EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES by Tom Robbins
Literature has always had a hard time justifying itself. And how could it justify itself? Literature does no work. Nor does it ground itself in any socially productive activity or engagement. Not only does literature not serve the interests of society; often, in fact, it seems to playfully subvert these interests, although only in a powerless and purely “theatrical” way. Departments of literature seem to have been designed to disguise the “fact” of literature’s essential frivolity.
No novel seems more flamboyantly frivolous than Tom Robbin’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976). The work is often breathtakingly, magically, and intoxicatingly eloquent–and also, at times, bombastically written, ostentatious, empty, and light as air. It is easy to be seduced and enchanted by the playful language of this work. But one must nonetheless ask oneself: “What is the point of it all? Where is this book going? Why was it written?” Perhaps these are questions that go against literature’s essential nature. Perhaps the purpose of this book–and the purpose of literature–is purposelessness.
Sissy Hankshaw is all thumbs. In town of South Richmond where she was born and raised, the gigantic-thumbed girl is ostracized because of her so-called “deformity.” When she reads in a dictionary that the thumb affords the hand a greater “freedom of movement,” she decides to use her strangeness to her advantage by becoming the very “spirit and heart of hitchhiking” . As she traverses across the United States and beyond, she meets and marries a Native American and asthmatic watercolorist from Manhattan named Julian who, unlike Sissy, has renounced his difference from the dominant collective. Since she is perpetually in a state of motion, Sissy departs from her husband and takes up a modeling assignment given to her by “the Countess,” the misogynistic magnate of a feminine deodorant firm, on the Rubber Rose Ranch, an exclusively female-staffed, Western-themed beauty salon for older women who want to revitalize their appearances. Under the leadership of neo-cowgirl revivalist, Bonanza Jellybean, the cowgirls take possession of the ranch and claim ownership of the whooping cranes that populate it–a species that is imperiled by a technologized, male-dominated society that offsets the balance of nature.
If this narrative sounds silly, that is because it is. This is not to suggest that the work is meaningless or without “theme.” Of course, it is possible to thematize any work. One can always pretend to have “excavated” its “themes,” to enumerate them, and to present them to the reader. There is an unapologetic environmentalism, the “allegory” of burgeoning feminism, and the championing of social misfits, freaks, deviants, lunatics, outcasts, and other “endangered species” — in particular, the novel celebrates female hitchhikers and cowgirls, both of whom represent women who affirm their differences from male-defined normality. According to the logic of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, the sick are normal, and those who attempt to normalize themselves are the sick; by denying their singularity, the latter mutilate themselves. And yet all of these “themes,” as serious as they might seem, are tossed off with such gleeful abandon that their seriousness as themes is eroded.
The book’s frivolous style of writing casts light on what one might call its “politics of playfulness.” Even Cowgirls Get the Blues joyfully affirms the irruption of the frivolous and the extraordinary in everyday life and the rupturing of our sedimented responses “in a rational world where even disasters are familiar and damn near routine” . An earthquake, to use one of the book’s many of metaphors for strangeness, interrupts the rhythms of ordinary life and thereby opens up new spheres of possibilities, breaking open the fabric of the normal and empowering a more vital experience of the world — this is a “concept” that is clearly inspired by the philosophy of surrealism. Sissy Hankshaw, with her massive thumbs, has a destabilizing effect on one’s rigidified perceptions. Through her difference from others, she reminds the more “normalized” characters in the book that the world is multiple, that stability is not rigidity, that the most “authentic” experience of life is one that is afforded by ceaseless movement. As she explains to Julian, “I’ve proven that people aren’t trees, so it is false when they speak of roots” . Hitchhiking is here a figure endless motility — perpetual movement without origin or goal, motion for motion’s sake. Systems, the book suggests, that do not incorporate the instability of motion — that is to say, that do not include chaos — are doomed to destruction. Systems that are air-tight not fortuitously resemble fascist dictatorships; they attempt to impose order on disorder, they prefer homogeneity to heterogeneity. As a result, they unravel, for the extraordinary can never be contained or managed. Every system has “chinks” and leaks. In order for systems to endure, they must bear disorder within themselves. Stability and instability are — paradoxically — conjoined. As Sissy remarks to her psychiatrist, Dr. Robbins, “Disorder is inherent in stability” .
And yet, even beyond this cluster of meanings, the work’s most essential “theme” is simply the joyous dance of language; its eloquence is absolutely overpowering. When confronting the eloquence of someone like Tom Robbins, the literary critic should step aside, bow out, walk off the stage, and let the author take the floor. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is replete with surrealist disanalogies more striking than the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table. So exuberant is his writing that the author throws a party for the hundredth chapter of his book. What Friedrich Schlegel once said of Diderot could also be said of Tom Robbins: Whenever he does something truly brilliant, he congratulates himself on his brilliance.
Dr. Joseph Suglia