Alan De Niro's "The Wildfires of Antarctica" fuses two topoi that have a lot in common—the myth of Pygmalion and the tale of Frankenstein. The fabulously wealthy narrator, an art connoisseur and patron who apparently lives in Antarctica, has commissioned a sentient work of art based on his wife's DNA, titled "Roxy: Shark*Flower." Roxy has skin on her arms that blooms with chrysanthemums, poppies, and amaranths, as well as serrated molars (that are capped when the narrator puts her on display in the Antarctica Institute for the Arts). George Bernard Shaw's Professor Higgins springs to mind when the narrator remarks "She was the one who threw everything away. She once had everything she ever wanted: protection from thieves, food," a statement that says more about the narrator than it does about Roxy: Shark*Flower (p. 151). Shaw's Eliza Doolittle, of course, ultimately refuses to be his creature. And so it is here; locked in her display case, under constant surveillance by the "bees" that stream video images to the narrator, Roxy's conversation with other works of art (also under lock and key) subvert her. Positioned near "The Epoxy Disaster of Late Model Capitalism" ("a hairless golden bear cub with horse quarters" [p. 152]) and "Paint! Paint! Paint" ("a taxidermied wolf head attached to a cherry-colored, wheel-less motorcycle chassis and eight spidery legs" [p. 152]), the narrator notices that Roxy has pressed herself up against the glass separating her from Epoxy and Paint, and that the three of them are conversing by way of taps.
The narrator alerts the museum to this "extraneous socialization" (p. 153), and Roxy is put under closer guard. "Socialization" rather than "socializing" is the narrator's choice; as is often the case in the stories in Tyrannia and Other Renditions, it is impossible to know the author's intention with particular pieces of diction. The author might be showing us a malapropism made by a wealthy man who can afford to be careless with words, or offering an interesting gesture to the idea that works of art can indeed becoming socialized and that socialization of art works is not the same as schooling them in civilized behavior—or both. After alerting the museum, the narrator summons the artist to discuss a "possible restoration job" on Roxy. The artist refuses, saying that Roxy is "more perfect than you can ever imagine" (p. 154). When the narrator informs the artist that while "artistic integrity is all well and good," Roxy is becoming a menace, the artist suggests that this may be "part of what makes her beautiful" (p. 154). But after a nasty incident, the museum decides to have Roxy "restored," and she is gassed and taken to the Department of Restoration, where Epoxy and Paint have already been taken—too late, though, since other works of art have also begun communicating. It is after this that Roxy, Epoxy, and Paint break out.
The story's art works are all sentient and coded with DNA, which provides a what-if element for exploring aesthetic politics. The most interesting works of art—among which can be numbered narrative productions—are of course in conversation with other works of art (at least metaphorically speaking), even when critics attempt to detach them from all context. Their creators may have little or nothing to say about that communication, and their owners (who are often not their creators) even less, unless they choose to immure them in vaults or archives. That art works resisting "restoration" (i.e., being stripped of communicative power) might therefore be dangerous and likely to run amok, in this case in a world relentlessly reduced to being the plaything of the ultra-rich, is, I imagine, a grounding hope of DeNiro's second collection. In the case of Roxy and her comrades, the wilder, the more ferocious and less inhibited they are, the more likely they are to break out of their glass cases and rebel against their owners. Their owners, of course, are not their creators, who have distinctly different attitudes toward and relations with the works of art of the latter create for the former. The creators have no interest in controlling, confining, or "restoring" the works they have brought into existence. Ibram Lassaw's suggestion that "It would be better to think of art as a process that is started by the artist. If successful, the work starts to live a life of its own, a work of art starts to work" (Modern Artists in America, p. 12) characterizes the hope of most modern creative artists for the work they've sent out into the world. In other words, artworks are "never finished, but only begun."
Wildness, fierceness, and anarchic imagination are traits, then, to be prized in this book, above beauty, order, and sense—or, in classical terms, the Dionysian over the Apollonian—and process. Beauty, order, and sense? Roxy and her comrades don't care whether museum-goers who come to stare at them find their conversation intelligible (much less notice it). And the book's cover offers us the first indication that the book will be all about engaging in ongoing, unbounded, non-dialectical process. At first glance, Kevin Huezinga's image appears to depict the map of an archipelago of islands. On second glance, it seems to be a skyscape of clouds, fancifully colored. But just as a skyscape of fluffy clouds often become more distinct, differentiated shapes, so these clouds soon begin to look like a collection of fish and mammals that are also islands on a map. In sum, the cover depicts all three versions at once, which is rather different from a gestalt image forcing one's brain to choose to see one or the other but never both (much less all three) at once.
The opening vignette, "Tyrannia," views a landscape through diverse filters. The body of a man who, having outlived his wife and found that "nothing was important anymore" (p. 1) had become an "agitator," been tortured and had his throat slit, has been deposited in a body dump by the empire's soldiers. The book from which he had been giving public readings, Of Clouds, argues that "the strucutre of reality that passersby experienced was a carefully modulated illusion" (p. 2). That's one take on the landscape. The next version or layer belongs to the birds, the bears, and the beetles. "Out of all those bodies in the valley, the birds find something site-worthy within the man, a joie de vivre in his broken nature" (p. 4). Another filter or layer belongs to the emperor, who experiences a twinge in his chest that passes like a cloud, falls asleep reading a novel involving islands and dreams of "terror-birds lording over the island jungles," while "the sun sets over the thousands of corpses in the valley" (p. 7).
"Rendition" follows, describing the kidnapping of the law professor who wrote the infamous Justice Department memos "authorizing" the US's official torture program (a figure any news junkie could put a real-life name to). The three young people who abduct the professor harbor a dubious mix of motives for their undertaking. They tell the professor that the basement in which they are keeping him is a "black site" and that he has left the US and is in "the Kingdom of Tyrannia," which has signed an "accord" with "the underworld" (p. 14). The reader may wonder whether this accord is a mere metaphor for a "realist" story or the literal condition of a fantastic element. Patrick, the point of view character, is more interested in Tristana and her relationship with Evan than he is in the professor. Left in charge of the bound and blindfolded professor, Patrick unsuccessfully interrogates the professor about what Evan and Tristana had said to one another in Patrick's absence, then drives home, kisses his mother, takes a nap. Later, he gets a phone call from Tristana interrupted by signal loss, in which she mentions a tunnel. He drives to the black site and finds Evan and Tristana carrying the professor into a tunnel to the underworld, Tyrannia. They emerge weeks later, bearing the dead professor on their shoulders and Tyrannia's marks on their bodies (marks borne also by the dead professor, whose corpse teems with beetles). Metaphor and reality lock the three of them, torturers and tortured, together forever, with Patrick their feckless, inarticulate witness.
Violence marks the stories in Tyrannia, a violence curiously mechanized and, once it is set into motion, beyond the individual’s ability to control it. Probably my favorite story in the book is "(*_*?) ~ ~ ~ ~(-_-): The Warp and the Woof." The story opens with Roger, a successful novelist, deciding to send a notebook containing the text of his first (unpublished) novel to his agent with the hope that she might be able to "extract" something marketable from it. In the third paragraph the word "radiation" comes into his thoughts, as he talks to his agent, to be dismissed. In the fifth paragraph, which abruptly switches to the agent's point of view, the words "Lord Manhattan," and "sweeps and declarations" (which the agent "knows" Roger won't want to hear about), further disrupt whatever sense of normalcy the reader may have begun with. The story bounces from point of view to point of view, tracing the notebook's journey and all the circumstances entangled therein, occasionally revealing passages of its awful, easily forgettable prose whose only potential is that of commodity yet which casually, inadvertently incurs mayhem. It reminded me a lot of the 1971 film The Little Murders, particularly in the way in which the reader, like the viewer of that film, must continually revise the world-building they have already done. Interestingly, while Roxy: Shark*Flower's acts of violence were acts of breaking out of confinement, the violence incurred by the "first novel" text in Roger's old notebook is incidental to that text and related, if anything, to its possible exploitation for profit. In the future world of the story, that’s simply business as usual.
In many of the collection's stories, as demonstrated most ironically by "The Warp and the Woof," the worlds in which they take place are so chaotic—or perhaps just so impossibly complex as to seem to defy meaningful organized representation—that causality can only be seen at the micro-level, where intentions are almost always meaningless (which is not to say they're meaningless at other levels). Where X causes Y, X and Y can only ever be clusters of discrete events existing in a cascading chain made up of immediate responses to clusters of stimuli. This background ontology not only disorients the reader (to an almost painful degree in "Moonlight is Bulletproof"), but also creates an ever-accumulating ontological and epistemological uncertainty. By the time I reached "The Wildfires of Antarctica" (which is placed three-quarters of the way through the book), my sense of uncertainty was such that I found myself doubting the narrator's claim to be living in Antarctica (which would not have been the case had I read the story first in Asimov's SF, where it originally appeared.
The final story in the collection, "The Philip Sidney Game," which exploits a classic metafictional trope complete with a narrator named Alan DeNiro who lives in Minneapolis and whose wife is named Kristin, puts it this way: "Alan, when you were a child, there was so much terror. So much. This was the reason you began to write, to make stories out of the things you could see. It was a way to make limitations out of the world" (p. 188). In this, his second collection, DeNiro's vision of the world is complex and brimming with relations among people and things that are often accidental and significance that contingent on the filter through which the world is perceived; it’s also one, yes, of terror, beautiful and sublime, painful and ecstatic.
Modern Artists in America, 1952, ed. Bernard Karpel, Robert Motherwell, and Ad Reinhardt, first series (New York: Wittenborn, Schulz).
L. Timmel Duchamp is the author of Love's Body, Dancing in Time, the five-volume Marq'ssan Cycle, and a lot of short fiction and essays. She has been a finalist for the Nebula and Sturgeon awards and short-listed several times for the Tiptree. She lives in Seattle. A selection of her essays and shortfiction can be found at ltimmelduchamp.com.