Swankivy's Reviews > Still Life with Woodpecker

Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins
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it was ok

This was my first Tom Robbins book, and a bunch of people I know whose opinions I respect seem to like Tom Robbins, so I was a little dismayed that I did not enjoy this book.

I can say a couple good things about it. Some of the turns of phrase were amusing; there were some actual straight-up refreshing observations on the human condition; and there were a few places (honestly, only a few) where I forgot I was reading because I was temporarily invested in what was going on, especially toward the end of the book.

Other than that, I primarily actively disliked this book. Mostly, it was due to the pervasive feeling that the narrator of the book is mocking the protagonist in peculiarly gendered ways, unexpectedly taking turns into vaguely racist and bigoted perspectives, and above all, sexualizing the princess constantly. CONSTANTLY. I felt like I was reading something by my obnoxious high school boyfriend: the narrative kept making excuses to mention Leigh-Cherie's private parts for no reason, and on the few occasions when sex WAS actually relevant, it was very explicit without being sexy. An object can't just knock into the princess or be mentioned as detected; it has to hit her in the boobs. We can't find out what she's thinking or feeling without checking in on what her vagina is doing. She's not even safe sitting on an airplane, because sitting involves legs and we need an update on whether the princess's thighs are moist. She had a traumatic experience? It involved her reproductive system. She's in self-inflicted solitary confinement? Why not have her dedicate herself to a poorly explained secret technique for regulating her menstrual cycle? Someone wants to know if her hair is naturally red? She'll pull out a pube for you, and reveal that her parts were lubricated while we're at it. Did her father catch her naked? I think that is a great place to describe her vulva to us as he observes it. What do you think? Or can we not write a story about a lady without constantly fixating on her vag?

It's kind of a sweet idea to have characters searching for a way to "make love stay," but it's hard to take that seriously when the foundation of the love story was so bizarre (I mean, the protagonist met her lover while trying to get him arrested for a bombing, and literally one scene later they were having drinks and kissing, with no preamble). I didn't get why they liked each other except that the story said they did, and Bernard seemed to be looking down on the princess, judging her, evaluating her, perceiving her as naïve at every turn while she craves his acceptance and does really foolish things for him, up to and including being willing to imprison herself and sacrifice her literal life for him). Every once in a while the weirdness of their relationship was a little bit charming, but mostly it just seemed sort of a mixture of disrespectful and vulgar, with a side of attempting-to-be-edgy performance art.

What's really a shame is I have this weird appreciation for stories that spend a long time with someone who's in isolation, learning who they are as a person based on what they do when they have no one but themselves. Leigh-Cherie does this in the book, locked in her attic room with nothing but a pack of cigarettes, food twice a day, a bath once a week, a chamber pot, and a frog. Too bad her isolation story, while partially focusing on her development of a bizarre theory, also spent just as much time on the princess masturbating, thinking about her menstrual cycle, and describing having her crotch bathed. Also, while presumably trying to check cervical mucus in her attempts to monitor her menses, she described it being tricky because lol if she does it wrong her womb might think her finger is a penis and gobble it up and suck it in. That's . . . not how this works. At all. Yikes.

Beyond that, there were a lot of things that irritated me besides, just, you know, feeling like an adolescent boy was elbowing me every five seconds to say "sex! get it? lol vagina! Isn't it funny that a mongoose stole her panties for no reason? lol random!" Most notably, Leigh-Cherie gets engaged to an Arab suitor after she thinks Bernard has rejected her, and there a lot of lol people from the Middle East are terrorists gags, which end up being even less funny when the guy actually does something a terrorist would do. (Bernard's a white guy who actually blows stuff up, but he's an outlaw, not a terrorist.) I also got really sick of the fact that every time Queen Tilli was mentioned, we couldn't interact with her for very long before the narrative reminded us how fat she is. Very much like Leigh-Cherie's vagina, the queen's fatness is her primary characteristic. (And of course she's one of those fat women who is always clutching a pampered chihuahua. At least when the inevitable scene of the dog getting sat on happens, it isn't her who sits on the poor thing.) And there were some suspicious passages blaming oppressed people for their oppression, most of which were not even uttered by a character--just "well what ever happened to PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY, you minorities???" accusations slapped into the narration in a way that clearly suggests it's being presented as an active message in the book. Examples:

"That is why minorities seeking the abolition of prejudice become intolerant, minorities seeking peace become militant, minorities seeking equality become self-righteous, minorities seeking liberation become hostile (a tight asshole being the first symptom of self-repression)."

"There's a tendency today to absolve individuals of moral responsibility and treat them as victims of social circumstance. You buy that, you pay with your soul. It's not men who limit women, it's not straights who limit gays, it's not whites who limit blacks. What limits people is that they don't have the fucking nerve or imagination to star in their own movie, let alone direct it."

Hear that, SJWs? You don't have problems because of prejudice and oppression. It's because you didn't just Do The Thing (that generally requires resources you don't have, but we'll blame that on personal faults like lack of ~imagination~ instead of acknowledging that the rules are actually different for people in certain groups). Just direct your own movies, losers. If you don't, it's your fault you failed at life.

And as an aside, I don't like that a character drops the "wisdom" that love without lust is "not enough." I'm just so tired of that idea, y'all--that lust is how you tell love is real or permanent. I'm tired.
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Reading Progress

September 2, 2008 – Shelved
April 4, 2018 – Started Reading
April 26, 2018 – Finished Reading

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