“The Bees” by Laline Paull; Ecco (340 pages, $25.99)
Rational animals are a staple of children’s literature — and, in some cases, adult literature as well. I think of Richard Adams’ 1974 novel “Watership Down,” in which a thoughtful crew of rabbits sets out to find a new home, or Daniel Evan Weiss’ humorous and elegant “The Roaches Have No King” (1994), which involves the delicate interplay between a tribe of urban cockroaches and the human inhabitant of the apartment where they live.
In Laline Paull’s first novel, “The Bees,” has one essential difference — the characters she portrays are bees. In saying that, I’m not just referring to their shells, their wings, their stingers but also to their emotions and their culture, which are not human in any way we commonly recognize.
Opening with the birth of a lowly sanitation worker, Flora 717, Paull makes clear from the outset that we are in an environment unto itself. “Static roared through her brain,” she writes, “thunderous vibration shook the ground and a thousand scents dazed her mind. All she could do was breathe until gradually the vibration and static subsided and the scent evaporated into the air.”
It’s an entirely female social order, in which the few males are worshiped on the surface but dispatched with when the going gets rough. Paull portrays them as buffoonish, their language and demeanor almost Elizabethan in its excesses.
Flora is somewhere in the middle, a bee with a burgeoning consciousness, caught between her devotion to the queen, to the collective, and her own capacity for individual thought. When the hive explodes into intrigue and conflict (as we have known it will), she alone can move from caste to caste.
Nonetheless, in Flora’s sense of destiny, her purpose, Paull belies the less rational, or conscious, underpinnings of the apian world.
Yes, the hive is an elaborately structured society, with queens and drones and workers, and yes, in its organization, we are tempted to find a metaphor for ourselves.
Still, the most effective moments come when Paull spurns this reading in favor of something more imaginative. “Ego is the great peril of your occupation,” a Sage priestess warns Flora. “… Only Queen and Colony matter. … In the air, you may think for yourselves. Here, the Hive Mind takes that care from you. Do not reject it.”