When I was 17, my friend snuck me into a club in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A girl wearing a fur coat and impossibly tall Demonia platforms eyed me. When she asked my favorite book and I said Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk, she grabbed my face. “You should start reading real books, like Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.” When I asked what it was about, she said “It’s about everything and it’s about nothing. It’s really simple and it’s really complicated. It’s about thumbs and that’s all you need to know.” I was still trying to remember the title when she leaned over and kissed me. If cool Brooklyn lesbians read Tom Robbins, then I will too, I thought.
The first read electrified me, made me fall in love. I was spellbound by Robbins’s beautiful prose, his crazy tangents, his multi-dimensional characters, his tremendous understanding of human experience. More importantly, I felt represented in this novel: here was a queer, disabled heroine.
Tom Robbins challenges gender roles. He creates an immensely independent female protagonist: Sissy Hankshaw, a bisexual disabled women who takes the world by storm. She hitchhikes, has casual sex, and is a visibly disabled woman doing modeling. Having been born missing my left hand, the moment Sissy—who was born with extra-large thumbs—said “Well, I’ve always been proud of the way nature singled me out. It’s the people who have been deformed by society I feel sorry for” was a revelation. Seeing her go on to be desired and successful in life and love, I knew I wanted to be just like her.
A second read of the novel in my 20s left me feeling disillusioned; now what once seemed revolutionary seems disingenuous. Recently, there has been a lot of media conversation around capitalistic feminism, or “feel-good feminism.” It’s easy to identity overpriced underwear or t-shirts made in sweat shops as examples of this phenomenon, and it’s easy to identify the self-described feminist bro who just wants to sleep with you; but it was a real disappointment to my younger self to discover that Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is a kind of feel-good feminism, too.
It masquerades as a feminist novel. In a lot of ways, it does it well. But revisiting Even Cowgirls Get the Blues as an intersectional feminist adult is a different experience than when this book blew my mind as a 17-year-old. A second read shows that a lot of its feminism is just like the slogan shirts and pussy hats—feel good. The main problems with ECGTB is that it hinges on Sissy’s beauty, the man who “wins” her in the end, and the “solving” of her disability.
The first thing we learn about Sissy Hankshaw, besides that she has disproportionately large thumbs, is that she is incredibly beautiful. Lots of people desire Sissy. She hits every ark of conventional beauty besides her disability, and becomes a successful model because she’s so beautiful that people “overlook” her difference. First, photographers cover her thumbs in photos; eventually, she gets surgery to fix one thumb. This narrative move shows the multilayered relationships disabled women have with their bodies; it honors Sissy’s autonomy and the desire to change if she wants to. Trying to “fix” Sissy, though a letdown, is an honest and believable depiction of disability. So where’s the issue? Sissy would never have had as good of a life as she does without her good looks. Robbins continually reminds us of her beauty.
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues highlights the complicated relationship between disability and sexuality. Sissy’s disability is critical to the novel’s plot in terms of matchmaking. When seeing a doctor about her abnormal thumbs, and after the doctor deems her to be totally healthy and not at risk, Sissy’s mom requests that the doctor inform them if an equally disabled boy ever comes into his practice. “Oh Doc, if you should git a boy in here, if a young man ever shows up here with, a young man with ugly fingers, you know…Doc, would you please?” This is something every disabled person is familiar with: the assumption they would only be attracted to or compatible with another disabled person. Here, Tom Robbins is being responsible in terms of representation. He’s showing the less fun parts about being disabled. But once Sissy gets older, these experiences are completely erased.
Although Sissy repeatedly shows her independence and strength, some parts of the novel suggest that some of her success is only because of her good looks:
She had given herself completely to the hitchhike because heretofore she had nothing else nor hope of else. Ah cha cha, but now there was a choice. Or the possibility of a choice. She was pretty. And a pretty girl can always make her way in a civilized society. Perhaps she should somehow find a job…so that she could return to Dr. Dreyfus for that complex operation; so that she could lead a normal female life.”
This quote suggests that her beauty is the reason for her success. It also commends her for hitchhiking and getting a modeling job, but then expects her goal to correct her physical disability. This quote alludes that a “normal” female life only includes being aesthetically pleasing with no physical anomalies; that after breaching so many invisible lines, she would uncross them to “correct” herself. Sissy’s extreme beauty as a sort of copout. Thinking back to my favorite Sissy quote — “I’ve always been proud of the way nature singled me out. It’s the people who have been deformed by society I feel bad for” — I realize she is more trustworthy than her creator.
One of Sissy’s love interests is queer woman Bonanza Jellybean. More radical than Sissy, she is so untamable that Robbins must kill her off. She openly scoffs at gender and assumes masculine roles, while wearing a mini skirt. She doesn’t fit neatly into understandings of gender. She might not be as conventionally good-looking as Sissy. And she probably wouldn’t “end up” with a man. When I read, I felt like Sissy and Bonanza’s sexual chemistry was palpable. I thought they could even fall in love. But Robbins made the tired, cliché move of killing off the lesbian. Was he threatened by what he created? So threatened he had to physically insert himself in the novel? At the end of the novel, Bonanza Jellybean is dead and Sissy is with “Doctor Robbins.”
Sissy is built up, then taken down. She is normalized, de-sexualized, tamed. Sissy starts out a revolutionary and ends up a fantasy—tamed by Tom Robbins. Even her disability seems like a narrative quirk rather than the relatable disability I once perceived it as—Sissy is not too disabled, but just disabled enough. I wonder whether Tom Robbins imagined the most palatable queer disabled feminist he could feel comfortable with: one that still slept with men, who could cover her disability.
For all its problems, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is still one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. Books can’t be perfect. But if they’re good, they are transformative for the reader: they help you shape your identity whether your pushing against them or pulling them closer. I would be doing myself a disservice if I wrote off ECGTB for being problematic because then I’d miss all its beauty, hilarity, and wisdom. When I read it again and it didn’t live up to the regard I once held it in, I was heartbroken, but I also knew I was growing. Now I’ve been finding my real life Sissy Hankshaws through personal essays written by actual queer disabled women.
Now that I’m closer to that woman in the fur coat than I am to my 17-year-old self, I’m not sure what I’d recommend as a real book. I’d probably still recommend Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. I’d say “it’s problematic but it’s beautiful. It might infuriate you but it’ll find its way into your heart. It’s about thumbs and that’s all you need to know.”
“Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once, and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”
—Susan Sontag, quoting “an old riff I’ve always imagined to have been invented by some graduate student of philosophy,” but part of which (i.e., the first half) is often attributed to John Archibald Wheeler (who “admitted to having found it scrawled in a Texas men’s room”), Woody Allen, and Albert Einstein, but which actually appeared before all of these figures were supposed to have said or written it in a novel by Ray Cummings from 1922 called The Girl in the Golden Atom and is spoken by a character named Big Business Man, so I guess one can only really credit Sontag (or, I suppose, the “old riff” to which she refers) with the part about space (which, admittedly, is a totally brilliant and enriching addendum; really makes the phrase, don’t you think?), and if you think this quote attribution is convoluted and confusing well then hold onto your hats, there, buddy, because shit’s about to get real weird
Tom Robbins, in his 1976 novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, abruptly interrupts the narrative and briefly expounds on the nature of time in literature. “Even though we agree that time is relative,” he writes, “that most subjective notions of it are inaccurate just as most objective expressions of it are arbitrary…even so, we have come to expect, for better or worse, some sort of chronological order in the books we read, for it is the function of literature to provide what life has not.” He has interjected, he explains, to inform the reader of some reordering of certain events — i.e., that the events of Parts I and II occurred after the events currently being described in Part III. “The author apologizes” for any confusion but “does not, however, disavow the impulses that lead to his presentation…nor does he, in repentance, embrace the notion that literature should mirror reality.” Moreover, he continues:
A book no more contains reality than a clock contains time. A book may measure so-called reality as a clock measures so-called time; a book may create an illusion of reality as a clock creates an illusion of time; a book may be real, just as a clock is real (both more real, perhaps, than those ideas to which they allude); but let’s not kid ourselves — all a clock contains is wheels and springs and all a book contains is sentences.
This passage — one of my very favorites — drifted into my mind (a psychological phenomenon referred to, I now know, as “involuntary mental time travel”) as I read through James Gleick’s fascinating new book Time Travel: A History, as Robbins’s quote seems to have anticipated (or, maybe, pre-emptively challenged) just such a work. What could any book, a mere vessel of subjective interpretation, tell us about time, an invisible system of measuring change? I suspected that by the end I’d either feel tricked or confounded.
It turns out that I felt neither deceived nor confused — or, rather, I did feel those things, but about the subject and not the book. Gleick’s hybrid of history, literary criticism, theoretical physics, and philosophical meditation is itself a time-jumping, head-tripping odyssey, and it works so well. Even though Gleick can elucidate complex ideas into accessible language, he’s even better at explicating notions that remain perplexing. That is, he’s good at explaining paradoxes — itself a sort of paradoxical phrase, paradoxes supposedly being logical contradictions that defy common sense and are thus difficult — if not impossible — to comprehend. But a subject like time travel, as we savvy citizens of the 21st century well know by now, is rife with paradox, and any account of its history must not only engage with those incongruities but transcend them in some powerful way. There has to be, in other words, more insight than one would find in a given episode of Doctor Who.
That’s not to say that elements of popular culture are out of the time-travel historian’s reach (Doctor Who, for instance, is fruitfully used by Gleick in Time Travel), but rather that such an enterprise’s primary subject must only ostensibly be time travel but that it’s truly about why we’re so interested in the subject and what that means about who we are. The infinite intricacies of moving forward or backward in time have been so thoroughly dissected by popular culture that, quite amazingly, these meta-cognitive and entirely theoretical ideas have become clichés. In her fun and insightful new book Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned From Eighties Movies, Hadley Freeman notes a plot hole in 1985’s Back to the Future: “But complaining about credibility issues in a movie about time travel is surely the definition of carping.” And to think that humanity, as a species, didn’t even consider the concept of time travel until a little more than 100 years ago, and already such innovative and cerebral ideas have grown so banal they’re barely worthy of comment. It is amazing what human beings can become bored with.
Gleick is particularly suited to the task of writing a history of time travel. His previous books include Genius, a rich biography of physics bad-boy Richard Feynman; The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, which traces the origins of the information age; and Chaos: Making a New Science, a work that tackles chaos theory and that made “the Butterfly Effect” a common term. Gleick was also the founder, with Uday Ivatury, of The Pipeline in 1993, one of the earliest Internet service providers. Time travel, for such a writer, must be almost bromidic. And to be sure, there is a slight trace of disdain in Gleick for his subject here, almost as if he’s getting annoyed having to explicate ideas he knows are hogwash — e.g., his takedown of “time capsules,” which he refers to as “a special kind of foolishness,” — or having the irksome duty of assembling such declarations as, “In point of fact, time is not a river.”
But by the end of the book I too developed a frustration with the myriad arguments surrounding time — not at any of the arguers but of the flimsiness of my hold on it as a subject of speculation. Every time I felt I had a grasp on a particular way of thinking about time, some new theory threw my understanding out the window. For example, Gleick begins his history with the creator of time travel, H.G. Wells, and his monumental work of science fiction of 1895, The Time Machine. In its early pages, the protagonist, the Time Traveller, Socratically explains the basics of his invention with some skeptical (and similarly ersatz) characters:
‘You know of course [said the Time Traveller] that a mathematical line, a line of thickness nil, has no real existence. They taught you that? Neither has a mathematical plane. These things are mere abstractions.’
‘That is all right,’ said the Psychologist.
‘Nor, having only length, breadth, and thickness, can a cube have a real existence.’
‘There I object,’ said Filby. ‘Of course a solid body may exist. All real things-‘
‘So most people think. But wait a moment. Can an instantaneous cube exist?’
‘Don’t follow you,’ said Filby.
‘Can a cube that does not last for any time at all, have a real existence?’
Filby became pensive. ‘Clearly,’ the Time Traveller proceeded, ‘any real body must have extension in four dimensions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and — Duration.”
Gleick calls Filby a “poor sap” for putting up such a “feeble resistance” to the Time Traveller’s points, but for me such a basic explanation was revelatory — to consider duration as a necessary component to existence seems not only true but rather obvious once you’ve learned it.
But it quickly becomes clear that the validity of time as the “fourth dimension” wasn’t going to last too long in the rapid development of subsequent time travel theorems and the physics and quantum mechanics that eventually joined the party. Just as my brain congratulated itself for its keen comprehension, it was thrown for a new loop. Not that this is Gleick’s fault, of course — the very subject of time travel invites headaches if pondered longer than a few minutes, and Gleick’s book totals 336 pages of mind-bending conundra: some mental pain is inevitable, both for author and reader.
Gleick, though, through his years of scientific authorship, has become an artful writer who clearly has a deep love for literature, consequently employing fictional techniques in his nonfiction work. He repeatedly opens sections with the mise-en-scène of novels or TV show episodes that feature time travel, as in this description of the opening of La Jetée, a film by Chris Marker from 1962 that is made up of only still images, and which was the inspiration for the 1995 Terry Gilliam film Twelve Monkeys:
We begin again. A woman stands at the end of “pier” — the open-air observation platform at Orly Airport (la grande jetée D’Orly), over-looking a sea of concrete on which the great metal jetliners rest, pointed like arrows toward the future. The sun is pale in a charcoal sky. We hear shrill jet blasts, a ghostly choir, murmuring voices.
There is a ton of rhetorical work going on here, the kind usually associated with fictional narratives, from the thematic reference of the jets “pointed like arrows toward the future” to the asyndeton in the final sentence. Or consider Time Travel’s opening sentence, introducing Wells’s Time Traveller: “A man stands at the end of a drafty corridor, a.k.a. the nineteenth century, and in the flickering light of an oil lamp examines a machine made of nickel and ivory, with brass rails and quartz rods — a squat, ugly contraption, somehow out of focus, not easy for the poor reader to visualize, despite the listing of parts and materials.” Notice how subtly Gleick takes us from literal description (“A man stands…”) to metaphorical commentary (the 19th century as “a drafty corridor”) to literary criticism (“…the poor reader…”) to cluing us into the fact that he’s talking about a novel (“despite the listing of parts…”). Gleick may have a little of the frustrated novelist in him, but he’s certainly learned well how to exercise (and exorcise) that frustration advantageously. Time Travel is as elegant and eloquent as it is edifying.
This love of literature manifests in other ways in the book, too, also beneficially. Though Gleick runs the gambit of physicists and philosophers and theorists (from St. Augustine to Stephen Hawking), he’s most fruitful and fun and alive as a writer when he dissects novels and films and television — which is more than fitting considering that time travel itself was the invention of a fiction writer; Gleick, by featuring more fiction than theory, as it were, is merely staying in the tradition that originated the notion. For instructive tools, Gleick takes the reader through, e.g., Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and William Gibson’s The Peripheral and, most interestingly, E.M. Forster’s bleak and just fucking weird novella The Machine Stops. But perhaps my favorite is that episode of Doctor Who Gleick discusses (which I at first wanted to summarize here to grapple with a bit but which proved way too elaborate to do in anything fewer than like seven or eight sentences, and this is already getting too long as it is). Part of the fun of these sections is the various ways Gleick uses them to demonstrate certain abstractions or murky concepts, but what really makes them sing is how richly palpable Gleick’s love for sci-fi is — for its inventiveness, yes, but more so for its playfulness, the way it can positively relish the paradoxes and the moral dilemmas and the general confusion of it all. (Best example: Robert Heinlein’s short story “By Your Bootstraps.”)
And his love is particularly noticeable when set against his growing irritation at now commonly accepted views of time — most of which he so obviously disagrees with. “Timelessness, eternity, the four-dimensional spacetime loaf,” he concludes, “These are the illusions.” Time, for Gleick, no matter how skillful the rhetoric or how tempting the logic, simply cannot be denied its reality (or at least our illusion of its reality), because of how completely it situates our experiences of everyday life. It is, rather, space that is the illusion.
By the end I found I concurred with Gleick about time’s irrepressible existence, which might have warranted more examination of our psychological perception of time, as in Claudia Hammond’s 2013 engaging work Time Warped, which mostly ignores those dusty arguments over whether or not time exists and instead focuses on the way we experience it as a phenomenon. She notes, for instance, that as humans we’re not only organized by time but also exceptionally skilled at it (though, Hammond notes, citing Jean Piaget, the “father of developmental psychology,” that as children, we “find it hard to distinguish between size as it relates to time and size as it relates to space”). Hammond shows how time affects more aspects of our lives than we might assume, like conversations:
To produce and understand speech, we rely on critical timings of less than a tenth of a second. The difference between the sound of a ‘pa’ and a ‘ba’ is all in the timing of the delay before the subsequent vowel, so if the delay is longer you hear a ‘p,’ if it’s short you hear a ‘b.’ If you put your hand on your vocal cords you can even feel that with the ‘ba’ your lips open at the same time as you feel your cords start to vibrate. With the ‘pa’ the vibrations starts a moment earlier. This relies on timing accurate to the millisecond.
If the abstract debates over time are inadequate at worst and irrelevant at best, then shouldn’t these be the kinds of ideas we focus on? If time (and not space) is fundamental to nature, and we’re stuck with its effects no matter how much of an illusion we “prove” it to be, then our clever excursions through the epochs in science fiction might not be the most productive use of our intellectual attention.
But what the hell do I know? With each thought regarding all these pitfall-ridden concepts, I second-guess myself, and I begin to relate to Tom Robbins’s meditation in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. After his apology for mucking up the chronology and noting that books don’t actually reflect reality, he adds that he’s got a repertoire of sentences at his disposal, to do with what he wishes. “This sentence is made of yak wool,” he writes, while another sentence “has a crush on Norman Mailer.” “This sentence went to Woodstock” goes another, and “this little sentence went wee wee all the way home.” It’s a fun bit, but the one I really relate to is the final one: “This sentence is rather confounded by the whole damn thing.”
I have been living in a room in a house perched on a cliff that overlooks the Oregon coast for almost a month. A window with an ocean view spans the width of my desk, but when I sit down to write, I often find myself doing anything but that. I stare at the sea and the rolling clouds, or follow the beachcombers, the joggers, the surfers, and the fishing vessels further out with the binoculars my aunt uses to spot whales in the winter. The setting is striking to the point of distraction for this city dweller accustomed to skylines punctuated by skyscrapers, to glimpses of rivers from the Manhattan Bridge, to lawns circumscribed by park walls.
In Newport, Oregon, nature dominates. The only depiction of this town I’ve encountered beyond a travel guide is in Jon Raymond’s story “The Coast” from his collection, Livability. Raymond’s eye is attuned to the landscape of the Pacific Northwest. In his story, he describes the coastline in quadrants and colors as if he’s painting: “The wind was blustery and the sky was all over the place–dark in one quadrant and pale blue in another, with splashes of magenta, orange, and streaks of hot pink in the lower regions. The billowing cumulus clouds gliding over the ocean were like slow-moving buildings of water and air. I skirted the edge of the tide, avoiding heaps of bullwhip kelp and seagull carcasses and blobs of broken jellyfish.” The sea, the wind, and labile sky capture the tableau precisely.
The first few days after I arrived, I found myself spouting dumbfounded phrases such as, “The clouds! The mountains! Like a painting!” as if I were severely nature deprived. I’m sure I sounded like the equivalent of a yokel visiting the city, jaw dropping at the sight of yellow taxi-filled roads and towering buildings–just like the movies! I am smitten with the sea lions, the sand dunes, the washed up bivalves and cracked crab shells that litter the beach. The open skies have cleared the smog in my mind. The landscape works its way into my stories and it infuses my essays (as you can see).
It’s difficult not to notice the differences here, and not respond to the surroundings. When I was at the local library, a man found a pocket knife on the floor and turned it in to the lost and found. Hitchhikers walk backward along the coastal highway, carrying sleeping bags nestled atop oversize backpacks. More abundant and less haggard than the east coast variety, they make me think of ranch hand and expert hitchhiker Sissy Hankshaw and her magnificent thumbs, straight out of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. The fluorescent red and green sea anemones in the tide pools mimic the Day-Glo hues made popular by the Merry Pranksters, so it’s fitting that head Prankster Ken Kesey grew up in Oregon, just outside of Eugene.
I took up with Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test out of curiosity about Kesey, his writing, and his influence on the sixties West Coast acid scene. Wolfe emphasizes Kesey’s tremendous physicality and soft country drawl, which owe much to his upbringing in Oregon’s outdoors. Kesey’s father “had started him and his younger brother … shooting and fishing and swimming as early as they could in any way manage it, also boxing, running, wrestling, plunging down the rapids of the Williamette and the McKenzie Rivers, on inner-tube rafts, with lots of rocks and water and sartin’ death foamin’ down below.” He came off as a country boy, but when he moved to San Francisco as a Stegner fellow, his physical prowess and charisma made him popular with the bohemian literary set.
The Northwestern terrain also infused Kesey’s fiction. His second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, is set in a logging town near the Oregon coast where a family of loggers break from the unionized strikers by supplying lumber to a local mill. Kesey researched the book while living in Florence, a coastal town just south of Newport. He lived the logging life, in a way. By day he rode in the pick-up trucks that bussed loggers to and from their camps and by night he hung out at the loggers’ watering holes. The novel opens already anchored in the landscape, the pages suffused by passages describing the contours of the land: “ Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range … come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River … ”
After Kesey wrote the novel, his artistic focus shifted from writing to life. He devoted himself to living in the moment, to making experimental movies and bringing fantasies to life, to reaching higher states of awareness tripping on LSD. “I’d rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph,” was Kesey’s reason for quitting writing. Wolfe adds, “He talked about something called the Acid Test and forms of expression in which there would be no separation between himself and the audience. It would be all one experience, with all the senses opened wide, words music, lights, sounds, touch–lightning–” Even Kesey’s metaphors reference the outdoors–acting as a conduit for electricity rather than recording the earth’s movements with ink.
A Harvard undergrad on the staff of the campus literary magazine in 1970 spoke to The New York Times about her extracurricular reading habits and the irresistible appeal of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. She said, “Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Air [sic] Acid Test really gets to some of us. I had to stop reading it half way through because I never would have gotten my work done. I wanted to freak out on acid, and like Ken Kesey take a bus onto the road and just live!”
How does one get work done when it becomes obvious there are fantasies to enact, road trips to take, rules to flout? How does one write when nature, and life, beckon from beyond the window? Put the book down. Close the blinds. Or don’t. There’s a delicate balance to strike. Even Kesey, magnificent lightening rod that he was, wrote more books after the acid tests ended. And without Tom Wolfe’s assemblage of interviews and documentation of the Pranskters’ escapades in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, I would know far less about Kesey, his medium, and his life. I know I will soon pack my bags and go home. But I am lucky to have witnessed the landscape, and to know there is the possibility of return.
[Image credit: Anne Yoder]