I read this book because my friend told me about it, saying it was her favorite book while referencing her beet tattoo. I really love this friend and wanted to know what she loved about this book; if not for her, I would have quit many times. This author is unlike any other I have read. This book is unlike any other I have read. I did not enjoy it, though I can admire some of the skill that went into it.
Pros: The writing on a sentence-by-sentence level is full of some of the most imaginative analogies I’d read anywhere. I thought I was good at analogies, but Robbins really goes to extremes. The weather in New Orleans is like an obscene phone call from nature. Flames dart from the boughs of a funeral pyre like finches from hell. A woman wears a smile you could mail a letter in. They got tiresome after a while, but they were impressive.
Also, the story itself is wacky and whimsical and weird. It involves beets, the god Pan, a Pagan king, perfumers and a cult of people trying to find immortality. They’re all strung together in ways that eventually make sense. Well, sort of. It’s still wacky, but at least all the various plotlines eventually connect.
Cons: I didn’t like any of the characters. Most of them felt either cardboard or wacky or disgusting, or sometimes all three. Even when someone wore a whale mask or was divorced from a famous accordion player, they tended to run together for me because I didn’t really know what anyone wanted. I didn’t really empathize with them because I didn’t really feel like most of them were trying to do anything worthwhile. There wasn’t much of a plot. They were just kind of talking in circles about philosophy. Priscilla was trying to do something (we weren’t told what) and she wanted money to do it, but we didn’t know why or what she hoped to gain by it. For the first half of the book I only cared about Alobar’s story because at least he had challenges to overcome. I didn’t like him though. I thought he was gross. I mean, I’m sure it was appropriate for the time and place, but he impregnated a 14-year-old and then later abandoned her and the kids he’d made. Sex with kids is where I draw the line (even if they’re married.)
The biggest con for me was the lechery. I don’t consider myself a prude, but this felt like porn. It wasn’t even erotica, because it didn’t turn me on, it just made me curl my lip and at more than one point exclaim out loud “Jesus, that’s disgusting.” Not a single woman was described without some reference to her jiggling boobs, moist vulva, fragrant vagina, supple perineum, meaty thighs or whatever could lower her to the level of “something to have sex with” rather than “a human being.” The sex scenes (frequent) felt like watching a cheap porn between unattractive actors, because the relationships (even that between Kudra and Alobar) felt shallow to me. Alobar seemed like a randy dude who turned into a cantankerous old man who (poor lad) no one would fuck (we were supposed to pity him, though no one sleeps with an old woman, and when Kudra dares to get older, Alobar is aghast). The LeFevres were indistinguishable from one another in my mind, because I kept waiting for them to matter to me and they never did. Dannyboy Wiggs, or Wiggs Dannyboy, was the most disgusting of the lot. I felt visceral revulsion at any scene with him in it. An old dude with an implausible name who lapses in and out of an Irish brogue so he can seduce a woman impressed by his money. I guess that’s the mark of a powerful novel, that it can inspire such strong feelings in its readers.
One of the main themes of the novel was its long philosophical treatises on the subject of smell, having a true heart, and immortality. One cannot become immortal without having a true heart, by which the author’s characters meant mostly “a strong desire to fuck women.” Even Priscilla fucks a woman, though she doesn’t seem to really be into it. Alobar starts to age, despite his super immortality powers, in part because he hasn’t got anyone to have sex with. And yet, I think many men find it somewhat of a relief when they get old enough that their sexual desire tapers off. Call me old fashioned, but beastial rutting seems like it would eventually get old. After hundreds of years of marriage he never has (or seems to want to have) children with Kudra, but it’s the sex he misses when she’s gone. For me, that would be like a thousand years doing prep work in the kitchen, and not a single meal in the dining room. Compared to the true joy of meaningful relationships with friends and family and work that improves the world in a significant way, sex is just party tinsel.
I mostly glossed over the philosophical treatises. I found them puerile and dull, based on old science and not convincingly strung together. For example “information gathered from daily newspapers, soap operas, sales conferences, and coffee klatches is inferior to information gathered from sunlight. (Since all matter is condensed light, light is the source, the cause of life. The flowers have a direct line to God that an evangelist would kill for.)” It goes on for pages and pages like that. Whatever. Honestly, for much of the book I felt like I was being mansplained at by a dirty old pervert who thought (very incorrectly) that he was not only the smartest person in the room, but that he had figured out the secrets of the universe, and he was telling them to me so that I’d be impressed enough with his genius to suck his cock. When I wasn’t rolling my eyes, I was curling my lip in disgust.
This wasn’t my book. I found it vulgar and pretentious, with forgettable and unlikeable characters and not much of a plot. (The connection between K23 and immortality seemed tenuous at best, and the Pan-shaped bottle simply a McGuffin.) I can see why people would be fond of his analogies and whimsical philosophy that they’d like this writing style, but the crude and constant references to sex ruined any leeway I might have given the meandering story.