10 May 2004

"Tetrarchs" by Alan DeNiro

Just as I was trying to figure out why I thought Michael Bergstein's "The Reincarnate" in the latest issue of Conjunctions didn't quite work, despite many good elements, I read "Tetrarchs" at Strange Horizons, in which Alan DeNiro does much of what Bergstein seemed to be trying to do, and plenty more.

Since Bergstein's story is not online, it is probably unfair of me to comment about it at length, at least for the moment. I recommend getting Conjunctions: 41 not only so you can read Bergstein's story, but also for numerous other pieces. (In fact, Alan DeNiro himself recently wrote to me about the first story in the journal, by Steve Erikson, which is science fictional, but I haven't had a chance yet to read it.) Bergstein writes a clever, though hardly original, story about reincarnation, in which a man continues to realize he is someone else, and that someone else is someone else, and someone else just might be everyone else. The story is told with skill and has some interesting narrative surprises, but it left me cold.

DeNiro is not exactly dealing with reincarnation in "Tetrarchs", and his story certainly shows more imaginative panache than Bergstein's, but the link between the two that interests me is in how they approach and resolve the Moebius strip-nature of their tales. Bergstein's story is far more traditional in its approach, while DeNiro takes jazz as his structural model, riffing both with language and incident. I ended up feeling "The Reincarnate" was less interesting than it could have been, because I ended up feeling that the story doesn't carve enough space for the reader to do some work -- it's not a story that expands very much in the mind. "Tetrarchs" is exactly the opposite: this is a story I read twice because it felt like my skull might burst open.

Let me abandon both hyperbole and questionable comparisons with other stories and delve into what Alan DeNiro has written--

Consider a paragraph:
A kid reached out his hands and asked if I could spare him a dream, and I said, no, I didn't have any dreams to spare. He clenched his hands together, towards his tiny face. Like he was in a two-bit opera. I kept walking. I wanted a cigarette and whiskey more than anything. The perfect duo. Peeking in windows of St. Saul wasn't getting me anywhere, so I decided to take a shot at Misericorde. I hopped the #2 train, which took me over the river-bridge. Below me, the river forked into a pair of equal streams. Patterns cloaked the cities. I tried my best to figure out what they were trying to tell me, these patterns, but they hushed up for the most part.
I chose that paragraph almost randomly. It's one of my favorites in the story (I have many favorites, and I am promiscuous among them), but I could have chosen any other as an example not only of fine prose, but of an author using prose to accomplish many things at once.

In that paragraph, the narrator is in a second sort of life, one of four, and we the readers have only begun to piece together either the environment or the situation. Each sentence, then, offer information we need to comprehend the story. But (and hear this in the voice of a TV infomercial) THERE'S MORE! Yes, folks, not only do you get the information you need, but you get it conveyed with surprising images and rhythmic vernacular sentences. (Say them in any other way, and they won't dance quite so well. Summary cuts their legs off completely.) NOT ONLY THAT, but those sentences are jam-packed with both data and nuance -- like old Strunk might have said, they omit needless words.

(Pause while I shrug off the salesman's voice.)

Alan DeNiro is one of the most consistently innovative young writers willing to publish (or try to publish) with SF markets. What he has managed to accomplish with "Tetrarchs" is a fine and difficult balance of innovation with traditional narrative. Yes, this is a story which you need to read once to learn how to read it well, but it is a story which nonetheless has plenty of pleasures on a first reading. Pleasures which verge on thrills. Because, like the best jazz, it can't be summed up or placed in a box, and it doesn't pander to the audience. We end up constructing the story along with both the writer and the narrator, and though they're far more in charge than we, the readers, are, we nevertheless are allowed the thrill of feeling that we're creating it all as we go along.

(Pause while I cast off the royal We: I should speak of I. For all I know, You will not be hoodwinked or bamboozled or dizzied by the labyrinth so much that you think you control more than You do.)

By the time I'd finished my second reading of "Tetrarchs", I was all the more impressed, and I nearly read it again -- for the sheer fun of it, the fun of finding new connections, of paying attention to different parts, parts I had not weighed the same way before. This is a story which could be read like a poem, a story which could be heard like the notes of a saxophone drifting out of the fourth-floor window of a tenement one hot summer day.

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