Reading one of Tom Robbins novels is like stepping aboard the train that knows no end. Sit tight. The journey may be terrifying, the people you meet will be extraordinary, and your travels may confuse you, but one thing is for certain, it will be one exhilarating trip.
Jitterbug Perfume is Robbins’ fourth novel, and was published in 1984. It’s safe to say this book had spawned and graced the palms of many before I had even been thought about. The novel doesn’t care. It reaches out for you with grasping hands and drags you into its murky depths of the bizarre and holds on to your for dear life. Pan, the pagan god is its naughty accomplice.
The novel at its most basic level centres around the ‘essence of life’, the perfume of which four strands of people struggle to create. These people are separated by distance, by nationality, by belief. Most importantly they are connected by vegetables. Beets. Beets appear on each of their doorsteps continuously, the reason for which you won’t find out until halfway into the novel.
What is a beet I hear you ask? Beets are what we refer to in England as beetroot, and perhaps their hardy exterior and unappealing appearance is a deceptive cover for their importance in regards to the essence of life… either way the reasoning falls away when you consider the currents of philosophy that run through the novel in a vein like manner.
As a self described epic, the novel runs on four distinct story lines, one is set in 8th century Bohemia, the three others in modern day Paris, Seattle and New Orleans. Prudes need not apply as the sexual imagery in this novel is so incredibly written it practically bursts out of the seams. It is initially hard to follow because of the four threads which seemingly are unrelated. That is, apart from the beets. Bear with it. Robbins’ style instantly sets you up to put you off (I’m not sure if this is intentional) but please persevere – even if out of spite. If you do you enter a wealth of beautiful description surrounding a the three modern-day characters, who are struggling to find a ‘base note’ for this perfect scent.
The ending is anticlimactic at least, which I could suggest is inevitable with the majority of the story building tension to this particular point. I know that people have disliked the novel purely for that reason, which saddens me. Surely the wonderful style makes up for the lack of an explosive ending?
If you like books that fill you with philosophical questions about the meaning behind self-reliance, sex, love and religion then you should definitely invest. I was given the copy I read on loan from my friend Brook. On his travels (dusty mountain man) he acquired his copy from a church book sale in Delhi. This may have added to the magical aura surrounding the novel. Nevertheless, the reason I think you should attempt at this novel is because it will offer you an experience like no other. If you breathe in the fantasy, and step aboard the train that knows no end, you will leave feeling slightly changed, definitely for the better.