Villa Incognito by Tom Robbins

My boyfriend ‘wooed’ me (is that term still used outside of a Jane Austen narrative?) with a Tom Robbins novel. I think it was Another Roadside Attraction, which – incidentally – is rumoured to be the favourite book of the Hell’s Angels. If Robbins is able – with a first novel, nonetheless – to simultaneously kindle a romance and capture the hearts and minds of the world’s most notorious motorcycle club he must be doing something right. Robbins’s books are funny, bizarre, smart, and full of rich language. There is something Vonnegut-esque about a Tom Robbins novel; society is at once parodied and commiserated with, and characters feel a step removed from reality. Robbins is a master of sentence structure, and as an aspiring author I find his writing process almost as interesting as his novels themselves.

Tom Robbins was 39 before he wrote his first novel (he has since written 8, plus a novella, a collection of essays, and a memoir); a fact that I – just a few months shy of my thirtieth birthday – find very heartening. Robbins notes that he always wanted to be a writer, but that there were moments in his early twenties when he almost gave up. He found his voice at a Doors concert in 1967 – “It jimmied the lock on my language box and smashed the last of my literary inhibitions” – and from then on knew exactly how he wanted his writing to sound. Robbins was at his most prolific in the 1970s and late 1980s.

Read any Tom Robbins novel and the first thing you notice is the richness of the language. Every sentence seems to burst with literary life, every metaphor is perfect. This is no accident – Robbins writes slowly and carefully, aiming to produce two pages of work a day. Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates took him over three years to write and almost a year to edit. “I probably spend as much time on one sentence as John Grisham spends on five chapters,” Robbins says in this interview with January Magazine. Robbins writes longhand, and doesn’t plot much in advance – two methods I have found useful in my own writing. Robbins also notes that much of his work comes from the ‘mind of wonder’, or a different state of consciousness. This idea of accessing the subconscious when it comes to creativity is something I also find particularly useful (Ray Bradbury would probably agree).

How to summarise Villa Incognito? Three American soldiers MIA in Laos after the Vietnam War; a badger-like creature from Japanese folklore; a woman with an irresistible attraction to clowns. Robbins’s eighth novel, Villa Incognito combines poetry, humour, drama, and sexuality. The sprawling narratives are glued together with bouts of beautiful musing on the nature of the soul, and a dash of biting social critique.

Right away, I appreciated how beautifully written this novel is. I revelled in sentences like: “The moon bloomed like a radiation sore”, “Dreams from an age when the stars were like resin drops and could sometimes be licked by deer”, “The afternoon passed more slowly than a walnut-sized kidney stone”, and “…said the case officer, in a voice that could have wormed a kitten”.

After having spent over three years in Southeast Asia, it was also refreshing to read Robbins’s descriptions. Of Bangkok he writes:

It’s a silk buzz saw, a lacquered jackhammer, a steel-belted seduction, a digital prayer…Hot and heavy, the very air seemed to sprout fat red fingers, baker’s fingers that kneaded pedestrians as if they were lumps of dough.

Of evenings in Laos:

… the air sagged under the weight of the sweetness it carried: jasmine, lemongrass, sandalwood, frangipani…

And of the rainy season:

… monsoon clouds were piled like fat black boxing gloves.

My one criticism of this novel is that while there are so many wonderful storylines and images, they don’t all feel completely resolved at the end. This is a problem I face in my own writing, and it is – I think – an inevitable consequence of writing from the subconscious, with little planning.

Reading Robbins, however, is much more about the journey than the destination. If you appreciate words and how they sound together, then you will appreciate Tom Robbins, and Villa Incognito.

The grandson of two Baptist preachers, Tom Robbins was born in North Carolina in the early 1930s. He turns 82 this year. His latest book is a memoir titled Tibetan Peach Pie. Villa Incognito was first published in 2003.

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