Books where you “hear” the story through the “voice” of the main character are a dime a dozen. Books where that voice seems to actually belong to someone real are rare, but author Carola Dibbell has managed to create one such authentic voice -bizarre as it may sound to our ears – in Inez, the narrator in her speculative fiction debut novel, The Only Ones.
Inez’s voice is bizarre to us because of the world in which she lives – barely lives. It’s our future world, one that has been decimated after a plague – or rather, a raft of plagues – has swept through, drastically culling the population and breaking the infrastructure onto which most of society still clings. New infections, and reintroduction of old infections, has made survival a stoic affair, especially for those who having grown up knowing little else.
Inez is an anomaly – a “hardy”: someone who is immune to infections. Not only is she immune to the most virulent of infections that killed off most of humanity (and livestock), but it seems that she is immune to all infections; the genetic holy grail known as a Sylvain hardy. Not that many people are aware of what a Sylvain hardy is, or even care. Although Inez makes a living by taking jobs such as cleaning up bio-hazardous areas and being a medical test subject (selling off blood, urine, even teeth), a sputtering system of communication and lack of fusion in the intellectual community (if there even is one) not only let her fly under the radar, but don’t even have the radar set to take advantage of her rarity.
Eventually Inez is hired by an upstate former veterinarian named Rauden Sachs and a loosely knit group of bio-geneticists to be a sample donor for their off-the-grid experimentation of manipulated reproduction. The scientists move into fairly murky (but well intentioned) ethical waters and end up marketing Inez’s genetic material to a grief-stricken mother who had very suddenly lost all four of her cherished daughters. But the deal goes sour, and suddenly Inez finds herself responsible for the leftover “Product”: a child, a baby girl that she names Ani.
Now the solitary woman who has been on her own since age ten must raise a child in a dysfunctional and often absurd world (although infrastructure is shaky and uncertain and any “safety net” exists mainly through neighbors and word of mouth, bureaucracy is as strong and daunting as ever). It’s a frightening and meager future, but if it’s all you know, can there be any fault at not expecting anything of grace or beauty? And perhaps the scariest part of this is that we can recognize more of Inez’s world than she would recognize of ours.
Inez (who goes by “I”) is a remarkable protagonist. She is illiterate, but smart in her own interior way. Her logic is strange to us, yet strong; her confidence is unwavering even as she questions her own decisions and abilities. She may doubt herself and outcomes, but even that doubt is full of bluster and a kind of admiring wonder, rather than acquiescence. She has a voice full of swagger and slang, cadenced street talk and studied nonchalance. But she is also full of poignancy, and her life is full of pathos, even if she has no idea what that may be. (Author Dibbell, best known mainly as a music critic with a specialty in the punk music genre, says on her website she says that in her works she looks for “common ground between feminism and gonzo”; those proclivities are well represented in The Only Ones).
The landscape pulls its own strong focus, as well. Taking place in New York – both the City (specifically, Queens) and upstate New York, the lay of the land is based on real places, real neighborhoods, real streets, real landmarks. The image of our New York already is one of vitality and decrepitude, and that is accentuated in The Only Ones, with an emphasis in decrepitude. Especially compelling were the passages where Inez must struggle with different modes of transportation to get to where she needs to be; the sheer weight of the time and effort it takes for her to get to her various jobs, to get Ani to school, to get food, is a study in heroism (yet not unfamiliar to the single parent of limited means in our own society). Still, the tenacity and stoic fortitude of the City’s inhabitants plays out without apology or resentment. It is, simply, life.
The Only Ones is not a simple read; it would suffer if it was. Without preaching and even the barest nod at ideology (Rauden and his cohorts have to deal with religious vigilantes known as the Knights of Life who roam the countryside on horseback), subjects such as genetic manipulation, cloning, school exclusivity and government ineptitude are touched upon but remain on the periphery of the heart of the story, which is Inez. It is her voice that pulls you in.
Sit back, and listen. She has a fascinating tale to tell.