Saturday, February 27, 2010

Total Oblivion, More or Less - Alan DeNiro

It's a funny thing, but I almost didn't buy Total Oblivion, More or Less. I was standing in Barnes and Noble looking for examples of covers I didn't like, when I spotted what I perceived to be a cheesy spine jutting from amidst its peers.

A-ha, I thought, and raced off to show my companion my prize. Sure enough, the spine was ugly and the cover not my usual cup of tea, but for whatever reason I flipped to the first page and began reading.

When we left the store, the book was mine.

Total Oblivion,  More or Less, by Alan DeNiro

I keep forgetting how little I knew in the beginning. How little everyone knew. It's not as if I'm that much older now-is there that much difference between sixteen and seventeen? And it's not as if I have a lot of answers now. I don't kid myself about things like answers anymore.

Such a simple start, yet it gives us so many clues about the character and the story. Macy, the narrator, is a teenage girl who begins by telling us how little she knew. 

Yes, I'm stating the obvious but for a good reason: that's no small admission for a teenage girl--I should know, I used to be one. At that age we know it all.  To admit otherwise tells us something core-shaking has happened to this girl to change her from a know-it-all child to a young woman who recognizes how little she understands about her world.

At this point my curiosity has taken hold, because it takes something drastic to cause such a maturity jump in just one year.

But when we started downriver-even after all the chaos in the refugee camp-I kind of prided myself on how I had my act together. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Oooh, a refugee camp? Interesting. Why was she there? Why did she have to leave? We who?

Again, she tells us how cocky she was at the beginning, but hints at disaster.

No one had their acts together, at least in my family. I kept thinking, well, maybe all of this trouble will pass over, and electricity will start working again, and the Scythians--

The Scythians? That's my first clue that either we're not on the Earth we all know and more or less love, we're on another planet, or we're having an X Files encounter. Either way, I'm intrigued. And the author has done something I really appreciate as a reader: Scythians. It's different, but it's not too weird. I can pronounce it easily enough. He kept it simple.

And we've also learned she's with her family. She's neither alone nor traveling with strangers.

--will retreat to wherever they came from, and the Empire--

The Empire? Another concept that's familiar yet indicative that this might not be our world. Or maybe Macy means it's the Scythian Empire. I have to know!

--will give back their land, too, and people will be able to use their cars again and drive wherever they want to, and the government will find a cure for the plague, and we'll go back to St. Paul and I'll start my senior year, none the worse for wear.

 Wow, something catacylsmic really has happened and it's tied to these Scythians. No electricity, no cars, stolen land, a plague... 

And, again, Macy underlines her former naivete, reminding us that as events unfolded, she changed. Good stories are always about change.

And everyone would have stories after coming back-crazy stories, to be sure. But stories that couldn't hurt people anymore.
Of course, some people wouldn't have come back. But a lot of people would! And then life would resume more or less where it left off. There would be a lot of memorials and speeches about "healing" and "averting disaster."

The camera pulls back a little now, not away from Macy, but she expands the focus again. This event didn't just affect her and her family. It wasn't some simple, yet devastating personal problem. Whatever disaster occurred, it affected a massive number of people. Maybe everybody. Lots of people died.

I love a good apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic story!

That was how I thought things would happen, in the back of my mind, for a while. But each day downriver, that hope-or maybe something halfway between hope and fear-became fainter and fainter. And I remember the first time I began to understand that things might not be the same again. It was when my dad told me this story. I was still clutching my old life, but for the first time I started to catch the drift. What made it odd was that my dad wasn't good at telling stories. But I think he was trying to tell me something important- something that he didn't quite understand himself.

Here's what I picked out of this paragraph. You might see something different. 

my dad wasn't good at telling stories.  

Was. Past tense. I'm wondering, did he die? (I know now, of course, but at the beginning...)

Alan DeNiro makes us ask a lot of questions in this opening, and leaks few answers. Strong openings do that. They fill us with so many questions that we're compelled to flip the following pages until our curiosity is satisfied.

Our boat, the Prairie Chicken, was bivouacked on the muddy banks of the Mississippi, near what used to be Red Wing. We were eating dinner in a run-down public park alongside the river. At that point in the journey no one was starving, and we were stopping overnight.

Now the author is orienting us in space. The Mississippi, that sounds like we're still on Earth. Eating dinner in a public park by the river--sounds normal enough. No one is starving to death, it's safe enough for them to stop to eat and rest. 

How bad can things be? 

The author doesn't make us wait too long to find out.

It was almost like a picnic, except for the wannabe snipers on the boat, boys my age, watching out for roving bands of horsemen or just ruffians. There were refugees shacked up in the old rail station on the other side of the broken dock. I could see their little cooking fires through the oilskin windows. I felt sorry for them, stuck there like that. I didn't go and offer them food, though.

Snipers? Roving bands of horsemen? Ruffians? If this was my other blog, I'd make some crack about how it sounds just like Washington D.C., but I'm being sensible here. Those aren't elements we see in our everyday lives. This world is seriously off-kilter.

And again with the refugees. Something serious has happened if Americans are refugees in their own country. 

Something else, too. We see Macy is compassionate, but even that early on, when she's still naive and convinced she knows it all, she's no fool. No one was starving, she says, but clearly there's not quite enough food to share. I like a heroine who is no dummy. This is someone with a brain and a sense of putting family first. I have to admire that. I'd do the same. 

At this point I'm experiencing empathy and forming a connection with the character.

If I'd known about what we were all going to go through later, I might have tried to tell them: It's not safe anywhere, so you might as well hole up where you are, you're doing the right thing.

Here we have it: the promise that things are going to get worse. Refugees, snipers, ruffians, and starvation are just the beginning.

There's not a lot of fancy description here. There doesn't need to be. The narrator's voice is crisp and fresh. It's an opening that has served its purpose well--well enough that I bought it.

If I missed something, or if you feel differently, jump on in. I don't bite (unless you're a steak.)

You can buy Total Oblivion, More or Less here or here.

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