David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Tom Robbins’ “Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas”

Tom Robbins' 'Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas'This book review was originally published in the Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star on November 9, 1994.

Although Tom Robbins has a reputation for writing humorous novels that giddily defy any attempts at summarization, his technique is starting to become disappointingly clear.

The inside sleeve of Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, Robbins’ new novel, promises all manner of goofiness by describing a plot that involves the collapse of Wall Street, a 300-pound psychic, a born-again monkey, and Sirius the Dog Star. Once you’ve made it halfway through the book, however, you realize that this is really the same book Robbins has been writing for years, to wit:

Take a confused and slightly squarish female protagonist. Throw her together with a hip middle-aged guy who a) regularly insults Western Judeo-Christian culture, b) is on some sort of urgent quest to put a whoopee cushion on respectability’s chair, and c) turns her on to kinky sex. Add in an exotic leitmotif like frogs, beets, or explosives to stitch all the meandering subplots tightly together. End with a prolonged sermon about flying saucers, the hypocrisy of conventional religion, Atlantis, and the virtues of recreational drug use.

Seattle resident Tom Robbins has managed to knock off six fairly entertaining books with this formula, among them the ’70s cult classic (and recent feature film flop) Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and 1990’s puckish bestseller Skinny Legs and All. But considering how long it takes for the author to churn these things out — about half a decade per book — Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas could just as easily describe Robbins’ modus operandi as his subject matter.

The book opens with our hero, an uptight Filipino broker named Gwendolyn Mati, bemoaning a ruinous crash of the stock market on Easter weekend. Her friends offer her little consolation: one of them, 300-pound medium and tarot deck enthusiast Q-Jo Huffington, has suddenly vanished; the other, Gwen’s lover and devout Lutheran Belford Dunn, is preoccupied with searching for his lost pet monkey Andre.

Scrambling for some way to cover her butt when the weekend’s over, Gwen meets up with erstwhile financial hotshot Larry Diamond. But Diamond has little concern for the brokering business these days; instead, he’s out to convince Gwen that it’s high time to ditch her materialistic career and join him in his mind-expanding crusade for the answers to the burning questions facing humanity. Questions like why the world’s frog population is mysteriously disappearing, why an African tribe named the Bozo detected a neighboring star to Sirius A thousands of years before Western scientists, and whether or not a celebrated Eastern mystic can really cure cancer with enemas.

The reader is likely to be plagued with burning questions of his or her own. Such as, does Robbins take any of this astral gobbledygook seriously? And why should tens of thousands of people fork over twenty-four bucks to read it?

Robbins’ equally ludicrous older novels like Jitterbug Perfume (which outlined a four-step recipe for immortality) and Still Life with Woodpecker (which instructed the reader in the ABC’s of making homemade bombs) were redeemed by their deliriously wacky prose. The author has an unparalleled mastery over the art of creative metaphor and non sequitur that propels the reader smoothly over such doubts about subject matter. Who else but Tom Robbins could write of “beets as intense as serial killers, celery as stringy as soundtrack orchestras, sesame seeds as blank as the eyes of termite queens”? It’s like listening to Robin Williams interpret Thomas Pynchon at the Woodstock festival.

And yet, Pajamas is linguistically lazier than most of Robbins’ previous works, and his indictments of conventional society only half as biting. Perhaps his biggest innovation is to write the whole work in second person, a technique more irritating than effective.

As for philosophical innovations, Pajamas adds to Robbins’ ideological canon a few ideas with more than a whiff of downright fascism — a disdain for the homeless (“Everybody has a hard-luck story,” claims Diamond), a disregard for politics of any shape or form, and a dislike of any ideology (especially Christianity) that champions the meek.

Probably the most important contribution Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas has to make to American culture is a new word to describe the sound a slide projector makes when it rotates to the next specimen: snickersnee. Like the book itself, it’s an interesting piece of linguistic legerdemain, but nothing to croak over.

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    […] one of my visits to Blossoms in Bangalore, Tom Robbins’ Half Asleep In Frog Pajamas was thrust and my face with a familiar voice demanding that I read it or at once suffer the […]

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