The bouquet of Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume is as dense as beet juice, exciting as jasmine, and playful as citrus. It’s a heady infusion of life, death, love, religion, philosophy, sociology, evolution, physics, fantasy, memory, and history that’s as wholesome for the neocortex as root vegetables.
In an ancient time where kings are ritually sacrificed upon the first indication of old age, the greying King Alobar experiences a revelation that humans create and encourage the idea of a virtuous death as a way to accept dying as our inevitable fate. He decides that, however tough it may be, life is precious and it should be defended and preserved for as long as possible. It would be imprudent to blindly assume that the unknown of the next world is preferable to the world we know.
With the help of one of his concubines, Alobar succeeds in faking his own death and escaping his kingdom to embark on his life’s journey. He didn’t know at the time that he would find a way of living more than 1,000 years.
Breaking universal habits
He meets Kudra in India whose passion is perfume. While she uses floral extracts to mask unpleasant odours and enliven her senses, Alobar is invigorated more so by the musky, dank, and earthy smells of man unrefined. Guided by an Old World olfactory, Alobar is eventually lead to the meadows where he finds Pan, the primitive – and pungent – goat God of aux natural.
Pan and his nymphs teach Alobar and Kudra about the holistic and restorative powers of earthly pleasures – eating, drinking, screwing, bathing, and frolicking in the great outdoors – which run counter to the institutional authority of Jesus Christ that is beginning to lead the world toward individual salvation.
Focused solely on refinement of the self in the Age of Reason, humans begin to turn away from the organic groves, streams, and wildwoods from whence they came. Lalo, one of the nymphs, explains to them that disregarding Pan in favour of an individualistic life will eventually lead man to destroy the Earth.
Alobar’s global and timeless perception helps him come to the eventual conclusion that neither side is correct on its own. Immortality is achieved by harmoniously balancing the interdependent needs of the Earth and individual. Indeed, Aristotle would later describe this Golden Mean of the Soul as the foundation of a happy life.
Striking the chord of harmony allows man to resonate at a frequency that can break universal habits. After all,
The universe doesn’t have laws
It has habits
And habits can be broken.
Dematerialize or endure centuries of uncomfortable furniture
Gripping to the physical world, Alobar and Kudra manage to survive wars, fires, pillages, plagues, freezing winters, famines, and uncomfortable furniture across the centuries. And when curious neighbours discover their unnatural enduring youth, they simply hop to a new location, which takes them on a wild rip through Paris, Serbia, Croatia, Hungry, Italy, Bohemia, and beyond.
Finally, exhausted with laboring through life on Earth and spellbound by the curiosity of What Comes Next, Alobar and Kudra practice a new form of meditation in an attempt to leap to another astral plane. During this transcendental journey they lose each other, with Kudra succeeding in dematerialization leaving Alobar in his earthly body.
With the death of modern-day Jesus symbolized as a bee-keeping eccentric named Bingo Pajama, Robbins states that humankind is about to enter the floral stage of its evolutionary development, which will bring us into a more spiritual, empathetic, sensual, and environmentally focused existence. Married with memory and deep emotion, scents can aid our consciousness to blur the lines between past, present, and future and help us achieve a heightened level of human experience. Reptilian and mammalian forces are still alive in our psyches but their influence is diminishing. In essence, Kudra’s heightened sense and appreciation of smell helped her dematerialize to another astral plane and achieve true immortality.
Drop the beet
Alobar turns to scent to help Kudra find him again. But first, he must find the perfect base note in order to complete the perfume Kudra was developing prior to her departure.
So begins the quest for the perfect base note for the soon-to-be world-changing perfume. Unable to complete the work himself, Alobar seeks the help of three modern-day perfumers. Launching us into urbanized and technologized modern-day Seattle, New Orleans, and Paris, Robbins ingeniously weaves three separate but concurrent plot lines through the regular delivery of beets.
Get your fibre
Jitterbug Perfume is an epic that knows no bounds. The subject matter is thick and concentrated, as if Robbins is attempting to bite off more than he can reasonably chew in 300-some pages. While the characters are intriguing, their impression is abated as they are predominantly used as mediums for Robbins’ message. The language use, while impressive, can be tiring and unnecessarily over the top at times.
Still, like eating fibrous vegetables, I loved this book because I know it was good for me. It nourished my brain and soul simultaneously. It connected a million morsels of information I’ve gathered over the course of my life and served them up in one nutritious, ambitious, and palatable dish.
You either love or hate Robbins. While few of us managed to finish, I found this book immensely impressive as well as important. I would be thrilled to see more books like it hit the shelves to balance out the popcorn and Twinkies because … like it or not … it’s good for us.