While I must confess that I'm no seasoned Tom Robbins reader, I did have the pleasure of savoring "Fierce Invalids" while on the first leg of a long trip to China. The delectable aftertaste of that absolutely splendid literary romp drove me to Robbins again at the bookstore last week; I chose "Villa Incognito" simply because the back cover description sounded intriguing. The clerk, a T.R. fan himself, sighed when he saw my selection. "It's hardly even a whole novel," he said, and encouraged me to read, oh, pretty much any other Robbins instead.
Maybe I should have listened, and picked up "Still Life" or "Half Asleep." I might not have learned what a tanuki is (nor about their rather titillating "assets"), and perhaps I would never have been enlightened as to the four different ethnic groups in Lao society. But I would probably have spent my vacation reading something that left a discernable impression on me, the way "Fierce Invalids" did.
Looking through the other reviews here, I find that the bookstore clerk and I are not alone in wondering whether Robbins' excellent storytelling abilities sputtered to a halt on this one. Although the majority of the plot takes place in Southeast Asia, there is the occasional American interlude - but the American characters and events are so poorly interwoven into the main story that their recurrence every twenty pages or so is as jarring as an acid flashback. Any real identification with the main characters, or any shared involvement by the reader in the events taking place, is in this case hindered by Robbins penchant for espousing obscure philosophies via his verbose protagonists. (In "Fierce Invalids," I found this an endearing method of developing a personal credo for the story's hero; here, it merely comes across as Robbins rather crudely inserting himself into the very story he is creating.) Finally, the novella (for I think it is most accurately termed as such) has an ending so abruptly and inappropriately placed that even Robbins himself apparently found not one, but TWO epilogues necessary. While they *were* enough to keep me from screeching with outrage and flinging the book across the room, they surely *weren't* enough to prevent me from merely dropping it to the floor and falling asleep - hardly an enthusiastic response, I'd say.
The book is not without its merits, of course. Robbins' unforgettable and unexampled descriptive gifts are on full display here, with metaphors and turns of phrase that stick with you for a surprisingly long time. Furthermore, they're to be found on nearly every page: a random page-flipping yields "an ice cream parlor on Main Street in Hell," "something the proverbial cat *refused* to drag in," and "its mask of lipstick democracy and mascara faith." Similarly, the author bravely straddles genres and stitches together folktale with biography, history with political polemic, creating a patchwork tale that, while hardly seamless, can certainly carry the entertained reader from lecherous Japanese animal ancestors to circus clowns in Seattle without derailing. Robbins' gift for language, and for sheer imaginative thinking, is definitely on a roll here - which is why I've bumped up to 3 stars a book which in any other author's hands would surely have merited no more than two.
Unfortunately, however, this patchwork tale is full of holes, and while I was indeed entertained I simply was not engaged - a disappointment from an author I *know* has the capacity to engage his readers. Robbins' ability to provide the reader with a complete and satisfying story seems to have decoupled from his other significant gifts. While it may be anathema to say this on Amazon, if you want to read "Villa Incognito" I recommend borrowing it from your local library or from a friend. If you want to read Tom Robbins, on the other hand, start with "Fierce Invalids" and proceed to "Half Asleep" or "Still Life," which are recommended as better alternatives by both the reviewers on this site and the bookstore clerk to whom I should have listened. While I won't say I regret reading "Villa Incognito," I most certainly regret the $15 I spent on what was, in effect, half of a good Tom Robbins novel.