterings and dry rattlings from the underbrush; a typewriter that could type real kisses, ooze semen and sweat. (Still Life 35)With this vivid description of such a natural "machine" that he feels would aid his story, Robbins once again demonstrates his incredibly rich link to past American literature. Imagine such a machine at the hands of Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, Henry Miller, or Ernest Hemingway! With this description, Robbins is also acknowledging his own place in the post-modern world, and more importantly, his desire to transcend that world.
Robbins's, and thus by consequence his meta-narrator's, desire to transcend the tool of the writer also alludes to their desire to transcend classification as a "post-modern" writer and the placement in the post-modern genre in general. This can be seen in Robbins's choice of subject matter which concerns itself solely with metaphysical questions that are universal, questions such as how to make love stay or the question of the evolution of spirituality. As this is the case, it can be said that Robbins is making a conscious attempt to create what would rightfully be called literature, which is defined in Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary as "writing having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest." With the Epilogue to Still Life with Woodpecker, Robbins and his meta-narrator achieve their transcendence. To understand this transcendence, however, we must first return to Bernard and Leigh's story.
Robbins can't just leave us with Bernard's and Leigh's relationship hanging after his angry letter to her, and Robbins makes interesting use of the traditional fairy tale to tell the rest of their story. After emerging from prison, Bernard makes his way to Egypt where Leigh is set to marry a prince that is actually a dragon in princely robes. Truly in love with Leigh, Bernard infiltrates the pyramid that the prince has built for her with the intention of blowing the top off as a wedding present. Alas, she discovers him, and reunited at last, they fall into a passionate embrace only to be discovered by an irate Prince. Locked in the pyramid with no way to survive after the wedding cake and champagne are gone, Leigh and Bernard are placed into a position where they must take the chance on blowing their way out with Bernard's explosives. Of course, this endeavor is fraught with danger due to their proximity to the door. At this point Robbins turns the traditional fairy tale to an interesting angle.
Leigh and Bernard do indeed survive the blast with only small cuts and the tremendous loss of their hearing. Writing notes back and forth, however, they discover that they both had the "dream" that they entered a pack of Camels at the moment of the blast, and indeed their recollections are exactly the same. Robbins ends their story with their mutual transcendence of the Camel pack. In essence, they transcend the boundary between the self and the other together, allowing them to operate subjectively and objectively simultaneously and to transcend their relationship and truly fall in love. The very fact of this transcendence also demonstrates a connection with that which is mysterious and Divine. With the Epilogue, Robbins and his meta-narrator transcend the novel together.
At the beginning of the Epilogue, Robbins makes the statement that despite the Remington's ability to pull through the experience of writing the novel, it will be the last one that he writes on an electric typewriter: "I'd rather use a sharp stick and a little pile of dog shit" (Still Life 271). After this pungent observation, Robbins slips into a pseudo-academic style trying to sum up the theme of the novel and its importance to the world. Recognizing this, Robbins states that
This is the very kind of analytical, after-the-fact goose gunk the Remington SL3 cut its teeth on. No wonder it is yammering away, despite a lack of fuel, despite the red enamel house paint that's run down into its guts. Enough already. I'm going to pull its pluugggg. . . " (Still Life 272)At this point Robbins transcends both his tools -- the typewriter and the meta-narrator -- and is forced to complete the story in longhand. Whether or not this writing is actually Robbins's own, it is clearly intended to symbolize it, and as such, is the final device in Robbins's movement away from the use of standard forms, tools and narrative structure. Yet this is not meant to imply that Robbins essentially becomes more post-modern with this move. Rather, by pulling the plug on the Remington, Robbins is actually acknowledging his own evolution as a writer and the equally important development of his own consciousness as a person who happens to be a writer, mirroring another great American writer, Walt Whitman. Pulling the plug on an external tool also serves to demonstrate where we are in the continuing spiritual journey that Robbins is guiding us on. Unplugging the Remington essentially places the meta-narrator in a position that forces the him to look inward for help in the next stage of the journey. This mirrors Bernard and Leigh transcending the self and the other together in that they escape into the Camel pack at the climax of the story. Just as Robbins has the novel and its characters turning inward, the reader is also placed in this position in an effort to come to grips with the world around us. This contrasts our position at the end of Roadside, where through Marx's desire for Amanda we found ourselves in the position of looking outside of ourselves for an answer to the perplexities of life. Evidence that Still Life with Woodpecker is not the end of our journey can be found in Robbins's greatest work to date, Skinny Legs and All.
Skinny Legs and All opens: "This is the room of the wolfmother wallpaper. The toadstool motel you once thought a mere folk tale, a corny, obsolete, rural invention" (Skinny Legs 1). With phrases such as "wolfmother wallpaper" and "toadstool motel" it would seem that Robbins is attempting to establish from the outset a metaphysical focus in this tale, and there is some validity to this perspective, yet it is only half the story. Take for instance the phrase wolfmother; every definition involving the prefix wolf is derogatory in content to some extent, involving reference either to the animal itself or those that hunt it. This is, no doubt, largely attributed to the stereotypical conception of the wolf as a fierce carnivore believed to attack small children, sheep, and dogs in rural communities. Yet look at the word that Robbins combines this with: "mother," instantly establishing a dichotomy in his images -- the cruel, savage wolf and the caring, nurturing mother. The intermixing of contrasting images continues through the entire prelude to Skinny Legs, including the passage:
This is the room where your music was invented. Notice the cracked drumhead spiked to the wall, spiked to the wolfmother wallpaper above the corner sink where the wayward wife washed her silk underpants, inspecting them in the blue seepage from the No Vacancy neon that flickered suspiciously out in the thin lizard dawn. (Skinny Legs 1)It is the room where music was created -- an event that surely occurred long ago -- yet outside there is neon, a light which is, if not the main artery of, then at least a capillary in the huge bureaucratic, capitalist machine that is contemporary American society. With this move, Robbins is pulling the distant past and the immediate present together, establishing the interconnectedness of life while simultaneously preparing to take you into the world of Ellen Cherry Charles and Boomer Petway, the next stage in the spiritual journey begun with the characters of Marx Marvelous and Amanda.
Of course it must be noted that Boomer and Ellen share much more in common with their closest relatives: Bernard and Leigh-Cherry from Still Life. This is only natural, underscoring the continuing evolution that is occurring within Robbins's novels. Take for instance the fact that at the end of Still Life, Leigh takes up easel painting. Painting is Ellen's primary vocation, at least in the early parts of Skinny Legs, and through this role she makes her greatest contribution to the narrative of the novel. There is also Boomer (whose name has great significance when one remembers Bernard's favorite pastime), who works as a welder until it is decided by highbrow New York art critics that he is an artistic genius, a decision that stems from his conversion of an Airstream motor home into a giant replica of a roast turkey. The character of Boomer is an extension of Bernard's character not only in name and somewhat in vocation, but also in spirit. After all, welders destroy the original form of something by integrating it with another. Boomer, hailing along with Ellen from Colonial Pines, Virginia, is described as the stereotypically generic redneck, interested in little more than sex, beer and fun. This is a natural evolution of the character of Bernard, who at the close of Still Life is a deaf outlaw whom, unable to hear, has taken to spending his time alone in a closet. Having been taken "out of the fight," so to speak, before it really ever began, Boomer has become a hedonist, believing that the greatest good lies in that which can provide the greatest pleasure, a position that Bernard could have easily fallen into. Boomer and Ellen's story is told concurrently with the story of five material objects that gain mobility and begin a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Well, to be more accurate, only three of the five objects actually gain mobility: the can of beans, the spoon, and the dirty sock. The ancient conch shell and the equally old painted stick already posses this ability and teach it to the others. Boomer and Ellen's tale serves, in part, to inadvertently place these objects within close proximity to one another and also functions as the more conventional tale around which the supernatural story of the objects and their pilgrimage can revolve.
That Robbins chooses to personify inanimate objects and make them part of the focus of this story should come as no surprise as it is the natural evolution of the ideas on transcendence begun with Ziller's death in Roadside and further solidified with Still Life. Yet the switch from people transcending the world of objects to objects transcending the world of people is a great step in terms of style and focus, a step that is made possible by the merging of Robbins and his meta-narrator at the end of Still Life. That this merging has truly taken place is seen from the outset of the novel by the absence of the narrative personality that pervaded Another Roadside Attraction and Still Life with Woodpecker. There is no longer the "body" of the meta-narrator that identifies himself in such a way as to make him a visible character in the story. This demonstrates the turning inward that occurs at the conclusion of Still Life in that our guru is no longer physically guiding us. In fact, the meta-narrator is no longer our guide at all; rather, he is sharing with us a story about a part of his spiritual journey, the contents of which we are free to take or leave behind. The evolution of the meta-narrator and the beginning of his search can be seen in the actual physical direction occurring in Skinny Legs.
Both Another Roadside Attraction and Still Life with Woodpecker take place in the western states of America, primarily Washington and Hawaii. In an interesting reversal, the story of Boomer and Ellen begins with their drive east from Washington State to New York in the large roast turkey that is to bring Boomer such acclaim and smother his wife's own artistic ambitions. Robbins has tilled the soil of the western "frontier" and is now headed back east, back towards the source. This relates directly to the character of John Paul Ziller in Another Roadside Attraction, who saw himself as never wandering, but as looking for a path that would allow him to return to the source from which life springs. Robbins's desire to return to the source can be seen also in the numerous allusions to characters in his earlier novels. For example, Marx Marvelous is referred to on page 211, and Pluckey Purcell on page 134. In addition, many of the themes which have permeated Robbins's work up until this point continue to grow clearer and more defined. A prime example of this can be found in the character of Ellen's Uncle Buddy.
Buddy is a fundamentalist Baptist preacher heard nationwide on the Voice of the Sparrow radio network. As Buddy's popularity grows, so does his ambition, until at last he develops a plan to destroy the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem during a large religious festival, a move he is convinced will begin World War Three and precipitate the return of Jesus as foretold in the Bible. Just as the members of Roadside Attraction were tempted to do, Buddy wants to force evolution, to prod on the natural chain of events. Yet once again, emphasis is placed on the word "practiced." After all, the members of the hot dog stand elect not to cheat the evolutionary process, while Buddy is determined to alter destiny. In many ways, the character of Buddy enables Robbins to make his most damning indictment of Christianity. Buddy is kept from his plans only through the intervention of the Vice-President of the United States of America, who is worried that his government won't be able to gain the upper hand in the power struggle that Buddy's actions will instigate. Christianity, and organized religions as a whole, are shown as more interested in power and control, revenue and land holdings, than the salvation of people's souls and the betterment of life on this planet for all humans. In short, they do not practice what they preach. Even Buddy's physical appearance serves to symbolize Robbins's views concerning organized religion; his face is covered by boils, and his body is fat and grotesque, exuding a strange odor. Yet through modern technology, mainly the radio, he is able to spread his message of fear and guilt which turns his listeners into little more than slaves, rendering them unable to think for themselves. Having destroyed the validity of organized religion, however, Robbins finds himself once more at the crossroads of being forced to find out for himself what constitutes the Truth. Robbins's approach to discovering the Truth takes two distinct paths in Skinny Legs and All: the supernatural and the analytic. In essence, this is a return to Robbins's first narrator, Marx Marvelous, the scientist turned spiritual seeker, demonstrating again Robbins's desire to return to the source. When these two dimensions of life meet head on as the Dance of the Seven Veils is performed by a young girl at Isaac and Ishmael's restaurant (Skinny Legs and All), Robbins presents his greatest transcendence yet.
The twists and turns that bring these two dimensions together in the novel simply must be experienced to be fully understood. That Robbins creates a story that so defies gross generalizations and succinct plot summary is proof of his growth as a first-class writer of American literature. Robbins weaves such life into this novel that it truly must be experienced for there to be any real "knowledge" of it. It can be said, however, that in general Robbins pulls together the supernatural elements of life (the Divine, the desire for Love) and the more analytic elements (the desire for security, the need for order and reason) through the stories of the objects and Ellen Cherry, respectively, reinforcing the dichotomy of images established at the beginning of the novel while simultaneously preparing the way for his greatest transcendence.
Isaac and Ishmael's restaurant is started as a joint project between Spike Cohen, who is of Jewish descent, and Abu Hadee, an Arab. By establishing peace between the Jews and the Arabs on a personal level, they hoped to serve as symbols of the possibility for peace in the Middle East. Sadly, there are many who perceive Spike and Abu's symbolic peace accord as a threat to what they hold to be the truth and act to stop it with numerous bomb threats and actual bombings. In an effort keep customers after several bombings, Spike and Abu hire a Middle Eastern band to perform at the restaurant. After this fails to bring about the desired results, the band leader brings in young Salome, a belly dancer with haunting eyes to perform with her tambourine. Salome is an instant hit with the Isaac and Ishmael regulars, both female and male, who find her not only extremely beautiful but completely aloof. That is, they know nothing about her other than the fact that a chaperon escorts her to and from the show, that she refuses to make intentional eye contact with the patrons and that she can dance. One of the regulars is a detective, however, and little by little he uncovers tidbits of information until he discovers that Salome is capable of performing the ultimate belly dance, the Dance of the Seven Veils. When the other regulars learn of this, they begin to request of Salome, the band leader, and Spike and Abu that she dance this dance that Detective Shaftoe is convinced is the ultimate dance of them all. Yet, Salome refuses to dance the Dance, increasing the mystery surrounding both herself and the nature of the Dance itself.
In fact, it seems that no one really knows just what the Dance of the Seven Veils is all about, and certainly no one has ever seen it. Abu tries to shed some light on the subject by referring to the historian Josephus who recorded that it was the dance King Herod requested his stepdaughter (whose name also happens to be Salome) to perform at his birthday party. Abu goes on, however, to state that
The dance itself predates Herod and that particular Salome, his stepdaughter. In fact, it is very ancient and thoroughly pagan. It is connected to the myth of the cyclic death of the sun god. His moon goddess travels to the underworld to rescue him, but to get him back she has to drop one of her seven articles of clothing at each of the seven gates. (Skinny Legs 354-55)Eventually, the moon goddess finds herself nude and in possession of her sun god. When asked by Ellen why an article of clothing was removed, Abu speculates that he has "read that the veils represented layers of illusion. As each veil peeled away, an illusion was destroyed, until finally some great central mystery of life was revealed" (Skinny Legs 355). Yet, this is all historical information and does little to shed light on the dance itself. Once again, Robbins is pulling together a dichotomy, this time between historical "fact" and pertinent information useful to living. He is also, by referring to the Dance as pagan in origin, showing simultaneously the existence of a history that pre-dates Christianity and the absorption and bastardization of many of the pagan traditions by the young Christian upstarts. Soon, however, an event transpires that causes Salome to relent and dance the Dance of the Seven Veils.
As noted earlier, Ellen Cherry is a painter until her husband's overnight, and strictly unintentional, success as a modern artist drives her to give up her own artistic desires and settle into waiting tables. Oddly enough, Boomer also acts as the catalyst to propel her back into the world of art when he delivers a prototype of the statue that he has been working on in Jerusalem to the statue's financial backers, who happen to be Spike and Abu. The statue itself is that of Pales, a pagan deity represented as a donkey with both male and female genitalia:
Pales was a deity. The ass-god. Or the ass-goddess. Usually he was male, but sometimes she was female, and sometimes its gender was a tad ambivalent. . . The ass was a savior who provided milk, meat, shoe leather, and transportation (what the Bible calls the "golden calf" was actually the golden ass, since there were never many cows in the Levant). The ass was also obstinate, silly, and sexually crude. Embodying all of those characteristics, Pales was trickster, fertility spirit, and sacred clown, presiding over humankind's unruly passions, giving mortals what they needed, but not before having some fun with them. (Skinny Legs 364)With this choice of deities, Robbins is pulling together the assumed separateness of men and women, showing them both as important to the development and worship of Pales. When Ellen actually sees the prototype of this statue, she leaves Isaac and Ishmael's and heads straight to the art store where she spends her rent money on paints and brushes. Having made her purchase, she returns again to the I and I, where she tells a security guard that she will be doing some redecorating, and redecorate she does. Over the course of the long Thanksgiving weekend, Ellen transforms the wall behind the stage where Salome dances into a giant mural
Heavy and dense, pulled by gravity like the skin of a crone, nothing stood still in it. The mushrooms, the fetishes, the wool and the wine, the mascara jars, the poppies, the crickets, the poison arrows, the bravura helixes of juicy smoke all spun like the stars: onward, outward, inward, backward, sideways, upside down, and forever. The iron sword that was embedded in the trunk of the oak was as vibrant as the little silver spoon that bounced on the buffalo hide, the golden cradle that was balanced in the crotch of the tree rocked so hard that the sky rocked with it, a zodiac transformed into a music hall. (Skinny Legs 374)Ellen, through the catalyst of Boomer's statue, is able to transcend her own preconceived notions of art and to connect with it in such a way that it becomes a new sort of religion providing, as it does, what life does not. Proof of the greatness of Ellen's mural and the transcendence that it represents can be seen in the fact that Salome takes one long look at it and agrees to perform the Dance of the Seven Veils.
It is interesting to note that Salome chooses to perform this dance at the same time that the Super Bowl is being played, in essence forcing the clientele of the restaurant to choose between "religions" and their corresponding rituals. It would seem that given the choice between football or the ultimate dance of cognition, almost everyone would choose to be enlightened by the Dance. Such is not the case, however, at Isaac and Ishmael's or in the real world. Robbins picks one of the greatest days in a sports fan's life as the day on which to dance the Dance that could change their lives. Isaac and Ishmael's -- which it must be noted, has the biggest and best television in all of Manhattan -- is soon transformed into a tense battleground where people are struggling to gain the upper hand in any way they can over what is essentially a choice between artificial religion (football) and the real thing (the Dance of the Seven Veils). In the spirit of compromise that has guided their endeavor from its inception, Spike and Abu decide to place the television out back in the courtyard, so that the patrons can decide for themselves what it is they wish to do. Of course, in Robbins's mind, the Dance of the Seven Veils wins hands down, and it is with this Dance that he ends his novel.
It must be noted that within the actual text of the story, there is much back and forth between the courtyard with its football and the interior of the restaurant where Salome is gearing up to the Dance, weaving to and fro to the music, tapping her tambourine. It is most interesting that Robbins chooses not to resolve the dichotomy between what the interior and the exterior of the restaurant represents. There is no mass movement of bodies in either direction, just a trickle of people that floats one way or the other, demonstrating at the last minute their own convictions. In essence, there is one dichotomy that Robbins cannot heal: you are either inside or outside. That the rest of the story only refers to the aftermath of the football victory by a New York team in passing, it is obvious that Robbins, and the reader, are on the inside.
The Dance itself lives up to its reputation from the moment the first veil is dropped. Everyone in attendance has assumed that the first veil would be an upper one, perhaps the one that hides Salome's face. There is great surprise, however, when the first piece of cloth to hit the floor is the one that covers Salome's loins. Yet, immediately after the shock come the thoughts, thoughts that Ellen believes were "zapped by ray into her brain, where instantly they took hold and became her own" (Skinny Legs 402). The first thought to enter her mind is that the Earth is a sexual planet, a "theater, a rotating stage upon which a thin green scum of organic life acted out countless, continual scenes whose content, whether explicit or oblique, was almost wholly sexual" (Skinny Legs 402). In this same observation Ellen finds that, as the world is run, so to speak, by sex, it has always been the women who ran things. Historically, women had been "programmed," however, to believe that just the opposite was true, that men were in charge and that sex was an evil necessity in order to propagate the species. This can be seen in the patriarchal Christian religion and its obvious phallic symbols, such as the Cross and the Sword of God. In a very direct way, Robbins is showing men as possessing the inferior role in the sexual drama, as the "weaker" sex. "Those men, envious and anxious, not only fired the Great Goddess . . . but they also spent thousands of years and billions of dollars trying to conceal the fact of her existence" (Skinny Legs 403). Even the sexual diseases that have permeated much of our current society, diseases such as syphilis and AIDS, are seen as generated by a patriarchal system that is deadly afraid of sex, in these cases quite literally. The understanding that Ellen arrives at is that despite sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS, the Goddess and her sexuality will soon overcome the disease in an attempt to take her place of importance in the world once again. Moving upward, the next veil to fall is the one covering Salome's navel.
As soon as the second veil, which has symbolically hidden Salome's stomach, hits the floor Ellen is struck by the notion that "human beings did not have dominion over the plants and animals" (Skinny Legs 404). This shows once again the interconnectedness of life that Robbins has spoken of throughout these three novels. Robbins goes so far as to state that it is of primary importance for the continued evolution of our species that we humans realize that we depend on the plants and the animals; they do not depend on us. Continuing upward, the next veil to fall reveals Salome's shoulders, and with it falls the weight of a political world.
Ellen conceives as the third veil falls that politics are essentially useless as solutions to humanity's problems, since our problems aren't political but rather philosophical. As this veil has hidden Salome's shoulders, the dropping of it symbolically takes the huge weight of politics off of humanity's shoulders. Robbins does acknowledge that there are political problems, but they are largely the result of "the propensity of the primate band to take its political leaders -- its dominate males -- too seriously" (Skinny Legs 405). On the same page Robbins notes that these males, as distinct from the females, are "dedicated not to liberation but to control." That is, they seek to control for the sake of being in power, not understanding that the real necessity is one of philosophical growth and understanding. Robbins sees the greatest drive in humanity as being to reach
That philosophical plateau where it recognized that its great mission in life had nothing to do with any struggle between classes, races, nations, or ideologies, but was, rather, a personal quest to enlarge the soul, liberate the spirit, and light up the brain. (Skinny Legs 406)Here Robbins essentially pulls together the conceptual dichotomy between the interior and the exterior, between the self and the other. Our problems aren't external (class, race etc.), but rather internal and thus completely subjective, yet there is the acknowledgement that these internal, subjective states have a very real impact on the external, objective world. In this objective, public world, however, the veils continue to drop.
The fourth veil, intertwined around both of Salome's arms, represents religion; the shedding of it symbolically releases humanity's arms from their restraints. The next veil confines Salome's legs and represents humanity's apparently endless quest for material gain, a gain which in truth only serves to impede the movement of its owner. The sixth veil, which covers Salome's breasts, represents a time to reflect on the revelations that proceeded it, allowing them to overlap and gain clarity in the mind. It is interesting to note that Robbins chooses to reveal those illusions that Ellen Cherry sees as falling away. There is reference to others, such as Spike, exclaiming "How true," or "Oh, that's it!" implying that they too are experiencing some great penetration of knowledge, but it is only Ellen Cherry's thoughts that we, as the reader, are introduced to. There is no reason at all to assume that everyone in the establishment sees the same illusions falling away, and to assume that they are is to miss Robbins's point and by consequence, his greatest transcendence.
As the final veil falls away in the Dance of the Seven Veils, the one that hides Salome's face, the last constraint on an individual having a completely liberated existence falls with it, and Ellen perceives that the only solution is the recognition that all must figure out for themselves what constitutes the truth for them:
Even though the great emotions, the great truths, were universal; even though the mind of humanity was ultimately one mind, still, each and every single individual had to establish his or her own special, personal, particular, unique, direct, one-on-one, hands-on relationship with reality, with the universe, with the Divine. It might be complicated, it might be a pain in the ass, it might be, most of all, lonely -- but it was the bottom line. It was as different for everybody as it was the same, so everybody had to take control of their own life, define their own death, and construct their own salvation. And when you finished, you didn't call the Messiah. He'd call you. (Skinny Legs 412-13)Robbins is pulling together the internal and external perspectives, the objective and the subjective, in essence integrating the self and the other, the two coming together to transcend reality as we have been "programmed" to see it. This is Robbins's greatest transcendence, the healing of the dichotomy between the notion of the self and the other as distinct entities that exist separately in the universe. The two become one and the stage is set for yet another stage in humanity's continuing spiritual journey.
What Robbins will create as the next step in his vision of humanity's continued spiritual and physical evolution at this point is not clear. He has, since Skinny Legs and All, published one novel, Half-Asleep in Frog Pajamas, but even with this book, it is really too soon to say what Mr. Robbins has up his sleeve. As this discourse has shown, Robbins takes his time in getting his point across, at least on a large scale. Take, for instance, the fact that here there has been no mention of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Robbins's second novel, or Jitterbug Perfume, his fifth. This is largely due to the fact that these two novels represent, in many ways, digressions in the journey towards the fully liberated individual realized in Skinny Legs -- roadside attractions, if you will. Yet the three novels that have been investigated do indeed show the use that Robbins makes of his single meta-narrative consciousness as a guide to bring us to this point and also his own transcendence of this role. This transcendence itself demonstrates the fact that what we, as the readers, are actually witnessing Robbins's own "awakening" as an individual questing for spiritual and empirical knowledge, knowledge that allows him to interact with the world at large. Robbins has taken the journey and is pointing out its existence and its possibilities to those that may be interested in following a similar path. This, to return to Mark Siegel's remarks at the beginning of this discourse, indeed places Robbins in a pseudo "western genre," a writer who has redefined and reorganized the "confrontation of the individual and society" and returned to share his discoveries (Siegel 6). Yet, through the use and development of his meta-narrator, Robbins has taken this concept to the extreme, redefining and reorganizing not only the individual's confrontation with reality, but also the individual's very perception of that reality. In this way, Robbins shows himself as a first-class writer of American literature, as one who, unhappy with the "normal" view of reality, is not afraid to create his own. There is a lesson to be learned from reading Robbins, and that is that we make this all up. We create our own reality, and recognition of this fact will allow us to better understand the people around us, people who are also making up their own realities, taking their own journeys. In essence, Robbins provides for the alert reader proof that we can transcend the average everydayness of our existence and bring magic, the supernatural, the Divine to our lives.