The Big Idea: Alan DeNiro
Are you prepared for a Scythian invasion? If your answer is some variation of “Bwuh?” then congratulations, you are like most people, who wouldn’t know a Scythian from Parthian, or indeed if either were people, or, say, a type of insect or breed of sheep. And this would also make you suited to live in the world of Alan DeNiro’s novel Total Oblivion, More or Less, in which there is, in fact, a Scythian invasion, just one of a number of invasions, and modern day go-along-to-get-along types suddenly have to deal with the fact the world has changed in strange and incomprehensible ways.
And how do these folks deal with all this sudden incomprehensibility? As DeNiro now explains: Perhaps differently than you might imagine.
In a recent study by National Geographic, 63 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds couldn’t find Iraq on a map. In a multiple choice question asking whether Indonesia, Armenia, South Africa or India had a Muslim majority population, about half said “India.” This type of illiteracy (or aliteracy) creates its own “realm of the fantastic” in everyday life–so what happens when people who know little about the world around them are confronted with, say, Scythians swooping down on their town?
Total Oblivion, More or Less is a novel in which Scythians and other ancient European tribes have invaded America from the north. Modern technology soon stops working, and a counterinvasion from a mysterious Empire to the south has led to constant warfare between the two factions. With a devastating wasp-born plague, and a mass uprooting of the local people, most Americans find their normal lives radically different in a few short months. The narrator, a 16-year-old girl named Macy, has to travel down the Mississippi with her dysfunctional family from a refugee camp in Minnesota; her father is supposed to have a teaching job awaiting him in St. Louis. The landscape and river have undergone a radical transformation, however, both geologically and culturally, which makes the journey fraught with peril.
One of the big ideas that let me launch into these waters is that of oblivion, a deep forgetfulness that comes over everyone in the novel like a fog. No one really knows why all of these changes have occurred, and on a macro-level no one is particularly interested in finding out why some dogs have been given the capacity for speech, or why the Imperial capital, Nueva Roma, suddenly sprung up on an island in the Gulf of Mexico overnight.
At times, Macy seems to be the only one at all concerned about the changes going on around her, or is willing to ask why things have changed so much. Most of the people she interacts with don’t really have the time or the energy to deal with the existential questions of why, exactly, the Mississippi River has achieved oceanic depths that allow the traversal of a submarine (which may or may not be from the Byzantine Empire–but anyway, that’s another story) and why Macy can see giant megaliths on the horizon in Iowa. At times she asks pointed questions that are rebuffed. There isn’t an easily determined causality–things just happen in an eternal present that most people accept without too much fuss.
I wanted to use this “unknowing” as the basis for the narrative structure; it was also an attempt at a different type of worldbuilding for me. Rather than construct a solid structure with a carefully worked out geographical compendium, the novel is more constructed like a sand castle close to the shore, with waves occasionally streaming around it and changing the contours of the structure. Moreover, the oblivion in our current American culture becomes one of the backdrops for the novel’s arc.
These various oblivions presented a few opportunities as well as challenges in telling this story. For one, I could keep it close to the vest with my protagonist and freed me from having to do a larger quest to “solve” the problems of the world. Macy is mostly trying to keep her sanity and family intact–and even though she is one of the few characters around who has curiosity about the melding of the ancient and the contemporary, she too has an understandable focus on the here and now–she and her family, after all, are fleeing for their lives down the Mississippi River. Even if there was some kind of larger plot point of, say, a time travel portal open in Saskatchewan, which the Scythians are streaming through (which there isn’t!), Macy wouldn’t exactly have the werewithal to go on a grand quest to make things go “back to normal.” Conversely, this required being as true to Macy’s voice as humanly possible–her observations of all of the crazy things going on around her are (except for very short bridging sections between the main chapters) what the reader has to go on–not only in a storytelling sense but an emotional one as well.
In the popular lexicon, the phrase “total oblivion” has come to mean “absolute destruction,” and in a very real sense that is true in the novel. However, the “more or less” in the title, perhaps, gives a glimmer of hope. Most people in the novel are able to adapt–and despite the terror and chaos that Macy experiences, she has the freedom to construct her own history the best she can.