Saturday, December 26, 2009

Alan DeNiro's Total Oblivion, More or Less

One of the fiction writer's principal aims, regardless of genre, tends-- at least for writers who want to do more than distract and amuse their readers-- to be about depicting and representing the world in which the writer lives. Representing the world one lives in is less straightforward than advocates of the style of "realism" (which is less concerned with verisimilitude than with supplying the reader with familiar and comfortable conventions that produce the illusion of "transparency") would have one believe-- and that's without taking into account that "the world" differs considerably from person to person.

To me, it makes eminent sense that in trying to find a way to write about our world-- a world which is shifting constantly around us, altering radically, often without our even noticing it, and, for middle class white people in the United States, a world in which the institutions that produce and secure white middle class values are, under the onslaught of neoliberal capitalism, inexorably disintegrating and vanishing-- a writer would choose to represent the current and near-future state of US life and culture in the way in which Alan DeNiro does in Total Oblivion, More or Less, his debut novel, released last month by Ballantine. (I almost wrote Bantam instead of Ballantine, because the imprint is Spectra.) I would go so far as to argue that DeNiro offers us one of the closest representations to the current state of life in "Middle Amerca" than any I've recently read.

In my discussion of the novel that follows, I will talk about the entire book, without worrying about spoilers. This is not the sort of book that draws the reader on by way of suspense and desire to know what happen next. Rather, it is an and-then-this-happened, and-then-that-happened, and-then-this-other-thing-happened kind of story, from beginning to end. The mysteries of the narrative lie in other areas entirely, which I will only begin to unveil and hint at.

So here's the novel's basic story: sixteen year old Macy Palmer is displaced, with her family, from their "normal" middle class existence in Minnesota, becoming economic and war refugees. Her mother is the chief casualty: there is no place for the traditional stay-at-home mom in the world the Palmers now find themselves in; her brother becomes a soldier or terrorist (depending on how one interprets his loyalties), her father-- previously a professor of astronomy-- becomes an astrologer, her sister--previously a college student-- becomes a slave, and the fetus in her mother's plague bubo-- her brother, apparently-- becomes a dog. Macy spends a large part of the trip traveling on assorted dubious craft down the Mississippi.

Macy herself is a 21st-century Candide: self-confident, impatient with everyone around her, largely trusting of people she doesn't get a nasty vibe off of, not much understanding the world she lives in, lacking in self-direction, unthinkingly bestowing her affection on those who have bestowed it on her. Through the book she moves from one bad situation to another, for the most part unscathed. The turning point in her story comes when her family is broken apart and her movement and action takes on direction, that of attempting to find and rescue her siblings from the dire fates that never threaten her. As she writes of herself:
I was desperate, beside myself as to how fucked up my family situation was. One brother a dog, the other in prison, my sister an indentured servant. And I hated being sorry for myself, because their problems were a hell of a lot worse than mine. The worst problem I had was not understanding myself one lick, and I could at least hobble along with that. It wouldn't' kill me. (262)
The basic structure of the novel corresponds perfectly to the constraints of honest representation of US middle-class reality in the first decades of the 21st century. The narrative voice is that of a teenager (i.e., Macy), occasionally supplemented by interpolated snippets that might not have been written by Macy. (The reader seems to have been meant to infer that someone other than Macy put her narrative together with the snippets to make a book. Or else an older Macy, the one who wrote the epilogue, did this.) Macy's narrative "I" presents the illusion of ego stability as it continually shifts to reconstruct itself to fit the different, almost episodic narratives it strings together into the kind of shaggy-dog road-trip narrative arcs people typically make of their lives. But while her ever-shifting narrative logic remains familiar and reassuring despite its passages through harrowing experiences, the world around her constantly alters, making her the center-- or even the eye-- of a chaotic hurricane. Surely the most familiar narrative voice found in fiction in the first decade of the 21st century is that of someone whose "worst problem I had was not understanding myself one lick," someone who knows the problems of most people around her are "a hell of a lot worse than mine." The familiar stories, the narratives that "work" because they are intelligible and accessible, are precisely those written about people who fit the description Macy gives of herself in the passage above.

But DeNiro then takes that familiarity and stability and messes with it. The reader may feel comfortable with the illusion of Macy's stability, but in the meantime, the social, economic, political, technological, and ecological landscape around her is radically shifting and alien-- just as our real world actually is. I've seen a few reviews of this novel, and so I know that at least some readers have constructed a narrative in which an "ordinary, middle-class family are set down" in a "post-apocalyptic" setting, or in which ordinary reality is invaded by 16th-century armies. But for me, neither of these readings work (any more than the catch-call "surrealistic" label works). What I find obvious is that DeNiro has found a way to depict the reality we live in that gets at that very instability in the way in which the changes constantly underway are immediately recuperated into the norms of middle-class American life and rendered ordinary and virtually invisible to those who are sufficiently privileged. If other readers don't recognize our world in this book, I suspect it's because they've got great shielding.

Grace and Carson Palmer and their children see their world and reality as "normal" until they slip out of their comfortable, middle-class lifestyle. The book offers us examples of people who have retained that lifestyle and sense of normality that the Palmers lose-- people who may be vaguely aware of the chaos people less privileged than themselves live in. Within the novel, whether the world looks chaotic and overwhelming depends entirely on whether one's socioeconomic status is sufficiently resilient and privileged to allow one to live a "normal" life. And since the various members of the Palmer family have different experiences of "normality," they almost never share a single collective vision of their world.

But we all know, don't we, that in our world (not the book's), such chaos and displacement in reality can befall any middle-class family through, say, catastrophic illness. We all know that it happens all the time. (Don't we?) And we know that all over the world (and in the US as well), being a refuge and immigrant (for a whole variety of reasons) has thrust millions of people into that same situation of chaos and displacement and loss of "normality." People who live "normal" lives need to believe it won't happen to them-- that someone in their family won't fall sick and/or lose their jobs, that they won't as a result lose their homes, that they'll end up in a camp with other homeless people (or in a shelter or living in alleyways), that they won't end up drifiting along without the rudder that normality provides. And so it is in Total Oblivion, the "'values" of middle class Minnesota life belong to those who can afford the middle class lifestyle.

Thus for Crystal, also from Minneosta, the wife of an ad executive who owns slaves and lives in Neuva Roma, Minnesota "is our homeland, and we should be proud of it, the values it stood for." But for Macy, who has, with her family, "fallen through the cracks," "Minnesota was broken and ravaged."(233) Concomitantly, the "values" that gave her mother a place in the world are vanished, taking her mother with her.

The narrative offers numerous clues, scattered throughout the book, to help the reader see that this is a head-on depiction of post-911 neoliberal capitalist society. We all know that science has fallen under serious attack in the US on ideological grounds. More to the point, though, science that doesn't pay for itself is of no value to our neoliberal capitalist system (which may be something many people don't like to think about). Carson, Macy's father, goes from being an astronomy professor to an astrologer: the fact is, neoliberal capitalism, which takes no interest in protecting the practice (or teaching of) pure science, has no need for astronomy professors. Pure science, like literature or philosophy, and like the basic liberal arts education, is considered a luxury. And so it is not beyond the realm of possibility that once classics and philosophy and literature departments are abolished, astronomy departments that aren't underwritten by NASA or defense contractors will soon follow. For neoliberal capitalism, universities are trade schools and the laboratories for profit-oriented science. That's why the federal and most state governments aren't interested in preserving them through hard economic times.

The Empire, which has its capital in Nueva Roma, strikes me as a version of the Bush regime made permanent and allowed to achieve its dearest desires. Here's a bit on the Empire's attitude toward science:
One of the prized conquests from the Empire's counterinsurgency was the laboratory of an immunology lab [sic] from the Centers for Disease Control, and five immunologists. The lab was a small one, in relative terms, and some of its sanitary nature was compromised by its transport and final internment. The Emperor didn't want anyone to see the lab, or take credit for its potential future accomplishments. Science was dead-- head had declared this. On the other hand, science, being a lost art, needed to be recovered to a point, and then reconfigured into something else more useful and unnameable. (283)
Isn't this brilliant? It captures perfectly the attitude of neoliberal Christian fundamentalists who hate science for being Darwinian, hate science for revealing global warming in all its gory details, hate science for discovering that genes for race don't exist and that smoking tobacco can cause cancer and heart disease, and yet need science for keeping big business going and producing ever bigger and more powerful weapons of mass destruction.

Another brilliant touch is the narrative's Tower of Justice in Nueva Roma. First, you need to understand that in Nueva Roma, "the street" (literally located at street level) is irrelevant: it's inhabited by the underclass and ruled and fought over by gangs of charioteers distinguishable by their colors (teal and turquoise being the most prominent) who murder and maim one another and anyone who gets in their way. (These gangs are apparently sponsored by corporations.) People who aren't in the underclass get around via the skyways linking the skyscrapers in which people and businesses reside. One of these skyscrapers is the Tower of Justice. Macy accesses the twenty-fifth floor of the Tower of Justice via skyway, and then Wye, the secret police spy, leads her
down a side corridor that got darker... I noticed faint writing carved on all of the walls. It was an alphabet I didn't recognize, wavy in places, blocky in others. I asked Wye about it.

All the laws and codes of the Empire, he said, are written on these walls. The oldest regulations are on the lower floors, and they get newer the farther up you go. That's why they keep adding floors to the Tower, because they keep writing and reinterpreting laws. The script here-- he ran his fingers along the walls-- is a few hundred years old. It's readable, but barely. Only a few scholars can read the script on the lowest floors.(247)
An apt allusion, I thought as I read it, to the Bush Regime's approach to law and "justice." Nueva Roma, by the way, is located just south of the Mississippi delta. As I read, I wondered what (if any) relation it bore to New Orleans. DeNiro chooses to leave that open to speculation. It is striking, though, that the Empire has no need of New Orleans and doesn't recognize it (which fits the Bush Administration's take on Katrina, certainly.)

And then of course there's the narrative's slave trade, which the narrative tells us was restarted by the oil companies when they could no longer sell oil, and which the narrative shows us has been taken up by backwater penny-ante entrepreneurs looking to make a buck. What DeNiro shows of it is a bit more benign than the current existing versions, but again, it's something that can happen to anyone who has "fallen through the cracks" of middle class existence. Its function for DeNiro's world is to allow the wealthy to retain the comforts that technology previously afforded them (before technology and oil failed): slave-power basically makes up for the loss of technology.

Macy's sister Sophia, naturally buying into the neoliberal ideology she has spent her entire (albeit young) life steeped in, believing she is striking out on her own and proving her autonomy, signs herself into slavery. She is strong, she is smart, she is willing to work hard: as far as she is concerned anything at all that she chooses to do is an act of agency, especially if it means doing so without anyone to help her. Let's hear it for personal autonomy! The narrator--Macy-- says when her sister leaves (not revealing whether this is hindsight or her thought of the moment:
I tried to be happy for my sister, I really did, but I didn't think personal choice and personal freedom--whatever that was-- worked well as a survival tactic anymore. (123)
And so Sophia's ecstatic, confident exercise of personal choice and personal freedom is to hand herself over to slavers. She will do anything for her career, she assures them, and a moment later finds herself owing "5000 golden horns" and has no career in sight. (Surely there's a certain uncomfortable resonance here with the sad all too common occurrence of young people, anxious for a professional career, succumbing to a terrible burden of debt they'll be bound to for decades to come.)

Though he depicts some of the ugliest parts of our world, DeNiro's Candide retains her optimism: because in spite of it all, in the world as he depicts it, people are basically decent, there are beautiful things in the world, and love is as real and as strong as the coldness and indifference of those who profit from and even delight in the misery of others.

If I ever had any doubts that DeNiro wasn't depicting current and near-future US middleclass culture, the third paragraph to the end, from which the title is taken, nails the connection between the narrative voice with its illusion of stability and the flux and strangeness of the landscape it negotiates and leaves the reader with a lot to think about. But that's to be expected. Total Oblivion, More or Less, is for people who like to think.


Anonymous said...

Good to hear - this is next on my list of 'wade out into the snowy icy snow to find' books.

Thanks for putting up the year end reviews too - more great stuff to explore.

-Carrie D.

Josh said...

Great essay; glad to hear that there's another Minnesota artist stepping up to the plate in the wake of Bob's and Garrison's deterioration. But:

"This is not the sort of book that draws the reader on by way of suspense and desire to know what happen next. Rather, it is an and-then-this-happened, and-then-that-happened, and-then-this-other-thing-happened kind of story, from beginning to end"? Jeez, Timmi, would it kill you to use straightforward language, such as "The hermeneutic code is superseded by the proairetic in this novel . . . "?

Because I have been so conditioned by my job to think in terms of syllabi, I can't help noticing that there are passages in your description that recall Dhalgren and Amnesia Moon. Somebody oughtta do an "apocalyptic present" study of all three.

Timmi Duchamp said...

I'd be curious, Josh, to read such a study, particularly since I find myself wondering if the differences in the three time frames in which Delany, Lethem, and DeNiro respectively wrote their novels of the "apocalyptic present" mark a tremendous difference-- or whether what they're writing about is part of the same long set of changes and processes.

I wonder if we could get Steven Shaviro interested in taking it on?

Timmi Duchamp said...

And thank you for contributing to the series, Carrie. I just love adding new stuff to my never-ending list of books I really really really want to read.