by James Tate
Tate is a poet (and kind of a big deal) but I hadn’t read anything of his until I found this book. Maybe you aren’t supposed to judge books by their covers, but a snappy title that is easy to focus on sure helps. I mean, it’s got robots in the title, of course I picked it up.
Most of these stories are quite short: the book is 229 pages long, so many are only a few pages. They provide quick hits of reality, provoking feelings akin to the sudden sharp pain of a stubbed toe (“Thanksgiving: The Right Way”), or a sinking feeling in your gut (“Above the River”), or they just make you wince (“Despair Ice Cream”). They are full of opportunities for recognition and surprise because they are full of real people and their desperate crazy everyday lives.
In stories with couples, at least half of the couple is nutty or disturbed or sad or not quite reachable. There is the hope of impetuous and free motion in them, but you can’t really see it happening. The guy in “Little Man, What Now?” who puts his ear to the radio to listen to boxing matches isn’t going to leave his wife and run off to Egypt with the girl from the news stand. In “The Torque-Master of Advanced Video” Arthur is probably not going to quit his crummy job and change his life and keep his girl. We might want these things to happen, might think if we were the characters in them we would do these things instead of suffocate in our own lives… but probably we wouldn’t.
Now I’m probably making this books sound darker than it is, which is wrong, because it isn’t full of despair. Really. I don’t find ending lines like “The real bees were happy being bees until I came along and gave them all the false information that destroyed their little lives” depressing. Well, not in context. The stories are so short we see a sliver, some essence, a set up, we don’t stew in collapse and discouragement — there isn’t time for hopelessness to set in. And maybe it wouldn’t need to: maybe we’re seeing the moments before lives do change, maybe we’re seeing when things get figured out, the time people would look back on as a turning point. There’s a coiled energy to many of the stories, whether or not we see the spring.
Tate’s collection is compelling, I recommend it. I may even search out some of his poetry.