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Speaking in Chiclets:
Embracing and Individualizing Consumer Culture in Still Life with Woodpecker
In addition to his unforgettably unconventional characters, Tom Robbins is known primarily for his exuberant optimism, quirky philosophical musings, and novel wordplay. Added to these elements are his non-traditional narratives, which Robbins integrates to create stunningly original novels. As such, it is difficult to pinpoint Robbins as an author associated with a specific genre or literary movement. It is for this reason that he continues to stupefy critics and mesmerize readers. However, this is not to say that Robbins is as enigmatic and amorphous in his technique and ideas as to completely isolate him from a larger movement or from his time period. In some ways, he is the quintessential human coming to terms with life in the postmodern or late capitalistic world; in Still Life with Woodpecker, Robbins reveals his complex love/hate relationship with mass consumer culture and attempts to come to terms with it by individualizing mass-produced goods.
It is not surprising to learn that an author as opposed to group thought as Robbins would find fault in a society, as he puts it, "that is essentially designed to organize, direct, and gratify mass impulses" (221). At times, his criticism is blatant, such as his statement that nuclear power is a "sinister fraud" (135). Most often, though, he incorporates characters that demonstrate the stale automatism that results from mass consumption. The best example of the mindless consumer drone is Queen Tilli, as she mechanically spews her catch phrase ("Oh-oh, spaghetti-o"), which is borrowed from an advertising jingle. Tilli reveals the depth of her susceptibility to the superficiality of advertising when a dog food commercial causes her to cry (127). Likewise, King Max is imbued with sports lingo that every phrase he utters in some way mimics a sports announcer. It is this widespread susceptibility that Robbins loathes, as he mocks the trend of self-imprisonment that radio stations create (200) and the misinformation about explosives perpetrated by television (110). Not only does he expose to ridicule characters that feed, as it were, the corporate machine, but he also criticizes the products themselves. For example, in his humorous catalogue of magazines, "Car and Driver, Fruit and Tarantula, and Pork and Trichinosis, a recent copy of Gentlemen's Anus" (172), he derides the jumble of ideas that comprise popular interests. Likewise, the shallow financial and sexual concerns of most media clash with Robbins' transcendent ethos. Thus, the outlaw Bernard Mickey Wrangle comments on the stifling nature of consumer culture through his wild assortment of things found in prisoners’ rectums, including "a Playboy centerfold, […] a cake with a file in it, a white Christmas, […] a glass-bottom boat, […] middle-class morality, the Great American Novel" (83). Robbins mocks this miscellany of popular, clichéd objects and ideas by portraying them as literally crammed up society’s ass and subtly sides with postmodernist critics’ argument that in America "signs become more important than what they stand for" (Berger 35), by showing ideas with no realistic base, such as the Great American Novel.
While Wrangle’s preceding passage classifies consumer culture as force-fed, it is also playful and humorous in its absurdity. Thus, the passage is a microcosm of Robbins’ complex relationship with consumer culture, as it reveals both the derision and the coy enjoyment central to the postmodern worldview. Leigh-Cheri tersely mimics the postmodern theory that "what matters is the 'look'" of things (Solomon 50) when she muses, "[the pyramid] is form, not function" (229). It is not the use of pyramids, the "pyramid power" that experts study, that attracts Leigh-Cheri, but their surface features. She is capable of enjoying the sight of the inanimate, product-inhabited world. When Leigh-Cheri thinks about her love and admiration for Bernard, she speaks in terms of his exuberant consumerism as she states, "there was no burger so soggy that he would not eat it. No tequila so mean that he would not drink it. No car" he would not drive (180). Also, Robbins discards art, religion, and nature in favor of "windshield wipers […] worn pencils, cute forks, fat little radios" (222); sometimes, these can actually become art, such as when he describes a gaudy Las Vegas casino as an opera (241). In fact, Robbins overtly argues that capitalism is "interesting, exciting, it offers possibilities" (97), and thus celebrates the products of capitalism. It is not consumerism that he loathes, but "men who underst[an]d production but [are] ignorant of pleasure" that one can extract from goods (194). In terms of the plot of the novel, the immersion of oneself in the world of products, in this case Camel cigarettes, is necessary to reach the evolution of consciousness that both Leigh-Cheri and Wrangle attain.
The protagonists' transcendent experience of retreating into the pack of cigarettes reveals the possibility of individualizing mass produced goods. This way, Robbins frees humans from functioning as cog-like consumers in a capitalistic machine. Furthermore, through Leigh-Cheri's formulation of a grand cosmic scheme of which she is an integral part, Robbins reveals and revels in the connections humans have with objects that are not intended to be personalized. Leigh-Cheri’s theory turns the dollar bill into a hopeful symbol of pyramid-worship, and hence goddess-worship (185), and a pack of Camels into the Bible (162). Bernard Mickey Wrangle surpasses the Princess by physically "misusing" objects to meet his needs, such as his use of breakfast cereal in the startling "Froot Loops and bat shit bomb" (155). Also, the golden ball, one of the novel’s central symbols for the "mystic, occult, changeable, feministic, spiritual, pacific, agrarian, artistic, and erotic" (115) is "just a prop, a toy, an object" (141), further underlining the possibilities of transcending droning consumerism through immersion in consumer culture.
Likewise, Robbins frees consumer goods from their intended functional use of feeding incessant consumer demand. Some instances of this include the playful "language" of Chiclets (123) and the "'performance' of Cheerios" (153-4). These serve also as thematic reminders of the possibilities of objects, but Robbins also uses popular and consumer culture references purely as wordplay devices, such as when he describes Leigh-Cheri and Wrangle as "giggl[ing] like cartoon mice" (72) and the crushing of a dog’s spine in terms of the "snap/crackle/pop" of Rice Krispies (121). In fact, Robbins’ fascination with consumer goods extends throughout his entire oeuvre. In Another Roadside Attraction, John Paul Ziller celebrates the hot dog as the pinnacle of Western Civilization (74), and in Jitterbug Perfume, Robbins describes Priscilla as having a "Frito nose" (264). In the Robbins universe, heroes and heroines are transcendent consumers such as Leigh-Cheri and Bernard Mickey Wrangle, characters that he implies anyone can become. In accordance with his pervasive do-it-yourself spiritual enlightenment, one's transcendence of the rabble of mass production and impulsive consumption elevates the individual out of the mundane and insignificant to the heroic and eternal.
Berger, Arthur Asa ed. The Postmodern Presence: Readings on Postmodernism in American Culture and Society. Walnut Creek: AltaMira, 1998.
Robbins, Tom. Another Roadside Attraction. New York: Bantam, 1971.
---. Jitterbug Perfume. New York: Bantam, 1984.
---. Still Life with Woodpecker. New York: Bantam, 1980.
Solomon, Jack. "Our Decentered Culture: The Postmodern Worldview." Ed. Arthur Asa Berger. Walnut Creek: AltaMira, 1998.
A college class on Tom Robbins! Imagine that.