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Total Oblivion, More or Less, Part Two

May 26, 2011

In Part Two of Alan Deniro’s novel Total Oblivion, More or Less, Macy has reached post-apocalyptic “Lou,” (formerly St. Louis) with its broken arch, and is sent down the river by her father.  She manages to escape being enslaved, once very narrowly—and emerges at the end of the novel triumphant, riding a horse, wearing armor, rescuing all of her siblings, and in command of technology that even the newly-established American “Empire” doesn’t control.

Jodie, my partner who is also discussing this novel at Bookgazing, asked me more questions about character, some that I didn’t answer last time, because you find out more about Ciaran and the dog Xerxes in Part Two.  “Are they evil? Are they just insane….Do you think Ciaran has a bit of the traditional cruel, but disturbingly playful trickster spirit about him?”  Well, yes, Ciaran is a witheringly intelligent fourteen-year-old boy. I’m living with an intelligent boy who recently turned fifteen, and if there’s anything I can say for sure about boys of that age, it’s that you can’t predict how they’re going to react to anything.  Even the kindest of them can be cruel at times, because they’re learning how to flex their literal muscles and reach the limits of what power they can command.  It’s an explosive age, and would be literally explosive in a world where boys of that age are treated as men.  Ciaran chooses a side and fights for it, with all his cunning and bravery.  It’s an ironic detail that the object he is smuggling is encased in a volume entitled The Children’s Book of Heroes.  He wants to be a hero, but like the world, the rules keep changing.

Despite how realistic I find Ciaran’s character, though, he works partly as a plot device, as Macy says “I didn’t want to be like Ciaran. More than that, I was afraid I already was, and that nothing could stop me from sliding deeper into numbness and violence.”

And about Xerxes—he also turns out to be partly a plot device. He’s a dog until something impossible happens, and then it doesn’t really matter, at least to me, what motivated him as a dog.

But the plot is the most interesting part of this novel, so it was fine with me if some of the characters seem to have been created mostly to move it along, especially in the second half.  The ineffectiveness of Macy’s father, so formulaic in a YA novel, becomes part of the plot once they reach Lou.  As astronomer in his previous life, he has to adapt to the changing world, even at its most fantastic:

“Dad had set up his telescope in the attic. Wearing his overcoat and gloves, at night he would search the stars, the constellations that were unfamiliar to us. The sky had changed.”

When Macy gets all the way downriver to Nueva Roma, she has emerged from the sense of oblivion that has (both literally and figuratively) enslaved so many former Americans. When she gets on a platform in a tall building, Macy asks “how do these run?” and her guide replies:
“hydraulics or slaves or something.”
“What? I said.
Hydraulics or—
I heard you, I said. I’m just a little shocked—“
That Macy is now capable of shock shows what a long way she’s come towards what adulthood must now be, in such a world.  One of the things she discovers is that family loyalty can be enough to motivate good actions; that saving the world can be a side effect of doing the right thing for a person you love.

And this is what her father has taught her.  He has not protected her.  He has armed her with the kind of knowledge she needs to do more than just survive, and she uses it to make her part of the world more of the way it should be.

This is one of the best post-apocalyptic novels I’ve read in the past decade, because it can also arm you, the reader, with the kind of knowledge you need to live some version of Aristotle’s “good life” in the increasingly weird world of the future, which is rushing at us, sometimes too fast for us to process without help. This novel can help even those of us who are already adults to keep choosing the right role in our own story, which is like the first one Macy’s Dad tells, a story for which we have to decide on a satisfying ending.

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. freshhell permalink
    May 26, 2011 12:20 pm

    I wish I liked this kind of thing more but I don’t. I find post-apocolytic/distopic novels depressing and confusing. I like stories in a world I recognize. But, I suppose good writing and good storytelling supercedes genre choices.

  2. freshhell permalink
    May 26, 2011 12:21 pm

    Or rather – I like fantasy novels, esp since many of them START in our world and go somewhere else. Like the CS Lewis books.

    • May 26, 2011 12:30 pm

      Part of what I’m trying to say about the importance of this novel is that it makes our current American level of obliviousness (how many of us can say where Sythians come from?) literal. The world is changing so fast that if you keep settling for knowing a small part of it, other parts will take over before you even look up and realize it. This is a book Dusty should read 4-5 years from now.

  3. freshhell permalink
    May 26, 2011 12:34 pm

    She might like it. And clearly it resonates with you, which is always a nice bonus in a book.

    I get annoyed by the obviously-different names in this kind of thing that don’t ground me in anything I recognize. Not my favorite genre. I understand what you’re saying, though. I am thinking of stuff by Atwood and TC Boyle where the world is grim and there’s no cure and everyone’s out for themselves and you have to start all over again. It’s just too depressing. All the “going to war” stuff, as if we’ve reverted back to the dark ages and must begin again in tribes, etc. does nothing for me.

    • May 27, 2011 8:19 am

      This would definitely do nothing for you, then! I love all the Atwood dystopias. The point is not to get depressed, but to do something so the world will not end up like that for your children.

  4. May 26, 2011 2:41 pm

    I am not usually a fan of this genre, but I have to say this sounds awfully good. I’m sure I won’t get to it for a while, though.

    • May 27, 2011 8:20 am

      Harriet, sometime in the next five years would be good. Before AJ turns 14.

  5. May 26, 2011 10:07 pm

    OK, fine, I’ll add it to my Amazon list, along with the sequels to Life As We Knew It — which I plan to read over the summer when it’s sunny and in the 90s, thank you very much.

    • May 27, 2011 8:24 am

      That’s a good plan for reading the Life as We Knew It sequels! This one isn’t scary in the same way, or at least it wasn’t for me. Macy ends up with weapons, armor, and a submarine! (Hey, that makes it sound a little bit like the ending of Life is Beautiful.)

  6. bookgazing permalink
    May 27, 2011 10:38 am

    ‘That Macy is now capable of shock shows what a long way she’s come towards what adulthood must now be, in such a world.’ I like so many bits of this post, but I think this is my favourite. So many people around her seem so cut off from shock, despite the fact that the world only developed this way quite recently. And I think Ciarin’s break down when Macy comes to the jail is maybe a signt hat he’s grown up as well. He’s not that tough, cruel kid anymore.

    And I agree about Xerxes. Once he became William I just sort of forgot to wonder about what made Xerxes such a threatening sentient dog. I didn’t really mind about the characters as plot devices as the book seemed to encourage me to go with the flow and concentrate on the plot, which I’m often happy to do. I like outside character development, but I find I don’t miss it as much in books full of adventure. I just tend to think of the adventure as providing the development and the way character recate to events reveals their character.

    PS I think my second post is going to go up on Saturday btw, haven’t forgotten. Just a bit behind.

  7. May 27, 2011 2:11 pm

    Jodie, I think you’re right about Ciaran’s breakdown. I hadn’t seen it that clearly, and I think that’s because I’m so sympathetic to his character, seeing the daily struggles of my own teenager.

    • bookgazing permalink
      May 29, 2011 2:22 pm

      Oh I don’t mean to be like ‘agh teenagers, why so mean, I remember everything being roses when I was your age’. I meant more like he’s lost his scope for that extreme self-protection that gets teens through what are some very tough years (I swear how we all get through teen years without something really awful happening is kind of daily amazing). I think it’s good that Ciarin loses that, because it’s made him too hard along the way (the bit where Macy finds out he could have saved their mother really turned me against him, but if there ever is an apocalypse I’m probably too focused on the individualism to be trusted with decisions about vaccine distribution)but I hope real teenagers can hang on to that shield for as long as they need it. Teenagerdom is rough.

      • May 30, 2011 10:29 am

        good point–I like the way you put it about the “extreme self-protection that gets teens through the tough years” and how it’s made Ciaran too hard. It might be that the more “gifted” a boy is, the more extreme his self-protection, at least for a while.

        Could he have really saved his mother? I think he had to have had some grave doubts about giving an unproven vaccine to a pregnant woman, and whether a vaccine can be at all effective when you’ve already contracted the disease.

        • bookgazing permalink
          June 2, 2011 11:12 am

          You’re probably right. I didn’t think through the practicalities. Real vaccines don’t work if you’ve already got the disease do they?

  8. May 31, 2011 10:17 am

    I have enjoyed your analysis-full review and will reference this post when I tbr the book. It also makes me wonder if I should push for this in book club. I don’t think we’ve read anything of this type. (I’m a bit sick of memoirs.)

    • June 6, 2011 11:11 pm

      It would be a fun book to discuss in a club, I think.

  9. April 23, 2014 9:54 am

    Definitely wacked-out, but you make it sound so good! Plus I love that it starts off in St Paul and Pike Island becomes a refugee camp.

    • April 23, 2014 11:02 am

      It is a really good book. Memorable. Except that I seem to be completely and reliably unable to remember the title. I guess I’ve consigned it to…oblivion.

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