Still Life with Woodpecker* is not exactly as advertised. The back of the book claims it “is sort of a love story that takes place inside a pack of Camel cigarettes” (Robbins, back cover). Knowing Tom Robbins’ quirkiness, I figured he’d be just the guy to write a novel that literally involved two cigarettes falling in love. Turns out, it’s actually about two unlikely lovers (an exiled princess, Leigh-Cheri, and a dynamite-obsessed outlaw, Bernard) who bond through symbolism in the cig’s package while separated.
I fell in love with Robbins when I read Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. He creatively infuses his novels with feminism that empowers women and men. He also really likes to talk about sex. This particular novel touches on both the burdens and wonders of female reproduction. Robbins’ female characters use their womanhood to their advantage instead of allowing biology and society to bring them down. Yet men are not shunned in this process—they have a role. For instance, Robbins revises the princess story prototype, having the princess play the hero. Leigh-Cheri says, “‘Fairy tales and myths are dominated by accounts of rescued princesses…isn’t it about time that a princess returned the favor” (Robbins, 16)? Still, Bernard does not lose his heroic attributes. He doesn’t want to “save” her or affirm her every thought; he challenges her and picks apart her ideas, which ultimately helps her refine them.
The best way to describe Robbins’ works as a whole is to compare him to Vonnegut. Robbins is similar to Vonnegut in that he employs peculiar metaphors that sometimes involve cheap puns (although they never fail to make you giggle). He’s similar to Vonnegut in that his books are interconnected and he leaves little Easter Eggs in each to create that link. He’s similar to Vonnegut in that he’s socially conscious and makes poetic digs at established systems. He’s similar to Vonnegut in that he uses ongoing jokes within each story à la Arrested Development. He’s similar to Vonnegut in that he introduces a preposterous predicament, unintended to be taken literally, and somehow makes the reader incredibly curious as to what will happen next, even though anything could happen next because he’s operating outside the realm of external reality. And he’s similar to Vonnegut in that each scene has some existential import—asking big questions like “Who knows how to make love stay” (Robbins, 4)? He’s not similar to Vonnegut in that Vonnegut has a heavy science-fiction streak while Robbins’ esotericism is more of this world. That being said, if you enjoy Vonnegut, chances are you’ll enjoy Robbins, and vice versa.
I clearly admire Robbins’ work and I think he’s a pretty chill guy IRL. He makes fantastical tales relatable and serves satire on a platter well-done. Still, I enjoyed Even Cowgirls Get the Blues better than Woodpecker. Perhaps having already been exposed to his style I was less shocked by his skills and thus slightly less impressed. So, Still Life with Woodpecker earns 3 out of 5 camel humps. While the story has plenty of Robbins-pizzazz, there were moments when I was not as engaged with the Camel-box symbolism and wished it had been a story of two literal cigarettes falling in love. If you’re a Robbins-virgin, I recommend Cowgirls—it has the same basic feminist values appealing to both sexes but packs a bigger punch.
*Robbins, Tim. Still Life with Woodpecker. New York: Bantam Dell, 1980. Print.