Still Life with Woodpecker is a most postmodern postmodern fairytale.
For a man who can end a sentence with dildos and wax poetic about a good sucking off, it’s going to be a hard guess as to how he managed to end his story with individualism and true love. Tom Robbins takes an obvious pleasure in the process, delighting in a vocabulary that lends itself well to diarrhea of the mouth.
He’s also, incidentally, a fantastic storyteller.
With Woodpecker, he stuffed the novel full up with a teenage girl’s pop culture, Ralph Nader trivia, discourse on red heads, individuality and runaway love. Then he dipped it in a sticky humor and dusted it over with sulfur so it’s ready to blow.
Robbins indulges an untethered frankness of view that, whether we actually agree with his syllogistic conclusions, stretch our brains to wend and weave and come back to grin at us with a sleepy eye and a tremor. Not only is the end confection highly entertaining, but the whole thing rolls along to a pleasant meter. Robbins’ absurdities are effortless, and he’s the rare tease who actually comes through.
Princess Leigh-Cheri Furstenberg-Barcalona, of the deposed Monarchy of Mu, is living with mother Tilli and father Max under Witness Protection in a blackberry-choked house at the heart of rainy Seattle. She falls head over heels in love with the outlaw bomber Bernard Mickey Wrangle aka the Woodpecker when the two meet at an eco conference in Hawaii. She’s there for the activism, he for the opportunity to blow some TNT.
Theirs is a moonstruck love, a joke by two redheads who burn too easily in the sun but also the kind of love that has its mystery, just like the pyramids of long ago (or like the two on the Camel cigarettes pack).
But Bernard’s an outlaw and Leigh-Cheri’s a princess. How can the two be together? He goes to prison; she locks herself in her attic room and philosophizes over Camel cigarettes. He dismisses her love; she goes to Arabia and settles for the hunky smile and burly arms of Prince A’ben Fizel who promises Leigh-Cheri her very own pyramid.
In the meantime, Max and Tilli’s housekeeper Gulietta surprises all when she unearths the proof of her own royal Furstenberg-Barcalona lineage given her by her father, the deposed king who knocked up the kitchen maid long ago, and when the gossip around Leigh-Cheri mounts to scandal, Gulietta finds herself chosen to ascend the throne of the newly reinstated Monarchy of Mu.
Lie low and wait for the world to spring its secrets on you…there’s one way to make love stay.
It takes a certain sulfurous friction to light a match, to light a cigarette, to light a fuse, and Mu (µ) is, after all, the symbol used for friction, that staying hand of action and abettor of a still life, and BOOM! when the pyramid blows its top, the outlaw and his princess learn at last how to make love stay.
In the classic fairytale, the frog asks for a kiss in return for retrieving the princess’ golden ball that fell in the pond. Prince Charming is pretty basic from story to story. There’s no mystery to him, and instead we’d like to know, whatever happened to the golden ball?
How we perceive the inanimate is just as much a part to life’s mystery as our interactions with the animate, and as a one-sided experience, these perceptions ooze together and slick life with a highly individual sheen.
Robbins tells us that the church and museum, having standardized religion and art, have made it such that we have to take the trash beneath the theater seat, nudged by a wandering foot, as the height of individual experience. Knowing that grimy golden wrapper is the golden ball is mystery solved.
The mystery in life is the mystery in love, and the mystery in love is defined by its two participants – by the two “I’s” of that first coupling on Hawaii perhaps. The primacy of the individual shines brighter in love; it’s what we call intimacy.
Without the essential (intimate) insanities, humor becomes inoffensive and therefore pap, poetry becomes exoteric and therefore prose, eroticism becomes mechanical and therefore pornography, behavior becomes predictable and therefore easy to control.
Pap, prose and pornography suffice for Leigh-Cheri’s fiancé, the prince A’ben Fizel. Their love burns under the Arab sun and is built on status, wealth and lust. Missing is the humor, poetry and eroticism of Bernard, who lights her fire with more than TNT. One is a palace love, dull and confined; the other is a pyramid love, mysterious and exciting. The Camel pack offers both, but only the pyramids are given prime placement on its front.
We waste time looking for the perfect lover instead of creating the perfect love. Wouldn’t that be the way to make love stay?
We’re always shifting about, moving on to the next lover when things start to crack. Maybe if we stood still a moment to fix things up we’d find the answer to the question of how to make love stay. Just as the Camel pack tells us that the cost of its tobaccos precludes any coupons or premiums, we shouldn’t look for a discount on love.
Still Life with Woodpecker upends the tropes of a princess’ love story. Like that bit of trash that makes the movie experience personal, Bernard and Leigh-Cheri’s love, though housed inside the architecture of classic fairytale, is highly individuated by the free love of the 1970’s, advice from Kafka, and a druggy vibe that cleaves us to a pack of Camel cigarettes.
It’s quite a groovy intimacy that, by novel’s end (and knowing now how to make love stay), leaves us wanting to know the answer to another most pressing question: whatever happened to the golden ball?!
Still Life with Woodpecker · Tom Robbins · 1980
No Exit Press, 2001 · 277 pages, paperback
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