December 2013

Will George


Tyrannia and Other Renditions by Alan DeNiro

Unpredictable and action-packed, Tyrannia and Other Renditions collects thirteen shorts by Pennsylvania-born poet and novelist Alan DeNiro. Don't let the sinister-sounding title fool you. Most of Tyrannia's rambunctious, immensely entertaining stories -- seven of them science fiction -- blend bizarre speculations with intermittent humor. When there isn't humor, there's weirdness -- often extreme weirdness, funny in its own right. Fair warning: what I'm about to describe might not always make sense. That's in the nature of this highly unconventional collection.

DeNiro, who now lives outside St. Paul, Minnesota, uses that location in two of the stories. In "The Philip Sidney Game," an absurd slice of pseudo-autobiography, DeNiro imagines himself writing a story about a writer writing a story about a man who witnesses a car accident from an airplane. Everything goes smoothly until a mysterious envelope arrives. Someone -- an obsessed fan? -- has already completed "The Philip Sidney Game" for DeNiro, providing him with a choice of three endings. How did this self-appointed ghost writer find out about the unfinished work? Alarmed, the author sets out into the frigid Minnesota night to confront the mystery writer and discover, or decide, how the story ends.

"The Warp and the Woof" is a ludicrous sci-fi thriller partly set in a futuristic Minnesota zoo. The protagonist Roger, himself a writer of sci-fi thrillers, lives in the zoo with its mutated beasts, including a horse-sized sloth. Roger has a problem: he can't read his own handwriting since the future doesn't support cursive. The story describes Roger's struggle to typeset his manuscript. That's more exciting than it sounds, and much funnier too, with exchanges that ridicule the coarse dialogue of thriller genre fiction. (A courier delivers the manuscript to Roger's agent. "Bitch, give me the package!" the agent blurts lamely.) And there's plenty of slapstick: "She came back and opened the door, rather amazed that the courier was still standing there. The agent raised her arm and tasered the courier's face."

That's a real jolt. Nothing to this point in the story prepares the reader for action, or explains why a literary agent carries a taser. DeNiro loves to surprise, either by sheer abruptness or by presupposing familiarity with something that couldn't possibly lie in the reader's experience. For example, the "Warp and Woof" narrator offhandedly remarks, "From the Starbucks on the corner of Vine and Polk, a teenage girl watched... She must have been a viceroy's daughter, or a sphere-of-influence envoy, right off the dirigible from China." An old-time dirigible in a futuristic story? Unexpected throwaway details like that keep the reader off-guard.

DeNiro uses this technique -- surprising the reader with unforeseeable details --  again and again in Tyrannia. Take "The Wildfires of Antarctica," a comedy-horror story about a gigantic man-eating plant named Roxy the Shark-Flower. Roxy lives in an Antarctica art museum. Yes, an art museum. But isn't she dangerous to visitors? Won't she eat them? "The surveillance bees would always be with her," the narrator obscurely assures us. (Punningly, the surveillance bees turn out to be camera-equipped flying drones.) Nevertheless, one day Roxy grows legs and terrorizes the museum's guards. Now "The Wildfires of Antarctica" delivers one shock after another, with gory, anything-goes action sequences, silly but gross, like the best parts of a Sam Raimi film.

That's not the wildest story in the collection. "Walking Stick Fires" narrates the classic War of the Worlds-style alien invasion scenario, but from the aliens' point of view. These humanoid visitors have mandibles, claws, and (fortunately) perfect English. They've come to Earth to harvest all our precious nitrogen. Will they get it? Or will various non sequiturs -- such as a kickboxing match and a plague of mysterious stick insects -- prevent us from finding out whether the world ends? Amusing but inconclusive, "Walking Stick Fires" leans dangerously close to a sci-fi shaggy dog story. Not weird enough for you? "The Flowering Ape" introduces a telepathic cinnamon gelato scavenger who hijacks a space freighter.

It takes an unchained imagination to produce such mind-bending stuff. In fact, I'm curious to know what DeNiro considers too zany to write about. Probably nothing. That's fine, because Tyrannia's inventions should delight at least moderately open-minded readers. But its wackiness, its barrage of surprises, has a downside. The stories will test the patience of those who expect things to make sense. Even more than usual for science fiction, Tyrannia calls for a massive suspension of disbelief. You won't find many attempts to make the premises plausible, or hints at scientific bases for such phenomena as telepathy or walking carnivorous plants. This is mostly free-form speculation.

Some of the weirdness seems arbitrary and ad hoc. For example, the story "Highly Responsive to Prayers" notes, "All the shoppers inside the SuperCar are wearing boxer briefs implanted with glowing crucifixes." Why? Don't ask. Just watch out for their lawnmowers: "The lawnmowers are also designed to kill intruders." The story ended before I could figure out what to make of this. Or again, the plot premise of "Moonlight is Bulletproof" involves the theft of a poisoned Nintendo Game Boy. Is that a message about the deleterious effects of video games? If it is, I missed it. The ultimate resolution of the premise -- it has to do with law enforcement in a police state -- isn't terribly satisfying. If anything, it makes the appearance of the poisoned Game Boy seem random.

DeNiro's idiosyncratic style makes up for some of this. Sometimes poetic ("The moon was a low-hanging fruit"), sometimes epigrammatic ("It was a maelstrom of nothing"), his voice occasionally indulges a deliberately awkward phrase. "It was lots of boon," says the narrator of "The Flowering Ape," as though the word were still used other than in the idiom a boon. "Drexley started laughing. His voice pierced." When was the last time you heard pierce used intransitively?

Then there are some borderline wrong words, chosen (I hope) for jarring effect. Describing a corpse, the narrator mentions "the bruised torpor of the man's skin." The reader probably expects pallor. As for torpor, that's understating it: the man is dead. In "Plight of the Sycophant," a story about a border crossing defended by angels, the narrator recalls a time "when I was small and inchoate, a mere child..." But inchoate isn't usually ascribed to a person, even a youngster. Here's another one: in the story "A Rendition," a hospital's odor is called its "spoor," as though the building were roving game.

Right down to its diction, Tyrannia and Other Renditions never lets the reader get too comfortable. This is whiz-bang zaniness at its freshest and most original, gleefully devoid of cliché.

Tyrannia and Other Renditions by Alan DeNiro
Small Beer Press
ISBN: 978-1618730718
200 pages