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Hi, Robot

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How to Wreck a Nice Beach is much more than a labor of love: It’s an intergalactic vision quest fueled by several thousand gallons of high-octane spiritual-intellectual lust. Outside of, say, William Vollmann, it’s hard to think of an author so ravished by his subject. Tompkins invites us to tag along on some of his adventures from years spent stalking the secret history of the vocoder. He interviews a 102-year-old retired crypto-engineer in Massachusetts, visits the Museum of Cryptology in Maryland, and hangs out for a disorientingly long time with a New York character named Rammellzee, a kind of funk-Dada artist-philosopher who seems to represent the vocoder as a lifestyle: He wears costumes armed with flamethrowers and lives in a kitsch-stuffed apartment he calls the “Battle Station.” Tompkins takes us on detours to meet the vocoder’s distant cousins: the Talk Box (a.k.a. the Ghetto Robot, Cosmic Communicator, Secret Magic Babbler), the Outer Visual Communicator (“a mouth-controlled virtual reality hologram machine”), and Auto-Tune (a technology developed by a former Exxon engineer and co-opted by Cher). The book has walk-on parts for some surprising figures: Ray Bradbury, Roald Dahl, New Kids on the Block, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn (he called the vocoder “an engineering desecration” but was forced to work on one for Stalin). And then of course there’s Tompkins himself, whose adolescence seems to have been scored entirely by the vocoder—he tells us, at one point, that the instrumental version of Fantasy Three’s “It’s Your Rock” was the first thing he heard after learning that his older brother had died.

The urge to manipulate the voice seems to be universal. “Ever since the first bored kid threw his voice into an electric fan, toked on a birthday balloon, or thanked his mother in a pronounced burp,” Tompkins writes, “voice mutation has provided an infinite source of kicks.” Tompkins is no exception. His biggest and most perilous adventure in How to Wreck a Nice Beach is the plunge deep into the throbbing radioactive heart of his own prose—a hallucinatory stew of Rimbaud, Tom Wolfe, Lester Bangs, and Bootsy Collins. The book is a kind of textual vocoder: Instead of giving us history straight, Tompkins separates the basic expository message into separate channels, beams them across his imagination, and reconstitutes them in a way that often sounds borderline insane. Sometimes the craziness is exciting, as when he describes the vocoder as “an articulate bag of dead leaves. A croak, a last willed gasp. A sink clog trying to find the words. Or the InSinkErator itself, with its wiggly, butter knife smile.” Sometimes it’s just baffling: “The polyphony reckons into the toxic highhold, an afterimage of burnt angels peeled from the eye”; “The lyrics quaver like algae’s grandmother.” In the second half of the book, Tompkins gets to flapping his funkodactyl wings a little hard for my tastes—especially given that his material, told straight, would have blown our minds several times all by itself. But, as with the Talk Box singer who fainted onstage after extending the word “baby” for 30 seconds, you have to admire that kind of dedication. Besides, it will probably all make sense in the robot-voice audiobook version.

How To Wreck A Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War II to Hip-Hop, the Machine Speaks
By Dave Tompkins.
Melville House/ Stop Smiling. $35.


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