Dreams of a Robot Dancing Bee
Verse Press ($23)
by Melissa Maerz
Beep: The word worries the electrical engineer. Lately, whenever he greets his coworker Skip, the latter man greets him with the onomatopoeic outburst. Never how are you? or good morning or even just a nice little hello. It's beep-or sometimes zow, or when things are really bad, mutti-mutti-mutti-mutt-mutt. The two men will be sitting together, drinking beers, relaxing, playing croquet, or talking about Skip's kids, when a Tourretic yawp spontaneously erupts from his lips. These moments make the engineer think too much. Are the children beepers, too? Do miniscule insect-angels prattle about in Skip's head? And if so, why can't the engineer hear them? Such thoughts trouble him. "These are dangerous times," he thinks. And then, as if this is not a satisfactory explanation, he himself lets out a honk.
Honk: The word exhilarates James Tate, author of the short story "Beep." For Tate, honk is the reveille of our times, a signifier of modern life's complete disconnect. In his collection Dreams of a Robot Dancing Bee, every short story honks: None of the characters speak the same language, and some of the characters simply can't speak at all. In "Hedges, By Sam D'Amico," a lifelong plant expert can't bring himself to write so much as a paragraph about the titular shrubs. "Our Country Cousins" finds an urban man struggling to describe Tofutti to his niece. The nervous husband of "Raven of Dawn," who plans on leaving his wife, can only express his guilt by staring into the hole in his backyard. It's a predicament that, appropriately, Tate leaves largely unexplained, save for a single statement by the engineer in "Beep": "I was on the verge of being afraid," he admits, "because the continuity of any conversation could break down at any moment into nonsensical animal noises, which is not really fair to the animal world. Skip's voice was sand in the gears of life, grating and, ultimately, destroying the machine by which we live-making sense, cause and response irrelevant."
To a certain degree, Tate, too, has broken down the hermeneutic apparatus he's established for himself. Best known for his numerous books of surreal poetry-including Worshipful Company of Fletchers, which won a National Book Award in 1997, and 1991's Pulitzer Prize-winning Selected Poems-he has, in the past, refused any attempt to demonstrate his ideas plainly. Through the image, say, of a human head transformed into a multi-limbed pumpkin ("50 Views of Toyko"), or a depiction of a society in which religious leaders are selected according to who throws up ("How the Pope is Chosen"), Tate made his fantastically absurdist visions vividly clear. But in Dreams of a Robot Dancing Bee, his first foray into short story writing, he chooses a voice closer to that of Raymond Carver or John Cheever than to Ionesco or Baudelaire. Consequently, he turns the model he's created for his poetry on its pumpkin head.
It's no small task to explain the surreality of everyday life in easily recognizable terms, but Tate still manages to embody the daily grind's bizarre qualities within his every word. He hints that the pleasure of communication lies not only in his readers' ability to interpret his stories, but also in their enjoyment of his words' organic sounds-the poetry in his prose. One of Tate's protagonists, a Senator who can't decide why his life isn't what it could be, finds his two main obstacles in gibberish-"mush/not mush"-which he repeats to himself. The words are glorious abstractions of real life problems, as are Tate's stories. And that's what draws us to them. We may find the messy relationships and personal shortfalls detailed in Dreams of a Robot Dancing Bee to be the stuff of everyday life, but Tate's language makes each of them hyper-real. Though we may not quite understand a narratorŐs epiphany when phrased as "my husband is the raven of dawn," we can understand her (and Tate's) quest to make meaning out of nonsense-perhaps ultimately the very point of "everyday life." Tate details such simultaneously obscure and lucid moments eloquently, almost expertly-and for that we can only say beep. Beep, honk.