Jan 6, 2010

YetiReview: Total Oblivion, More or Less

30 Words or Less: Depicting the ancient past’s invasion of the American present, DeNiro’s debut novel echoes the feeling of his surreal shorter fiction: imaginative and unpredictable but at times uneven.

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Good: When it works, the base concept is interesting, thought-provoking, and even hilarious at times; The somewhat chaotic plot comes back together in unexpected ways toward the end of the novel;

The Bad: Lack of internal world logic may bug the rationale types; Had trouble attaching myself to the protagonist; Somewhat random asides disrupt the main plot

When I did some research for my interview with Alan DeNiro last year, I read his short fiction collection Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead. Each story evoked a different emotion from me. Some stories I loved, others fell completely flat. The strangest part was that it wasn’t a gradual progression. I would be amazed by the sixth story, struggle to finish the seventh, and then devour the eighth. There was no denying that all of it was imaginative and all of it felt like it was really trying to say something worth saying. The simple truth was that for me, some of it worked and some of it didn’t. As I turned the pages of Total Oblivion, More or Less, I realized that it was happening again.

The main thread of the book concerns Macy Palmer, Minnesotan and her mildly dysfunctional family. They aren’t extremely dysfunctional just the average American blend of middle-child syndrome, oversheltered youths, and other mild maladies. The Palmers travel down the Mississippi seeking safer shores after an unexpected invasion. Not an invasion of Canadians or Russians, mind you, an invasion from the past. Things begin to happen without reason. Barbarians begin to invade and pillage. Ancient imperial armies appear to combat the barbarians but claim the land as their own. Diseases with symbolic symptoms spread and kill and spread some more. Technology stops working. The world rapidly becomes a weird, weird place. Naturally, Macy’s dad decide Minnesota isn’t safe and decides to move his wife, two daughters, and Napoleonic son to St. Louis to take a teaching job and escape the rapidly deteriorating conditions. And that’s just the setup. There are wooden submarines, talking dogs, stone skyscrapers, and even a giraffe or two.

To be fair, this wasn’t the best book for me. I think very rationally and I get easily hung up on inconsistencies. When the world stops obeying the laws of time, physics, and internal logic, it’s only a matter of time before I have a hard time accepting things. But to DeNiro’s credit, he can write some extremely imaginative sequences and make them work. Despite my natural inclinations, when the book was good it was great. By pushing this typical American family through a series of obstacles so strange it would make Double Dare do a double take, DeNiro seems to be making some statements about the state of American family and culture. Ranging from subtle irony to outright satire (as an example, the barbarians keep McDonald’s open for the fast food), there are a number of layers to this work and I have no doubt that you could delve deeper and pull out connections that you missed on your first read through.

But for every segment that really hooked me early on, there seemed to be another that just didn’t fit. At times, the plot seemed to stagnate as DeNiro focused on developing the principal characters in his story. Unfortunately, none of these characters are especially sympathetic or interesting until late in the novel. They aren’t shallow; they just don’t feel worth reading about. It was simply too easy to set the book down and walk away.

Not helping was the structure of the story itself. In between each of the chapters, DeNiro places an aside that exposes a little piece of his larger, illogical world. Each aside was different in content and tone, ranging from health advice from imperial doctors and urban legends to random correspondence and Palmer family backstory. Some were certainly interesting but others fell short of that mark and in a book that was so chaotic already, they just provided further distraction.

Ultimately, the narrative becomes more focused on Macy herself. When this happens she stops serving as a lens through which her family is overanalyzed and instead takes on a more active role in the book. This marks a turning point in the novel at which a plot begins to emerge out of the absurdity and the wildly inconsistent scenes trend toward a satisfying conclusion. Even some (but not all) of the offputting asides were brought into cohesion with the larger story. I still don’t think they benefited the novel but DeNiro at least managed to redeem their prior inclusion.

In the end, despite my distaste for portions of the book, I felt like its strengths outweighed its flaws. Even the parts that I didn’t enjoy seemed overly ambitious rather than intrinsically flawed. I understood what he was trying to do and while it didn’t work for me, I could respect it from a more literary perspective. There is no denying that DeNiro has one of the most imaginative and unique voices in the genre today. If he can learn to pair his unpredictable creativity with a tighter story, the resulting book should be something special. Total Oblivion, More or Less is less than a total success but there is clearly enough potential to expect big things from DeNiro’s future efforts.

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