April 2009

Josh Cook

fiction

Dreams of a Robot Dancing Bee by James Tate

James Tate's last two collections of poetry, Return to the City of White Donkeys and Ghost Soldiers, both excellent, amalgamated prose and poetry, bending the character, dialog, and plot of prose into the logical freedom and imagery of poetry. By incorporating elements of prose, Tate showed an understanding of prose that argued for finally publishing his short story collection in paperback. In Dreams of a Robot Dancing Bee, there are all the major characteristics of prose -- characters, plots, and settings -- as well as the fluid logic and freedom of imagery of poetry. The stories describe the natural tension between chaos and order in existence more accurately than the linear narrative of traditional prose.

“At the Ritz,” shows two middled-aged friends having a drink at a bar talking about their lives. By melding poetic logic with prose style, Tate shows life as incongruous as it actually is. People say whatever comes to mind rather than what is narratively logical. Images arise without moving the plot or illuminating the environment as memories, ideas, and reactions appear in our consciousness without an identifiable source. Furthermore, Tate uses distant images -- images geographically and thematically distant from the plot -- to connect the mundane events to the potential of human imagination. Tate shows us a cricket in Namibia and swimming tigers in the Sunderbans while we watch two people drink. Those images, plus a dose of surrealism, plus the muddy down-to-earth tone of the narrator makes this the least melancholic story I've ever read about melancholy and an original perspective on the process of personal decay.

In “Robes” Tate meets one of the great challenges in literature -- presenting the consciousness of a child. Ollie Cunningham and his friends meet a tall nun, Sister Theodosa, who turns out to be a friend of Ollie's mother. Through leading Sister Theodora to his house, watching her interact with his mother, and processing the event with his friend, we watch Ollie learn about the world. Sometimes he struggles with the implications of everything he sees. Sometimes the emotional effect of Sister Theodosa confuses him. Sometimes realizations pounce: “Ollie stood by himself off to one side and looked around the room. He had never thought about it before, but suddenly it occurred to him: We're poor. We're poor and I never knew it.” As prose often artificially smooths the flow of events, it also creates artificial progressions of thought. Some realizations are created by rational exploration, but many realizations just appear, shocking us with their arrival as much as with their content.

The stories challenge the readers with a level of questions beyond simple moral calculus or vicarious self-exploration. In “Vacation,” the characters' struggle to describe their waitress suggests the question: how do we understand what we observe? They eventually conclude “Or more, she is ten human beings and three or four angels and a cheetah wrapped up in one delicious body. She's a celestial zoo and a vast box of animal crackers.” In “Welcome Signs,” we are lead to ask not “Why did Mrs. Morris crawl towards the mouse?” but “Why does she tell the mouse story?” In “Hedges by Sam D'Amico,” the question is: “What keeps us from pursuing the projects important to us?” By layering these questions below our initial moralizing of the characters' actions, Tate creates a disintegrating double self-delusion where judgement oscillates from character to reader.

In “My Burden,” the narrator tells us about the llama that prevents him from opening an auto body shop with his cousin. The narrator agreed to tend to the llama, Carl, for a Delbert Monrovia for $5 a day for the duration of Mr. Monrovia's travels. The narrator never sees a dime of that money and part of the story is a plea to “Mr. Monrvia “if that his his real name” for the rightful compensation. Caring for the llama prevents the narrator from opening an auto body shop with his cousin “Muscles Mulkern,” and fulfilling a very reasonable set of life goals, including having a sign with his name on it it, “because I have never before had my name on a sign, and just the thought of it makes my heart beat faster, how proud my pappy would be.” Layman's self-help argues that the narrator is using the llama as an excuse, that perhaps the narrator is “afraid of success” or “fears change,” or something like that, but what would you do? Shoot the llama? You still wouldn't have the investment money. Donate the llama to a zoo? You still wouldn't have the investment money. Keep trying to sell the llama, even though he scared off the only two people interested in him with “a half-pound spitball fired at a distance of fifteen yards”? Some might argue that he should never have been seduced by the thought of “the easiest money a man could earn,” but that's a solution to a future problem, not a solution to Carl. How many of us have “llamas” that keep us from our dreams. Your llama is an excuse, but my llama is a reason.

If not for four or five weak stories, Dreams of a Robot Dancing Bee would be a masterpiece in short fiction. It's original, vibrant, accessible, and challenging. Some day a number of these stories will become part of another masterpiece of literature: the selected works of James Tate. In the last story of the collection, “Farewell, I Love You, and Good-bye,” Tate expresses a perpendicular theory of literature's role in existence and summarizes the goals and successes of this collection: “Our lives go on. Our fathers die. Our daughters run away. Our wives leave us. And still we go on. Occasionally we are forced (or so we like to say) to sell everything and move on, start over. We are fond of this myth mainly because we have so few left. The Starting-Over-God is, of course, as arbitrary as the one who took father before his time. But we have to hang on to something. So we start over. There is a little excitement to spice the enormous dread. Not again, I can't, I don't have it in me. I've seen this one before and I can't sit through it again. But we do, just in case. In case we missed some tiny detail all the other times we saw it.”

Dreams of a Robot Dancing Bee by James Tate
Wave Books
ISBN: 1933517352
232 Pages