The Only Ones by Carola Dibbell

The Only Ones BY Carola Dibbell. Two Dollar Radio. Paperback, 344 pages. $16.
The cover of The Only Ones

FOX News pundits yelling about grounding flights from Africa to stop Ebola from spreading to the United States would be in good company in Carola Dibbell’s gleaming and disaster-ridden debut novel. Set in New York City in the near future, The Only Ones calibrates a new normal based on surging of distrust. A pandemic has swept the globe, killing millions, and like aftershocks, pathogens continue to wreak havoc. Mothers hide their children in public toilets to avoid quarantines. People run not only from viruses but also from vaccination drives. A neighbor is someone who could report you for not following public-health protocols.

It’s remarkable how familiar Dibbell makes this world, populating her speculative-fiction setting with characters who have distinctive voices and believable impulses, who are by turns craven and brave. The state predictably relies on sweeping, autocratic solutions, coating anything suspected of being infected with hygiene spray, while extralegal actors hunt for Darwinist idiosyncrasies, using off-the-grid farms as makeshift laboratories. Veterinarians are refashioned as underground scientists—part-heroes, part-hustlers—who do often shoddy, unregulated work to give paying clients what they want: children who are more likely to survive in a world riddled with disease.

Immunity, it goes without saying, is a commodity. Hardies, as those who happen to possess this trait of survival are called, sell their genetic material—soma, hair, teeth, fingernails, blood, urine—to the rich, ill, or bereaved. Inez Kissena Fardo, Dibbell’s charismatic and inquisitive narrator, is one of these people. “I lived my whole life in Queens and never got anything,” she says, selling herself to prospective customers. Of her survivalist mode of living, she explains bluntly, “You are going to hear what people say about the girls like me, how we are exploited, got no self esteem or worth or none of that, the life we live. They never say it’s interesting.” If you don’t like her tone, get out early. Because it’s all in or bust: The story is told at street level, entirely from her point of view.

Poor, uneducated, and of uncertain origin, Inez is a genetic mercenary who takes whatever jobs come her way. So she doesn’t blink an eye when Rauden, a vet who learns of her immunity, asks her to become a genetic donor for a wealthy woman who has just lost her daughter to a deadly epidemic in India and wants to adopt or create a replacement who won’t die. But when the woman flightily changes her mind, Inez is left to care for the baby girl.

Ani, as the child is called, is a clone, grown in a Plexiglas tank. She has Inez’s genetic immunity, which protects her from viruses—but not from an inexperienced mother. “As far as they could tell,” Inez narrates, “she’s not getting Luzon, Avian, Typhus, Ebola, Polio, TB, Hep A or B or C or D or HIV or HP51 or any of that. But drop her, it’s over. And watch out for the neck.” Clones are still personae non grata. There are TV shows about them, but no one is sure if they actually exist. Which makes Inez, an original freak of nature, now responsible for a crime against nature. And so her underdog perspective—unplanned mother to a child whose existence imperils her own—stubbornly inches forward over the rubble-covered ground of Queens.

Dibbell’s previous short stories, published in The New Yorker and The Paris Review, have featured unique characters, to be sure, but also manifest an interest in communities, friendships, couples; she thoughtfully pushes her characters’ capacity to trust and empathize with others whether in sickness or in monogamy. The Only Ones hews to this preoccupation in interesting ways. The phrase “the only ones” is iterated throughout the novel, but it’s a provisional category, because categories in this world are constantly shifting: A neighborhood is uninfected, and then it’s not; you’re the only one like this, and then you’re not; you’re alive, and then you’re not. “The only ones”: The plural noun seems to disprove the adjective. Dibbell manages to regard crisis with some optimism by suggesting that while you may not be safe, you’re at least not alone.

Whereas the female characters in Dibbell’s other stories are insiders and knowing narrators, Inez is off the grid and out of the loop. But her status in the world makes her remarkably perceptive. Dibbell has Inez speak her own sort of melodic, repetitive, and grammatically odd language, which serves the purpose of drawing attention to her insights. “Is she me?” she asks herself about Ani, setting up a concise meditation on selfhood and motherhood. “Well that could be a problem later but for now the main thing is, is she mine?”

Building scenes through Inez’s curious interior chatter, it’s as though Dibbell took to heart a line from one of her favorite books, Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, in which an admiring friend says to narcissistic patriarch Sam Pollitt: “Sam, when you talk, you know you create a world.” Inez is no narcissist, but she is at once a deeply unique observer and an expert at survival, which makes her an excellent guide. She gives us her arch thoughts on quarantines (“At least they give you bed and meals”), maternal qualifications (“My best point was, I was alive”), and out-of-state travel (“whatever bad thing someone from where I’m from could have, they already got it in New Jersey”). It’s a jerky but pleasurable ride. That Rauden calls Inez by the first letter of her name, “I,” only adds cheek to Dibbell’s subtle examination of the question: Is an individual divisible?

One of the ironies in all this is that Ani is a true scientific breakthrough in a world in which science, at an official level, has been made into administrative gobbledygook. The dysfunctional melodrama of bureaucracy is evident in the constantly malfunctioning ID swipes that bring up everyone’s genetic records. This presumably helps ensure public health, but the savvy —or, like Inez, those who have to get their kids to school—regularly override the system, making it pointless.

I would have loved to see more of this sort of farcical government reasoning, because at some point a natural question to ask is, Who is running this show? One of the limitations of Inez’s perspective is that our view remains on the first floor; we are more likely to see the spit on the ground than a bird’s eye view of a state in full-blown defensive mode. We trade the holistic picture for a very rich but narrow one. But this is just a quibble; the book is, in the end, about outsiders, and about a system that is, in many ways, unknowable. I’m largely happy to stick with Inez.

After all, it’s with her that we dive headfirst into an often-painful exploration of experimental reproduction and what makes a mother and child belong to each other. It’s as she picks through detritus that we see how neighbors rebuild after disease decimates a community. The wealth-driven capriciousness that affords her a chance to become a parent provides trenchant class comment on who exactly has the means to create invincible offspring. The dystopic landscape she traverses only emphasizes her struggle: A kid doesn’t have to be a clone to be the odd one out, and black markets aren’t just for genetic material—they’re also for that special backpack your daughter really wants. Finally, it’s by sticking with Inez that we discover that the top-down hypotheses in a teetering, too-connected world find its match in a hardy’s counterclaim—because wait and see, she might not be the only one.

Jane Yong Kim is an editor at Al Jazeera America.