"Go with the flow" is an apt phrase to apply to Total Oblivion, More or Less. It's a good description of the only way the book can really be read, and is also fitting because a river is at the heart of it, both literally and figuratively. The first realisation of how much one has to go with the flow came for me in chapter 2, when the sixteen year old narrator, Macy, remembers life before "things started turning wrong".
While school was finishing up, we began to hear reports, on the edges of our hearing, about a plague and the armed men following in its wake. Up north, and in the Dakotas. We expected someone to tell us what to do about it. No one did. [...] None of my teachers seemed to be worried, and the same with the people on television. (pp. 13-14)
Comparing this description with the world-wide response to swine 'flu, and the number of people who have told us what to do about it, made it obvious that this was not going to be a realist type of apocalypse.
In her brief description of her life "before", Macy tells us that she lived with her family—astronomy professor father, mother, older sister Sophia and younger brother Ciaran—in St. Paul, Minnesota. Although things weren't perfect, they were 'imperfect in ways that everyone could handle' (p. 13). After they hear those rumours of plague and armed men, the internet and phones stop working, and then some teachers disappear from her school, but people only start to get scared 'when the first horsemen came into town, about three thousand or so' (p. 15). The horsemen (Scythians, it later turns out) are eventually displaced by unidentified soldiers wearing "nice red-and-bronze armor" and wielding pikes, whom people call Imperials, though they don't know what empire they're from. The Imperials force Macy's family to leave their home for a refugee camp on an island at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers. When Sophia is told by her soldier boyfriend that the Scythians are coming to attack the camp, the family makes another hurried departure. This time they go on board The Prairie Chicken, a converted steamboat, just as the attack begins.
It is on the ship that they first see the plague about which they've heard so much, and here, it's a real pleasure to go along with the dream-logic (if it is even logic at all), although it feels a bit odd to say that one of your favourite things about a book is the description of the plague. Be that as it may, the illness seems variable in terms of things like contagion and incubation period that we'd expect to understand about a disease, but its most wonderfully inexplicable symptom is that the buboes or pustules turn translucent, and have moving pictures inside them. On the first victim the family see these are "little sepia pictographs", of a "cathedral with a sun over it, the sun's jagged rays falling on the cathedral's roof; and a bird that mimicked his tattoo" (pp. 55-56).
Alongside this and the many, many other weirdnesses encountered on the river voyage, there's a lot happening in the family relationships. Sophia wants to leave the others and try to find a life of her own, though she feels guilty about not staying to nurse their ill mother. Ciaran is untrustworthy and ruthless, and has apparently always been so. Their father Carson vacillates between being ineffectual, being overprotective, and occasionally getting it just right—"My dad—that guy was always snatching redemption from the jaws of really, really bad parenting" (p. 115). Grace, the mother, is a bit absent throughout—ill quite soon, and rather scattered even before that. There's a nice description of her laughing during late-night conversations with Macy's father: "and 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" (106).
The family falls apart bit by bit and eventually Macy and her father end up living together in St. Louis, now called just Lou, where Carson makes star charts and becomes a successful leader of a "neo-hippie circle." Ciaran has his own place, and one night Macy asks if she can go see it, partly to try to figure out his secrets and also wanting to "yank his chain a little bit, too." When she does discover his secret, she's both furious and scared, of him and of what he's done. Ciaran is arrested while he and Macy are fighting and taken to Nueva Roma, the seat of the Empire farther south on the Mississippi River, where he's to be tried for treason. Carson asks Macy to go see Ciaran in prison, and though she hasn't forgiven him—doubts if she'll ever forgive him—she can't really muster the energy to care enough to refuse her father's request. She embarks alone on another river journey, which despite Carson's promises, is no less eventful or dangerous than the one that brought them to Lou.
The two stories—family drama and surreal post-apocalypse road trip—are clearly interwoven, with one reflecting the other. Both are breaking down, with the surrounding society becoming lawless and brutal. Indications of this include the inexplicable takeovers of cities, towns and ships by various military groups, encounters with "tourists" traveling on gladiator ships (and it's not the realist TV type of gladiator), the owning of slaves, and the violence Macy and her family encounter on the river and in Lou. We're also sometimes told that this has happened:
Besides, what we were living through couldn't be reduced to easy platitudes about being 'nice' or 'mean'. People weren't exactly bowling over to help other people on the river, to further the aims of a Judeo-Christian society. People weren't planting community gardens, or having marathons to raise money for breast cancer cures, or joining the Scouts anymore. That was gone and my sister was gone and soon Mother would be gone, too... (p. 122)
But although the understanding that the breakdown of normal societal rules and customs has led to an increase in violence and survivalist self-interest initially extends to the family, too, abruptly things change, and family feeling overcomes everything else. Macy's narrative expresses her rage with Ciaran when she discovers his secret, which is so great that she says she wants to kill him, and does manage to hit his head on the floor a couple of times, leaving him bloody and dazed. However, when she visits him for a second time in prison—as much because she needs his advice as for any other reason—he explains what he's done in a way that's far more convincing than the anger Macy felt over it, and she agrees to do what he asks of her, because "It hit me then: I would do anything for him. Because I loved him. I loved my brother" (p. 271).
This blood-is-thicker-than-water treatment of the family relationships sometimes borders on the trite. Nor is it helped by the short third-person narratives scattered through the book that provide background about each of the family members—for example a short chapter called "A Case History" about Ciaran, which tells how everything he did was done because he wanted to be loved:
Despite his troubles, and the troubles he caused, Ciaran was capable of great love. He loved his mother a great deal, and his father almost as much. Sophia, too, and William later. [...] He loved his family—except for Macy, and he only stopped loving her when she turned on him. [...]
These loves, these desires for good, could not be extricated from the demons.
They were the demons. (p. 244-45)
A hard-earned redemption or reconciliation can give an enormously moving pay-off, but this doesn't quite achieve that. By making Ciaran's action something he's done because he cares enough about saving lives to risk his own—albeit with a healthy side-helping of self-glorification—the edge is taken off the idea that the family, like the river, is both full of horrors and able to offer salvation.
Elsewhere in the book, a parallel to this "softening" of the family drama occurs in the way the surrealism is dealt with; for example, one of the third-person narrative sections describes how the oil industry behaves in response to "developments in the geopolitical landscape" (p. 87). The CEOs of the major companies decide to enter the slave trade, while maintaining that the slaves are actually "partners", knowing themselves to be staunch defenders of free enterprise (p. 89). This social commentary is readily applicable to the world as we know it; it is a blunt dig at behaviour and ideology all too common in the global business community. However, others in the book are also slave owners, such as the Emperor of an unknown empire that has somehow taken over parts of the United States, whose soldiers appear to speak Ancient Greek (possibly because they are from the past). This oddity exists inside its own logic; no explanation is made for it, and reactions to it may be very dissimilar to any reactions expected from our own experience. There is a gap between what is allowed to be inexplicable, just for the lovely weirdness of it all, and what is explained as being essentially "business as usual," whether that's family or corporate business.
On the positive side, one of the most enjoyable elements of Total Oblivion, More or Less is the humour, which is often both unexpected and winning. I was particularly taken with Macy's response when she overhears women exchanging rumours about the plague in the refugee camp: "I heard, another woman said, [...] that it turns people into what they would least like to be. Dead? I blurted out" (p. 35). Or her description of Julia (who "is not a slave," but is just being kept "until she has the money to pay off her debts"): "She was about twenty, and dressed in some outfit that was supposed to look maidlike but had more of an "I'm dressing up like the Amish for Halloween" look" (p. 234). There are also fantastic comic touches, such as the Emperor's insistence that his scientists record their findings on Post-its. "He postulated that America had something to teach his Empire [..] Natural resources such as adhesive paper were precious, and could revolutionize—given proper study and spiritual guidance, of course—whole archives of knowledge" (p. 285).
But in the end the book is somewhat frustrating. In stories, as in rivers, sometimes things do flow in different directions, but in stories, no matter how weird, this has to be done so that an overall feeling of cohesion remains. Total Oblivion, More or Less doesn't achieve that cohesion; I found it an enjoyable book with truly wonderful and unique elements, instead of a truly wonderful and unique book.
Hallie O'Donovan lives in County Dublin with two daughters, two dogs, and a precarious stack of books at the end of the bed which will almost definitely take just one or two more.