Jitterbug Perfume, Tom Robbins
“The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent, not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious.” -Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume
Today is January 17, which means that there are only six more months until the country’s most underrated of the unofficial holidays: National Eat Your Vegetables Day. And in honor of all things legume, I will inaugurate this column, Book to Make You Look Like:___, by dedicating the first feature to the most brilliantly phantasmagoric novel to ever lionize a rooted vegetable.
But first, some important things to know about the beet:
1. Aside from its international superstardom as a cross-continental delicacy, it also
2. Reduces the risk of heart disease, and
3. Can turn your pee pink (I am hoping that, instead, eating enough beets will turn my skin the color of roses, like flamingos and shrimp. Let us, for the moment, suspend the laws of reality).
I understand why everyone loves the beet, Tom Robbins definitely loves the beet, and you should too. Jitterbug Perfume is Robbins’ ode to our favorite vegetable, and this is mine.
Jitterbug Perfume is a sweeping, self-described epic that spans the literal ages and contains four distinct story lines that feature handsome perfumers in Paris and lesbian waitresses in Seattle (with whom, as a fellow host at a Mexican restaurant, I sympathize with immensely). Usually if an author tries to “describe” him/herself as anything I will automatically add them to my mental shit list. But it is. Jitterbug Perfume is an epic epic. It is a world where nymphs feed you figs on a bed of moss, casual run-ins with Einstein are the norm, and beets appear on your doorstep at ungodly hours of the night.
But more about the vegetable later.
Our (semi-but-mostly-anti)hero, Alobar, is the sex-crazed king of a central European township in 8th century C.E., who, after a brush with regicide, hilariously embarks on a quest to discover the key to immortality (with, of course, the assistance of mythical immortality doctors who may or may not live in the caves of Eurasia). He and his soon-to-be-wife Kudra, a voluptuous Hindu widow obsessed with dousing herself in various scented oils, attempt his feat with the help of goat-god Pan. Beets play a significant role in this.
Alobar stumbles and squawks through 1200+ years of history, ignorantly asshole-ing his way through life, gracelessly divesting others of their social comfort in anachronistic ways that, without context, will make us cringe. Alobar is a caged bird, vis-a-vis Miley in “Can’t Be Tamed,” and Jitterbug Perfume is the telling of his unleashing. The Universe, and beyond, is his playground: he travels through dozens of independent kingdoms and nations, three continents, and the occasional astral plane of time and/or death. But he does so in a way that doesn’t make you stop halfway through to question Robbins’ authority to create such heinous circumstances.
This is the reason Jitterbug Perfume can get it any time, anywhere: there is no question that the novel’s situational parameters are unrealistic. But Robbins’ literary world–his characters, motives, dialogue, desires–is not.
Robbins is an artist: he flirts with the fantastical, playful, childlike daydreams we thought we’d squashed after puberty hit. He forces us to think in color and teaches us what it means to be a sentient, emotional creature. Because aside from explaining why frequent sex, hot baths, slow breathing, and eating beets can lengthen your life span, he also forces us to reevaluate the traditions of our respective cultures. Jitterbug Perfume is a book that really shouldn’t work. But it does.
a) read the damn book and b) eat your vegetables, kids.
I will end this in a way that would make Robbins proud:
Flamingo, flamingoing, flamingone.*
*But not permanently. Check back next Friday for another Book to Make You Look Like:_____.