** This review contains spoilers **
I avoided Tom Robbins’ novels for years particularly because my old boyfriend was such a fanatic about him and even when I was deep into him, we disagreed on most literature. The way he and his pretentious 20-something arty bros talked about Robbins put me off in a big way. Lately, I’ve been getting multiple nudges from friends who know I’ve been researching olfaction so I finally gave in and read Jitterbug Perfume for research.
My original instinct was correct: this is a novel for the all-male tribe I call “toilet philosophers” because most of the philosophy they read was while they were on the pot. Aside from its misogyny, the lamest thing about this novel is the spiritual message clumsily tacked onto the plot and heavily underscored in the last 40 pages.
I must admit that there are some admirable aspects about Jitterbug Perfume. It is well researched and I like the playful attitude towards myth, history, perfume and food. I found the narrative arc (minus the pseudo-spirituality) well crafted and interesting. For these reasons, it is worthwhile if you are curious.
What I cannot stand is the novel’s sloppy, infantile lewdness and its utterly misogynistic treatment of women. Each and every female character is about as deep as raindrop. In many ways, this novel is like a macho version of a Jackie Collins’ novel where the plot gets in the way of all the more important sex scenes and blowjobs.
Don’t get me wrong, I like sex scenes and Jackie Collins. The sex scenes in Jitterbug Perfume, however, feel like watching a really drunk fatso try to get his groove on as if he were James Bond. The detail with which blowjobs are described makes these scenes grotesque literary money shots. In Robbins’ perfumed porn, the women are gagging to be groped by slobs, crusty old lechers, handicapped, satyrs, and so on. It’s truly painful. This book had so much semen on the pages, I felt I needed to wash my hands after each time I picked it up.
And in case you think that sexual subservience can be some sort of “modern, women-choose-to-please-on-their-knees feminism,” it gets better. When the would-be heroine finally gets laid, her attempts to be sexy are mocked by the narrator’s painstaking description of how shamefuly ugly and ill-fitting her clothes and underwear are. Lucky for her, the handsome one-eyed Irishman is a horndog and she’s the only woman in the room. Except for the fat spinster, the female characters are all led by their vaginas despite their professional ambition. And that’s what turns out to be the main joke of the novel: that women have professional ambition at all.
The “lesbian” character never gets the girl she’s lusted after but settles instead for becoming her best pal. Sounds modern and empowering, right? Another female character is gruesomely stung by a bee on her perineum and luckily a creepy Frenchman is present to soothe her sting. Barf.
Other problems are Robbins’ really bad, self-indulgent puns, mixed metaphors and wrongheaded literary elbow nudges that seem designed to show the readers how well read he is since they add nothing to the plot. There are real groaners, for example, “a populace that was puting Descartes before des horse.”
Reading this novel made me so glad I left that Robbins’-lovin dude and his horny toilet philosophizing crew behind. Tom Robbins reminds me of other writers who combine vulgarity and humor (Vonnegut, Rabelais, Chaucer, Boris Vian, Alfred Jarry) but without their soul, intelligence, political engagement and verbal finesse. Read their work instead for hotter sex scenes, finer wit and more sophisticated style.
Hello Gina: Greetings from Hamburg. I enjoyed your review having read Jitterbug Perfume many years ago, probably the early 1990’s. I can understand your allergic reaction: you are brilliantly cerebral while Tom Robbins often keeps his brain between his legs. My memory of the book is quite fuzzy by now. I don’t think I totally registered it as misogynistic, but maybe that’s because I was living in France at the time and it didn’t seem out of the ordinary in that time period. I actually don’t remember the lewd bits or the spirituality much, but I probably raced over them for lack of interest. The main thing I do remember is a recurring reference to the amazing scent of beetroot pollen, which I filed mentally because I’ve always been curious to smell it. I’ve never run across it though, so that part may have been fictional?