Tuesday
May062014

Tyrannia and Other Renditions

By Alan DeNiro


 

Small Beer Press
November 2013
978-1618730718

Reviewed by Nick Kocz


 

Birds and birdcages and flight and flightlessness (real and metaphoric) are recurrent motifs in Tyrannia and Other Renditions, Alan DeNiro's second collection of speculative short stories. In "Plight of the Sycophant," armed angels patrol the grounds of a police state; the angels "don't have wings, but their guns do." In "Highly Responsive to Prayer," birds have largely been eradicated and replaced by flocks of "surveillance drones." As one character remarks, the drones are "bird-like, but definitely not birds. I've never seen a goose except in pictures."

The book begins with these lines from the collection's title story: "The man crashes to the ground, and then lies still, and birds fly to the site of him. They land on him from head to toe. He doesn't move, and won't move again of his own volition." The man in question is a political prisoner and his body has just been dumped in a barren valley where "thousands of corpses" already lay. The last of a particular cell of anti-government agitators, his body is picked apart by insects, birds, bacteria, and wild animals. Reminiscent of Jim Crace's Being Dead, organs and bodily fluids lyrically decompose, yet through the decay, DeNiro's dark humor pops up repeatedly: "At root, [the man and his] collaborators were harmless. He knew no one would believe that. Many of the collaborators have become even more harmless, on account of their deaths, strewn in the same valley where he resides."

Make no mistake: DeNiro's vision is dark. On the surface, his fiction shares a lot with George Saunders's work. Both populate their stories with characters squeezed into near-hopeless situations. Both limn the absurdly dehumanizing socioeconomic currents of contemporary and near-future America. And, of course, both employ liberal amounts of edgy dark humor. But there is a difference: whereas Saunders' characters often reach beyond their anxieties to achieve a kind of heroic grace through assertions of the self, DeNiro's characters struggle and largely fail to act in the crucial moments of their lives. Instead, they exist in a state of paralyzed stasis, too beaten down by the tyrannies that govern their lives to assert themselves or even effectively comfort others—hence, the recurring images of flight and flightlessness.

Normally, a protagonist's loss of agency would be fatal in a short story, but the reader happily chugs through the best of DeNiro's stories because his observations are so astute, so jarring and real. Swatch, the fifteen-year-old boy who narrates "Highly Responsive to Prayer," goes into a big-box store to meet his friend Fitch for lunch at the store's cafe. Next to a display of "Hummer lawnmowers" hangs a banner asking, "HOW WOULD JESUS FINANCE? NO INTEREST UNTIL 2029!" Fitch's sister, Abercrombie ("quite simply the most beautiful girl in the entire community") arrives in tears and announces that Fitch is in the hospital:

"A family ran over him. They were driving their house on the beach and they didn't see him sunbathing, and the house just pummeled him."

"Shit. Just like the wicked witch."

Later, Swatch retrieves his gun from the store's coat check: "The gun girl—she's about thirteen—looks at me kind of funny since I haven't bought anything. They always want you to buy something, as if browsing is obscene."

In "Plight of the Sycophant," a pawnshop worker offers to help start a woman's broken-down car. The police state in which they live is separated from neighboring countries by monolithic waterfalls that spread mist throughout the land. The pawnshop worker and the woman get into his Honda Civic, which is strewn with old birdcages, and drive to where her car sits along the road near the waterfalls. Through a strange twist, armed angels swoop down upon the woman. Gunfire erupts. The man becomes discombobulated. As he recounts:

The waterfall was cold and squishy and felt, I don't know, like I was touching an idea [. . .] For a second—a second—the waters parted in a sliver of a crevice. There was a humming sound. On the other side, I could see strange beings, with imprecise, blurry features [. . .] The hills were shot with green so bright that my eyes were slain [. . .] There were tall grasses and thickets, and paradise's blackbirds soaring above, between silver clouds.

Then the crevice closed. I was stupid not to jump through.

Although many of DeNiro's stories offer a cogent critique of contemporary and near-contemporary American life, he has a tendency to delve full-hog into Sci-Fi territory. Three of the collection's stories were previously published in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, one of that genre's premier venues, yet in this reviewer's opinion, those are among the least successful in this collection. When the stories look too far into the future and when their worlds become more unrecognizable to the here-and-now, when central characters become talking insects or people with "fish-scaled arms" and "infrared sensors on the tips of [their] fingers," the stories become more reliant on plot and less focused on character and emotion.

DeNiro's best writing, and his most effective and honest stories, address everyday subject matter. For example, consider this paragraph from "Plight of the Sycophants":

When I was small and inchoate, a mere child, I wandered the annexed, grim factories of my youth, looking for work. I always kept my head down and sought out gross, thoughtless errands. Kind of like cleaning the grease trap. I worked in quite a few automobile factories, actually—delivering sandwiches and juices on catwalks twenty stories above the assembly lines for the snipers. Those grimy mercenaries joked about pushing me off—my bones being smelted into the workings of an Impala chassis—but I took their coins and continued on my way. In spite of the ruthless teasing, I didn't feel powerless.

There's a searing honesty present in that paragraph that is entirely absent from his more sci-fi work. We can see the world of that paragraph relate to the emotions of that young boy gingerly walking on the catwalk.

In another story, "Dancing in a House," a bunch of friends want to go dancing, so they break into a house and crank up Steely Dan CDs on the stereo system. People are dispatched to the kitchen to round up a platter of peanut butter sandwiches, and rugs and coffee tables are re-arranged in the living room to create an impromptu dance floor. Readers sense the friends' transgression but are blown away by their sheer chutzpah. The participants have done this kind of thing before; indeed, from their perspective, what they are doing is imminently reasonable.

But there is a problem with this home invasion-cum-dance party: the house is not as unoccupied as the partiers have thought. A girl comes downstairs: "She must have been sleeping because she's rubbing her eyes. Her red hair is in a scrunchie, and she's wearing the sweatshirt of a band I've never heard of." Someone starts yelling at her, screaming that she should run off somewhere and die. The girl runs back upstairs, and the man who was yelling at her follows. One senses something horrifying is about to happen. The narrator admits: 

I want more than anything for the girl to be dancing with us, though I should have tried to ensure that when I had the chance to do something about it. Instead, I went along thinking that my silence was a lot more important than her well-being. Pain is not a form of dancing, though many confuse the two, no matter what type of thrashing occurs.

The story is entirely believable, and entirely real. As it builds to perhaps the collection's best climax, any number of things might happen. Without the crutch of sci-fi trickery, we actually feel for what the characters are going through, making for a thoroughly satisfying experience.

The collection concludes with something I hadn't thought possible: an earnest piece of metafiction. "The Philip Sidney Game," a story that could have been written by Paul Auster, begins, "Several years ago, I started writing a story about a man who was flying into Minneapolis-St. Paul and saw a car crash from above." "Alan DeNiro," the story's writer, had put the unfinished story aside twelve years ago but, upon finding it on an old floppy disc, is unable to stop thinking about it. He picks up where he left off and tries to finish it but hits several dead ends and gets disheartened.

My interest in any particular project always waned or (less frequently) waxed in ways that I never understood. The desire to start something would take over me, but then it always came down to a matter of endurance. I was always impatient, always looking for the next batch of kindling to set on fire until the smoke became thick and redolent, and there were more embers than flames, at which point I would almost always step away, scouring for fresh fuel. It was the slash-and-burn agriculture of the mind.

Which writers among us have not felt the same at some point? He is about to give up on the story, again, when a padded envelope arrives. Inside, filed electronically on another floppy disc, are three possible endings, the last of which puts "Alan DeNiro" in the very heart of the story. As we wend through the possible endings and the author's ruminations, the connective interplay between the past, the distant past, and the present take on growing importance. We begin to see the hold that storytelling has, not only on ourselves, but on those past and future generations we will never actually meet face-to-face.