Verbose, aimless, disorganized, overstuffed, and incredibly delightful. There's just so much going on in Tom Robbins' Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates it's impossible not to like it. My review follows the jump.
If I wanted to, of course, I could find plenty of things wrong with it. Robbins just loves his big words, almost abuses vocabulary. And with a lot of other authors (myself included, probably), that just gets annoying. Here it's generally a pleasure, only occasionally a bother. The book seems barely contained, asides and tangents spring up amid the fertile soil of Robbins' pen and wither on the ground, leaving the reader lost in the garden and desperately trying to catch up. Again, this sort of thing could be annoying, but here... here, it's not.
I've never read Tom Robbins before. I think his best-known work would be Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, which was made into a movie a few years ago. But that book is from another era; Fierce Invalids was written in the late 90's and the world of its main character is clearly recognizable. I had a great time and I'm going to go out looking for his most recent novel, Villa Incognito, but that doesn't mean I'd recommend this book to everyone.
Robbins breaks the fourth wall. He does so in the fourth chapter quite blatantly, and occasionally throughout, though most noticeably (and, I'm afraid, distractingly), right towards the end, and the beginning of Part 4. The book veers dangerously close, at times, to polemic, as Robbins (through his character and mouthpiece, Switters) decries the state of everything, from American society (controlled by a government and corporations that want everyone kept dimwitted and incurious) and foreign policy to organized religion and the nature of life itself.
This could get tedious if readers aren't receptive to this sort of thing. If, for example, you would be offended by Switters' assertion late in the book that "terrorism is the only rational response to American foreign policy," there will be plenty of other things in here you will be so annoyed by that you won't enjoy the book. If, on the other hand, you could care less what Switters thinks about foreign policy (being a fictional character, after all), or you agree with him, then you'll enjoy it.
There's no question but that Robbins' phrases are wonderful. In this one book you'll come across so many fascinating new metaphors you'll wonder why anyone ever resorts to cliche (well, not everyone is blessed with so fecund a mind as Mr. Robbins). Read it for the words, for the joy of reading, as much as anything.
But it's actually about something, too. And that's where it gets fun. Our hero, Switters, is a man of contrast, of inner contradictions--as, says Robbins, are we all. But unlike most of us, Switters is not concerned about taking one side in his inner life. He takes both. He loves his 16-year-old virgin stepsister, and a 46-year-old nun at the same time. And even to the last page he's trying to figure out how to have them both. Switters' message to is to embrace our inner contradictions, for to do otherwise is a betrayal of both our beliefs and ourselves. At one point he points out that being willing to lie to protect a belief is just one step away from being willing to kill for the same purpose. And much, if not all, of the world's suffering has stemmed from that very evil. Better to embrace our own inner contradictions first, thus be ready to accept the contradictions thrust upon us and our beliefs by the outside world.
All this is somewhat lost in the mysterious coda, however. The last several paragraphs take Switters to Thailand, and while I don't suppose they detract from Switters' character or our understanding, I don't see how they add anything to the story. Oh well. Nothing, and no one, is perfect.