I was not expecting Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, by Tom Robbins, to contain frequent disquisitions on topics from biology. I would have been less surprised to find them if I had read his Wikipedia bio first, for it claims that his work is characterized by “scenes extrapolated from carefully-researched bizarre facts.” Here are some of the ‘facts’ in question, from the first few pages of Cowgirls:
The brain, that pound and a half of chicken-colored goo,…that slimy organ to which is attributed such intricate and mysterious powers—it is the sellfsame brain that does the attributing–…
I admit that I have several qualms about this passage. TR I have not included most of the insults TR throws at the brain—does this not seem ungrateful in a man who mmakes his living selling books? Does he sell a lot of books to gastropods? I also would recommend steering clear of pretentious words like selfsame if you can’t handle basic subject-verb agreement.
But mostly what irks me is the pound and a half. Human brains, whether anatomically modern or Neanderthal, weigh upwards of 3 pounds. I have not “carefully researched” the matter, but I think we were last at the pound and a half level a couple of million years ago, somewhere in our homo habilis heyday. I understand that Robbins has some kind of grievance against the brain, but lying about its weight? Isn’t that a bit petty?
Here is TR’s take on microbiology:
One thing is certain, however: because amoebae reproduce by division, endlessly, passing everything on, yet giving up nothing, the first amoebae [sic] that ever lived is still alive. Whether four billion years old, or merely three hundred, he, she, is with us today. Where? …
There follows a long list of possible locations for this first amoeba.. Will it make things better or worse if I try to disentangle the chain of logic that led to this? My best guess is that TR is mistaking persistence of genes for persistence of the individual, that is, he confuses cloning with immortality. Even so, he must know that evolution happens…or is he a creationist? That would explain a lot. Surely his research has exposed him to the concept of mutation, if not to the fact that bacteria sometimes engage in DNA-swapping (asexual organisms have got to get their freak on somehow). So again, he must know that what he is saying isn’t true.
And finally, there is a fugue on the subject of rectal temperatures, most of which I will spare you. Here is a sample:
The normal rectal temperature of a bumblebee is calculated to be 110.8, although so far, no-one has succeeded in taking the rectal temperature of a bumblebee. That doesn’t mean that it can’t or won’t be done—scientific research marches on.
I do not know whether bumblebees have rectums, but I am reasonably confident that they are cold-blooded creatures without any stable temperature in any part of their bodies. I am also confident that Tom Robbins knows this. The key to why he schooses to lie about these kinds of things is, I suppose, to be found in the last bit,–for some reason, biologists, people who like to find out stuff about plants and animals and bacteria and then tell other people what they’ve learned, irritate the hell out of Tom Robbins.
It’s true that the whole book does not consist only of these strange jokes. There is also a young woman who is a really successful hitch-hiker because she has enormous, floppy thumbs. Yes, I’m pretty sure that is supposed to be funny, and no, I don’t get it either. I was even around, sort of, when the book was published in 1976; I was just a kid, but shouldn’t I have some clue about the culture that TR is coming from? I know some once-cool writers of the period around 1970 have faded from view (remember Richard Brautigan?), but I wonder if I would find them all so vapid now…I’m scared to revisit old faves like Breakfast of Champions or The Sot-Weed Factor, in case they’ve turned to crap while I wasn’t looking.
Anyway, I’ve decided to see whether I can experience any of the joy that Robbins apparently finds in telling pointless falsehoods. Here goes:
Tom Robbins, that pound and a half of chicken-colored goo…
Tom Robbins reproduces by division, endlessly…
The normal rectal temperature of Tom Robbins is calculated to be 110.8.
Hmmm, that does feel kinda good.