DeNiro’s first novel (following a well-received string of short stories) presents a transformed near-future America: the nation is beset by anachronistic invaders, ravaged by a mysterious plague, and technology stops working. DeNiro pulls off the neat trick of making his surreal world feel internally consistent, largely because it’s grounded by the narrative voice of Macy, a young woman who finds herself on a river journey through this newly even stranger country. The matter-of-factness of her voice addresses the credibility gap, but it’s not without music:
I looked at Iowa. Moss-covered, windowless pickup trucks were marooned on the highway running alongside the river. A skinned, headless deer hung from a tree in a flooded backyard, next to a swing set. A trio of hide tents were set up on the flat roof of a strip mall’s bait shop. A small, skinny dog, smothered in mud, foraged along the banks.
. . .then there’d be that laugh of my mother’s, clear and clumsy, like a woman tripping over a bell that someone left on a cathedral floor by accident,
Total Oblivion, More or Less is divided into two major sections, and while I liked the book as a whole, I loved the first, and thought it was more successful than the second. The first half is (more or less, mostly) picaresque. Its catalog of weirdness and episodic encounters wraps up just as it’s beginning to feel a touch repetitive. Huck Finn’s shadow is so long it’s virtually impossible for a satiric book with a river boat not to call Twain to mind at least a bit; DeNiro’s ordinary folk confronted with the extraordinary also reminded me of George Saunders, and a smidge (despite a world of stylistic and thematic differences) of Rachel Pollack’s Unquenchable Fire.
In the second half, Macy and her family become increasingly embroiled in emerging political conflicts, and one of the characters is gradually revealed to be a sort of archetype. The novel also begins to suggest disappointingly straightforward metaphorical interpretations for the plague and the invaders. There are elements that evoke — deliberately, I’m inclined to think — Swift, Kafka, and Mervyn Peake; I thought at least one of these bordered on the gimmicky.
I also suspect it was a difficult book to decide how to end. DeNiro opts for small “r” naturalistic resolution over big “R” epic fantasy-style resolution — the right choice, but since DeNiro still has a lot of balls in play when the curtain comes down, it feels a bit abrupt. Overall, though, it’s a strong debut and certainly leaves me eager for more from DeNiro.
needs more demons? Let’s go with “no.”