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Total Oblivion, More or Less

May 23, 2011

This week Jodie from Bookgazing will be trading off viewpoints with me on Alan Deniro’s post-apocolyptic young adult novel, Total Oblivion, More or Less.

The first thing we said to each other about this novel, pretty much the first thing you notice, is that’s it’s massively weird. Mark Graham, in a review at Tor, calls it “weird for weirdness sake.” I mean, really. There’s a gratuitous giraffe, sea (or river) cucumbers in the Mississippi, Sythians on horseback raiding St. Paul suburbia…and that’s just for starters.

But rather than go too deep into the weirdness today, I’m going to try to answer some of Jodie’s questions. The first one is about how realistic I find the voice of the main character, Macy, a sixteen-year old girl. In tune with the title, her tone is casual and detached, because her pre-apocalyptic world has disappeared so quickly and without explanation—the “oblivion” of the title is not only of the previous American civilization (St. Paul’s has been renamed Pig’s Eye, and Macy’s family is relocated to a refugee camp on Pike Island before starting off down the Mississippi river towards what used to be called St. Louis but by the time they get there is known as “Lou”). The oblivion also refers to the way Macy’s civilization disappeared; she says “I thought I was paying attention and all—I was in Model United Nations. (Last year our school was Angola, and we negotiated a settlement to end illegal diamond trafficking, which was funding a nasty civil war.) I couldn’t vote but I could read and watch, dammit. But if I was really paying attention, I would have been a lot more scared.”

After spending the last couple of years with my daughter’s sixteen and seventeen year old friends, I think I have enough experience to say that I find this voice quite genuine for a American girl of that age. She keeps thinking she knows the score: “One thing that I liked, in our new world, was that being sixteen meant you were an adult for all intents and purposes (which I always thought, until very recently, was actually ‘intensive purposes,’ which worked, too). Of course, that probably meant you were going to die younger. Die sooner. But as horrible and hard as things became, especially later on, I had to acknowledge the existence of a perk or two.”

There are interruptions to Macy’s first-person narrative, and they enlarge the scope of the novel in a way I quite welcomed. There are stories about her parents. There are stories told by her parents and then by other people she meets along their journey. And there are different kinds of news bulletins, showing how far between any real news of the world is coming, and how difficult it is to separate news from rumor in the new, even more oblivious, world that America has become.

One of the first indications Macy gets that the world has changed is when “the horsemen received their meeting with the governor. Then they killed him. They beheaded him and trampled the remainder of the corpse on John Ireland Boulevard. They stayed at the Best Western near the capitol. The next day the newscasters had torches in their studios. The weatherman on Channel 4 had a long, sudden beard. The national weather report was skipped.” There have been rumors of a plague, and they turn out to be true in general, although not in terms of the particular symptoms.

Soon after this, there’s a dispatch from “The Pig’s Eye Pioneer” about the “Battle of Toledo,” a message “written in permanent marker on granite flagstone” about how to treat the plague, and an excerpt from a “newsletter” about Iowa: “In particular, it is worth investigating the MUSEUM OF IOWANS…. The museum was erected by the founders of Fortune City, and speaks well to their civic compassions. During daylight hours, you can experience what life was like for prelapsarian Iowans: SIT within their black, horseless carriages, which they practically lived in more than their houses….”

I found these interruptions to the narrative essential to retaining the scope of the story, to showing why Macy’s journey with her family is more than just one girl’s story. They set up the events of the second part of the novel, showing that the actions of Macy’s brother Ciaran are, in fact, as big and dangerous as he believes they are. This is a world in which 14-year-old boys can actually fight with pikes and swords, like they do in games like World of Warcraft. What Ciaran does matters, and to more than just his family, who have supported him through years of a “’special’ program for the gifted and troubled.”

The interruptions from the outside world also show that the actions of Macy’s sister Sophia are more typical than what happens to the rest of her family. What happens to Sophia eventually serves to demonstrate how resourceful Macy can be. And Macy’s parents, as usual in a post-apocalyptic YA novel, decrease in usefulness as the world gets farther away from the one they understood. Her father Carson, who was “born…outside Columbus, Ohio,” just to bring the novel home to me, believes that there’s a job in his field waiting for him in St. Louis, when the job is as illusory as the rest of his previous life. Her mother, Grace, dies of the plague while trying to deliver her baby brother into this strange, new world. Macy gets the plague: “It sounds like a stupid thing to say, but I never thought I would catch it. For a long time growing up, I thought that car crashes only happened to other people, families unlucky enough to be news.” What she learns in Part One is that what happens to her is hardly ever news; it’s another path in a maze with shifting walls that she has to navigate in order to survive.

It’s not that much different from the metaphorical situations a girl of that age is thrown into today, but here the dangers are literal. What if the dangers you and your family face every day became matters of life and death? Do you think you could survive?

14 Comments leave one →
  1. lemming permalink
    May 23, 2011 11:19 am

    Your description of Macy’s viewpoint reminds me of how I felt when I started reading teh Collegian again in my thirties…

    • May 24, 2011 8:52 am

      You mean you kept thinking you knew the score? I tend to think you did; it’s the rest of the world that veered off into fantasyland.

  2. PAJ permalink
    May 23, 2011 11:47 am

    Our family would survive if we could stay together. My husband and daughter would survive if they could stay together. I’d be doomed without one of them. An editor doesn’t exactly bring a lot of survival skills to Armageddon.

    • May 24, 2011 8:53 am

      PAJ, yeah, I’d be making my way to join your family!

  3. May 23, 2011 12:30 pm

    Who knows how I would respond? I always think that each situation provokes new discoveries. Sounds like a very scary book.

    • May 24, 2011 8:54 am

      Care, it sounds scarier than it is, maybe. It’s oddly detached from the dangers. It’s a little, as Jodie has observed, like a kind of drug dream.

  4. May 24, 2011 10:38 am

    I was so impressed by Macy, because I would have been curled up in a corner of the boat freaking out after a certain point (Xerxes eating the baby would have done me in). Do you think her detachment is necessary then, for survival, or is she just being a typical teenager (I kind of think the later, remembering being a teen, seems we somehow bruise easier in the really unimportant situations, but tend to make it through the big, crazy times at that point in life).

    • May 24, 2011 10:47 am

      I think teens can seem detached when they trust their parents to get them through, and Macy moves away from that as her parents show that they’re more and more ineffective as protectors in this new reality. I also think that as she sees more horrors, she detaches from her emotions so she can survive.

      I haven’t forgotten about your question about Ciaran, but am saving it for part two because you learn so much more about him.

  5. May 24, 2011 11:48 am

    Sudden torches and beards and the whole element of large scale unexplained weirdness reminds me a lot of Peter Dickinson’s “Changes” series. Does anyone read those, anymore?

    • May 24, 2011 2:19 pm

      I haven’t heard of Peter Dickinson before, at least not in a way that made any impression. Do you recommend the Changes series? It looks like fantasy, which is something I lapped up like a cat in my teen years and have less and less patience for as I get older.

      • May 25, 2011 1:33 pm

        Well, I was a teenager when I read them, but they are certainly different from anything else in the genre, especially in that time, and I found them very interesting. Heartsease was the one I read first (out of sequence) and enjoyed most. There were illustrations by one of my favorite British illustrators. I have found Dickinson’s recent writing sub-par, though. He has a weird lack of emotion. I think he was quite a young man when he wrote the Changes books. I’d say give them a try if you are in the mood for a historical exotic, some day. They read a bit like old sci-fi.

      • May 25, 2011 1:42 pm

        My mistake. Wikipedia tells me he was 40-ish when he wrote the changes books. I don’t know why they feel so much younger than his others!

        • May 25, 2011 2:05 pm

          I found a paperback of the entire “Changes trilogy” so I’ll try them in order and skip to Heartsease if necessary.

  6. May 26, 2011 10:03 pm

    Is this going to keep me up all night like reading Life As We Knew It did this winter? Because really, I don’t get enough sleep as it is.

    Not entirely unrelated question: what apocalypse is the story post? Or is it a 70s-style unexplained sudden collapse? I can think of a handful of stories where the underpinnings of Western civilization dissolve without any apparent cause (of course, I can’t actually name any of them at the moment, speaking of sudden unexplained collapse).

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