A review of Carola Dibble's remarkable debut novel The Only Ones (published in the United States last year by Two Dollar Radio)
“My name is Inez Kissena Fardo. I lived my whole life in Queens and never got anything.” Fifty years from now, in a world regularly swept by pandemics, Inez is a so-called 'hardy' and thus immune to all diseases. She exploits this adaptive advantage by selling her genetic material - teeth, nails, urine, cells, eggs - to unregulated obstetricians and gynaecologists. At the start of this unnerving, beautifully written dystopian fiction Inez travels from New York to The Farm, a backwater research facility run by Rauden, an unqualified veterinarian. His drunken monologues familiarise us with the degraded medical economy within which he operates, hustling grief-stricken parents into purchasing genetically-engineered 'viables' to replace their dead offspring.
For one contract Rauden illegally creates a clone using Inez's genes. A girl is born, but when the client pulls out Inez decides to raise Ani - who is also her identical twin sister - single handedly. The novel covers the next fifteen years as an impoverished Inez struggles to bring up the child in what's left of her New York neighbourhood. Despite a sci-fi premise and the near-future setting (in the 2060s), this is a vivid depiction of life today as endured by an urban underclass.
Uneducated but smart, Inez is also observant, thoughtful and shrewd. At one point early in the story she loses a coat:
I foraged hard for that coat. Where I live it is low on people and food but forage is up the wazoo. Great big empty houses—just climb in a window, help yourself. What’s going to happen even if somebody sees? We don’t even got a working jail in Queens. Not in Bronx or Brooklyn either. It is a Hygiene thing. They burn them down.
This is typical of Dibbell's approach - a humdrum incident prompts an unforced line of thought that adds to our knowledge of the world as seen through her narrator's eyes, expressed in a tone that is laconic, deadpan, tough and wise.
Inez takes on low-paid cleaning jobs to pay for her daughter's schooling while Ani develops into an unhappy delinquent and the fraught exchanges between an uncomprehending Inez and the increasingly disaffected Ani will be familiar to most parents. The author explores the increasingly tense stand-off between mother and daughter and the head-spinning implications of the two being essentially the same person. Both are immune to disease but they still have to undergo gruelling daily challenges: foraging for food and water and clothes, negotiating the city's crumbling infrastructure, haggling for credit, waiting for hours in the rain for buses or ferries, simply getting by.
Cable television and a few public services continue erratically to function. There are police and border guards and health inspectors but with irregular and inadequate 'food drops' and little fresh drinking water, this New York is more like a failed Third World state, or Aleppo.
Inez's immunity gives her a stake in the future denied the rest of humanity but there are no other privileges and her life is harsh and constricted. Almost everything happens within a few miles of the family home and the tedium of doggedly crossing and re-crossing the derelict city on foot to use a public message board or to attend a school meeting makes this the most downbeat and moving diaspora fictions I've ever read. The gradual return of civic amenities - of public transport services in particular - is unemphatically optimistic, although there's every reason to believe that further pandemics will sooner or later wipe out any small advances. The immediate threat to Inez and Ani's freedom comes from a mundane bureaucratic source - ID swipe cards containing all their personal data are DNA-based and therefore identical, and compromised. Without them they have no access to credit, education or healthcare.
I was unconvinced by the background presence of two religious groups - the Fundys (from 'fundamentalists') and the Knights of Life, a Klan-like cohort who torch the rural laboratories - both of which seem like plot devices from another, more conventional novel. Some details are also unpersuasive: available transport is quaintly picturesque (wind-powered trams, rickshaws, paddle boats, a magnetic train, 'bubble trikes'); the postal service appears to rely on carrier pigeons and the President, we learn, is holed up in a Wichita dome. The author, gesturing towards genre conventions, occasionally verges on the whimsical, but her real interest, and the great strength of the novel, rests in her narrator's unique voice, poignantly adjusted as she grows older.
The Only Ones offers rich and compelling reflections on disease, politics, science, society, education, ethics, parenting and motherhood, as well as a disturbingly plausible view of where current reproductive technologies may lead us. Behind all this lies the question: 'How do you prove a person's real?' The ethical and epistemological issues that arise from being an 'Original' (i.e. the source of cloned material) are negotiated with delicacy and droll humour.
Sharing certain themes and concerns with Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and P. D. James's Children of Men, Dibbell's novel is drabber and grittier than either and better than both, thanks to the author's superb realisation of Inez Fardo, who takes her place in literature alongside Holden Caulfield, Huckleberry Finn and Katniss Everdeen. You may have to ask a passing teenager about the latter.