I’m very ambivalent about this book. Skinny Legs and All is a dense, intricate spiral of a story with funny characters but serious messages. However, Tom Robbins’ style grates on me a little bit. There’s nothing egregious about it, but maybe I’m just getting less patient with purpler prose as I approach the ripe old age of 26. In any event, I appreciate and respect this book, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to.
Skinny Legs and All follows Ellen Cherry Charles, a small-town Virginian woman, as she grows older and wiser in New York City. Owing to her crazy fundamentalist uncle and estranged art-nouveau husband, not to mention her employment at a restaurant owned by an Arab and a Jew, Ellen finds herself adjacent to all sorts of events related to the tension in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine.
It’s also about a Dirty Sock, Can of Beans, and Dessert Spoon who join up with an ancient Painted Stick and Conch Shell to make their way to Jerusalem and await the coming of the Third Temple.
There’s a great deal of allusion here, Biblical and otherwise, and it’s easy to get lost down the rabbithole. The plot doesn’t move forwards so much as spiral around and around the drain. The main focus seems to be on Ellen’s struggle to redefine herself after separating from Boomer. She was supposed to be the artist, the hip and trendy participant in New York’s cultural scenes. Then Boomer, the welder who couldn’t see the point in art, suddenly finds himself caught in the maelstrom, while Ellen watches from the sidelines and finds her own inspiration and direction drying up.
Meanwhile, the anthropomorphized household articles are on a quest of their own, in a sideplot that is so bizarre I can’t do it justice. Ultimately I’m not sure it ever really comes to fruition—it’s fun, I guess, but it never held my attention for too long. I feel like Robbins is just having fun riffing off these characters he created, while also playing around in the sandbox of Middle Eastern history and mythology. And if that’s what he wanted to do, fair enough.
As far as the commentary on the Middle East goes: this novel predates September 11, 2001. I couldn’t help but fixate on this fact and wonder how it would be different if Robbins had written it ten years later. There is an atmosphere of optimism even amidst all the strange and sometimes upsetting things that happen, as if Robbins believes that humanity might possibly just manage to muddle through this all. The Middle East is an appropriate focal point for exploring our species’ foibles because of how it is the birthplace both of Abrahamic religions and so much strife in the contemporary world—how can a place named for peace be the centre of so much conflict? This contradiction proves to drive the most interesting moments of the book.
Yet for all its intensive soul-searching and intriguing commentary on religion, Skinny Legs and All strikes me as ultimately a disappointing and empty book. It’s nearly five-hundred pages of rumination on why humans band together with common beliefs and then proceed to be massive dicks to the rest of humanity. And none of what Robbins says about religion is really all that original or thoughtful—he says it very well, of course, but if you’ve read any critiques of or apologies for organized religion, you’re already going to be familiar with these themes.
What redeems the book, if anything, is Ellen. I enjoyed reading about her, sympathizing with her, and even being annoyed with her sometimes. Robbins gives Ellen sexual agency in a way that many male authors fail to do with their women characters—Ellen has a healthy internal and external sex life. The sexuality of women and the way our society and religions police it is one of the pillars of Robbins’ critique of organized religion, of course—hence the allusions to Jezebel and Salome and the veil dance that comprises the entire structure of the narrative. Whereas I wasn’t that impressed by the overall commentary on religions, I did appreciate this facet.
This is the third in a trio of books lent to me by a friend (Gould’s Book of Fish and Sweet and Vicious being the other two). I think I enjoyed the ride that was Sweet and Vicious most, but Skinny Legs and All is probably the best book of the three. Although it took too long to read for what little reward I got from it, I can still appreciate. For me this book is an example of how literature is like art—sometimes you know something is important, even though it doesn’t really speak to you on an emotional level. It’s intellectually satisfying, even though viscerally you’re left wanting something else, something different. This won’t be everyone’s reaction, of course, and I’m sure there are plenty of Robbins fans out there who love this book to pieces. I’m just not one of them.