I’ve just finished reading Skinny Legs And All, by Tom Robbins. I love Tom Robbins. No other author I’ve read can use the sexual anatomy of a human as a metaphor quite so elegantly. Some people can’t get past his crassness, but I take it all in with a grain of salt and a chuckle. You can’t take his writing too seriously, or else you’ll go batty with the blasphemy.
An Arab and a Jew open a restaurant together across the street from the United Nations. It sounds like the beginning of an ethnic joke. But Isaac & Ishmael’s was no funny story.
This story follows the evolution of an artistic mind, one Ellen Cherry Charles, from extradition from her home in “Colonial Pines” to her enlightenment in an Arab/Jewish restaurant in New York. It also follows the “lives” of five inanimate objects- two ancient relics from the land of Phoenicia (what is now Lebanon), an androgynous tin can of beans, one dirty (in mind and physical state) purple sock, and one extremely fortunate silver dessert spoon.
Ellen Cherry grew up in the picture perfect Colonial Pines, Virginia. She headed to art school the first chance she got, but was mortified when her father and evangelist “uncle” stormed into a nude figure study class, dragged her out, and scrubbed her face of the makeup until it was raw, all the while calling her Jezebel. A part of Ellen Cherry carried the spirit of Jezebel with her everywhere after that, even asking her lovers to call out the name while they were making love. She’s the central figure in a series of events that end up changing the world, for a few people anyways.
The book is set during the conflict in the Middle East in the early 90s, and Robbins uses this war to make an example of humankind as a thoughtless, ignorant, lemming-colony of a species. The danger of organized religion; the risks of letting a sect do the thinking for you; the chaos and unnecessary violence brought upon by feuding countries with so much unknown history in common. These are all clear messages within the book. But Robbins does it in such a tongue-in-cheek way, it isn’t preachy or judgmental at all. It’s funny, and profound at the same time.
The personification of the five objects is definitely my favourite part of the book. The personalities the author has given to these five random articles is spot on, as close as one can get when personalizing objects such as these. At first I was annoyed by the narrator’s reference to the can of beans as he/she, his/hers, himself/herself, but by the end, it was as natural to think of the can as a genderless living being as it is to think of the pope as a Christian. The spoon was a dainty southern belle, the sock a jaded, misunderstood slacker. The 3000-year-old painted stick and conch shell were beautiful and wise, even more so than the Shroud of Turin would be, or the paint brush of DaVinci, had they been able to voice an opinion.
There is so much imagery and symbolism in this book (and every book of Robbins, for that matter); it’s a dizzying task trying to sort them all out. The narrator talks of the seven veils (the book is split into seven parts), these representing the disillusions we all have regarding life, spirituality and purpose. The Super Bowl was used as a metaphor for the consumerist addiction we face in the modern world, as well as being compared to religion when it comes to community, organized gatherings and fanaticism. Baba ganough, that sticky mound of eggplant and garlic, is used as an analogy for anything less than desirable in the world of Ellen Cherry and her foreign employers at the restaurant. And the room with the wolfmother wallpaper- I still haven’t figured that one out. If anyone has read this book and knows where this room is, let me know.
I thought of the book as a conceptual travelogue of the artistic mind of Ellen Cherry. From rebellious young painter, to a bride that compromised her creativity, to a brooding waitress, to an enlightened woman at peace with herself. Throw in some commentary on the middle east that’s heavy on the spiritual references, thoughts about the nature and business of art, and a quirky cast of characters, animated and non… you end up with this blasphemous, hilarious dance of a novel, Skinny Legs and All.