Books: Then and Now

Category: Then

Review: Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins

By: Richard E. Gower


              “Me? I stand for uncertainty, insecurity, bad taste, fun  and things that go boom in the night.”                                Tom Robbins

Hanging on to all the books you love after you’ve read them comes with its own hazards (dust accumulates, shelves (and eventually floors) sag in protest, etc…) but Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins is one of those rare gems of printed matter that proves that keeping stacks of old books for sentimental reasons is still a far better use of space than hoarding a bobblehead collection, raising rattlesnakes or storing nuclear waste.

Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas was Robbins’ sixth novel; written in 1994 more than twenty years after he first broke into print as an unlikely fiction writer and quickly became a publishing phenomenon, long before there was an Internet. After a slow start in hardcover, his first book, Another Roadside Attraction, then began to accelerate in paperback, initially selling in the tens and then hundreds of thousands, in spite of it being panned or snubbed by the reviewers and critics when it came out. The reason?  His style rang true with young people on college campuses and his reputation was established mainly by word of mouth.

For those who have never read Tom Robbins, be forewarned. He is an acquired taste. Just a few words that come to mind to describe his writing are: bizarre, irreverent, off the wall, zany and obliquely scatological (the last is my one tiny quibble with his work, but it’s a small price to pay for its overall brilliance). You don’t so much read his books for the story but for the delightful, hedonistic romp through the fields of balderdash and nonsense that he cultivates.

Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas is written in second person point of view (not easy to pull off convincingly…try it sometime) in the vein of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City.  In this case (Half Asleep…) the female protagonist narrates the thoughts that are in her head (using the pronoun ‘you’ in the present tense) as if she is talking to herself as a disinterested observer and the unseen audience (the reader) gets to share in her experiences.

To say that the author applies needlepoint to reality in this book (or any of his writing) would be like saying that the Titanic had a spot of trouble with some ice, but it is not a work of fantasy fiction. What happens to Gwendolyn Mati, twenty-nine year old securities trader from Seattle with twenty-three gray hairs that have sprouted in her otherwise glossy black crown (her friend counted them) on the self-described worst day of her life, could happen; it’s just highly unlikely, and the ride from the front cover to page three-hundred and eighty-six and the ‘Author’s note’ that sets the record straight about George Washington’s false teeth definitely goes through the zone of make-believe. That is the charm of a Tom Robbins novel, and this one is no exception.

In this book, readers again are treated to word-styling of the highest order. When he sets a scene, his descriptions are lyrical enough to be scored to music.

“Nine P.M. It is night now, no longer evening but fully night, as in “black as,” if not precisely “dead of.” Evening usually has the afternoon hanging on its coattails, has actual flecks of daylight clinging like lint to its lapels, but night is solitary, aloof, uncompromised, extreme. The safe margins of the day, still faintly visible during eventide, have been erased by night’s dense gum, obscured by its wash of squid squirtings, pajama sauce and the blue honey manufactured by moths.”

Tom Robbins has been quoted as saying that his books “have a plot but they don’t depend on plot”, and that is the case with Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas. What pulls the reader through this story is its patent absurdity enmeshed in ordinariness, a cast of outlandish characters that are defined down to the stitching in their clothing and the viscosity of their body fluids and the narrator’s bemused detachment about her seriocomic predicament.

Consider this passage where our heroine is on her way to work at the brokerage house early in the morning, dressed in her finest power business attire, when she is met at the door by two policemen.

“The first thing that crosses your mind is that the cops are here about Q-Jo: that she’s in the hospital, in the morgue, in jail, in – Liar! Tell the truth, Gwendolyn. The first thing that crosses your mind is that there has been an audit at the disco, that Posner has jumped to conclusions, that without giving you the opportunity to explain, he has notified the SEC and called in the police. Only after those fears have jump roped with your heart do you consider that there could be dire news about Q-Jo. In fairness, however, you utter no silent prayer that the authorities are here about her and not you.”

More than anything else, what this book delivers on every page is an over-the-top sense of playfulness, joie de vivre and just pure fun.  Perhaps not surprising, coming from someone who: “For eight years, … was an enthusiastic participant in Seattle’s Spam carving competition, serving as judge.” (source: Wikipedia)

The author once told an interviewer for Rolling Stone magazine: “You can tell people that my goal is to write novels that are like a basket of cherry tomatoes—when you bite into a paragraph, you don’t know which way the juice is going to squirt.”

That, for me sums up what Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas has to offer for readers. If you haven’t yet been introduced to Tom Robbins, take a read on the wild side. Highly recommended.   REG

Links for additional information:  Tom Robbins