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Buy 'Villa Incognito' by Tom Robbins.

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Meet Me in Cognito: That trademark Robbinsian flair and flamboyance is on parade in his new novel.

Too Much Robbins

'Villa Incognito' out-Robbins Tom Robbins

By Jordan E. Rosenfeld

In the cult of Tom Robbins, it seems there are two main sects of readers: Those who adore him despite his often absurd literary gyrations and those who think him a verbose show-off.

I admit that, just like the adoring hordes who crowd his readings, I am drawn to Tom Robbins by a force I can't fully comprehend. Robbins manages to wrap surprising slices of truth inside tightly wrought plots. At the end of a Robbins book, it's easy to feel like one has received a special spiritual care package with that unique Robbins recipe for making us wiser, kinder, and more thoughtful about the big mysteries of life.

Villa Incognito (Bantam, $27.50), Robbins' newest effort, is indeed rife with the expected themes: the government's blatant misuse of power, the taboo yet compelling allure of young women, and the draw of enlightenment above all other temptations. It would have been a surprise to find anything but the same gurulike figures spewing whimsical advice, having great sex, and living comfortably off the grid. Despite being very well prepared, I commenced to plunge in, as they say in AA, "doing the same thing expecting different results." And plunge in one must, for there is no gentle way to enter Villa Incognito.

From its very first paragraph Robbins seems to dare the reader to keep reading. "It has been reported that Tanuki fell from the sky using his scrotum as a parachute," taunts the first line. The successive few sentences proceed to describe Tanuki's scrotum in four or five too many ways. Does Robbins then reward further page-turning with the luscious prose morsels and exultant witticisms that we Tom Robbins lovers jones for? Not exactly.

It's difficult to be charmed by a talking, bawdy badger. Or more specifically, a tanuki--a real badgerlike animal found mainly in Asia--who loves sake, seduces young women, and is to Japanese mythology what Coyote is to Native Americans, the quintessential hedonistic trickster. If not for the fact that Robbins delightfully braids mythology and philosophy, invoking Joseph Campbell and Lao Tzu on LSD, I would not have made it past page three.

While many a novel suffers the sin of lack of plot, Villa Incognito has more than its fair share. It is the story of three American MIAs who chose to stay missing after the Vietnam War. They have taken up producing opium for centers that help the sick die peacefully. It is also the story of four generations of women tied together by a quirky woodland creature, a traveling circus, and a mystical chrysanthemum seed.

Or is it? As if in homage to the Zen Buddhism Robbins so clearly respects (evidenced by the numerous references throughout), Villa Incognito is like a Zen koan, the incomprehensible sound of one hand; it makes you think a little too hard.

A Robbins novel always has a kernel around which its unique metaverse is built. In this case, it is the above-mentioned chrysanthemum seed passed down from the female offspring
of the first unlikely tanuki-human pairing. Unlike in his other masterpieces such as Jitterbug Perfume, Robbins does not here take the seed motif to a satisfying conclusion; rather, he darts into a fog of metaphor from which it is difficult for a reader to emerge.

From the chilly streets of Seattle to the steamy chaos of Laos and Thailand, the hodge-podge of characters cross continents, pontificate about the big subjects, and laud the benefits of the opium poppy. While there are enough creative turns of phrase to garner a laugh and a blush here and there, plus a masterful play on the nature of illusion versus reality, eventually it grows tiresome that all characters speak in the same erudite psychobabble. "A real villain is always preferable to a fake hero," says one character. "What you're seeing is pinpoint focus combined with mad abandon in such a way as to cause the specters of death and the exaltations of life to collide . . . ," says another.

The best thing about the book might just be the original song, with lyrics like "Meet me in Cognito, baby / Of course we'll have to color our hair / The best thing about life in Cognito / is that everybody's nobody there."

Ultimately, while the book does deliver plenty of luminous wisdom and wit, Villa Incognito is best reserved for us hopeless Robbins fanatics. Because once you get hooked on him, you might not be able to stop, even when that would be wise.


Tom Robbins reads at Montgomery Village Copperfield's Books on May 21 at 7pm. 2316 Montgomery Dr., Santa Rosa. 707.578.8938

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From the May 15-21, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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