In P.J. Thomas’s second novel, Gert’s Book of Knowledge, there is a deceptively whimsical quality that draws one in at the outset and leaves you with a semi-hollow pang of paradoxical delight-cum-remorse for all of the antics you have been privy to over the course of this thoroughly engaging ninety-three page journey. You don’t want it to end.
The hollowness I speak of is not of the superficial kind. It is more akin to the kind of hollowness Eliot speaks of in his iconic ode The Hollow Men, a poem that moves through a simultaneously light/dark narrative, littered with scarecrows and columnal ruins, ending with the playful, conflicted image of the prickly pear and the iconic whimper - in lieu of the apocalyptic bang. The paralysis apparent in Eliot’s metaphoric description of men caught within in a decidedly bleak physical and emotional landscape is captured in Thomas’s fleet footed prose by an attention to both broad and intimate personal details. The very first line of the book sets the stage for an exploration of love and sexuality that, although it is not always at the forefront of the narrative, it is always a pleasingly teasing storyline that informs the adventures of the title character and her cohorts from start to finish.
Gert’s journey, both physical, spiritual and philosophical takes the reader to a variety of global sites that represent a cerebral longing for knowledge - as Tom Robbins has pointed out - as an enlightening and profoundly enriching toy. The writer tinkers wisely with the notion of playfulness as she creates scenes that may remind some of us of past escapades where recreational drugs, sex, rock and roll were at the forefront of a life changing learning process. The difference between Gert and the rest of us may lie in the fact that she never really loses her sense of whimsy, play and radical adventure, even during the most somber and tragic moments. She is a kind of grown up Pee Wee Herman with all her toys and her past ‘indiscretions’ intact - and proud of it. Like Peewee she is always a child and always grownup.
"Gert . . . was renewing herself all the time. I try to define her but when I think I have pinned her she shifts, slips into something I cannot quite grasp. The paint on her portrait is never dry. . . [She] was wearing pink eyelashes and a Goldilocks wig. Her wedding dress consisted of ancient beaded Thai wedding garments sewn together into a “tribal wrap,” as her designer called it, which barely covered her unmentionables . . . Cameron crawled out of the tent reeking of good hashish and stood red-eyed and laughing with his great wide teeth. We all laughed and laughed with left-over high and giddiness from the days before, and then Gert bent over, then each of us, one after another, careful of our swimming heads, and we started to pick up the trash . . . I think I enjoyed the cleanup most of all the wedding favours." (pp 68-69)
The narrator, Gert’s former lover and constant student, continually reminds the reader of how down to earth this frequently flighty character really is. He opens with a personal detail about his own life and then embarks on a selfless journey of reminiscence and magical knowledge that Gert herself is largely responsible for. She is one of those truly memorable characters from fiction, like the zany off the wall personalities that inhabit a Tom Robbins novel. They are made believable by an unflinchingly personable and lyrical writing style that Thomas has cultivated in her previous novel, Always Up and Down. In both pieces of thoroughly entertaining and engaging fiction she has shown us, that, as Robbins claims -
"Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature."
Gert’s Book of Knowledge is all of the above.