(Book Review) The Only Ones by Carola Dibbell

By Melinda Guerra

only onesCarola Dibbell is a well-known rock-critic for Village Voice who, having published short stories and journalism in the Paris Review and The New Yorker, finally published her first novel… one month before she turned 70. Dibbell’s novel, The Only Ones, takes place in a post-pandemic world to which we are introduced by nineteen-year-old Inez (I), who takes us through several years of her life and leaves us grappling with issues of genetics, vaccination, conception, cloning, reproductive technology, and what it is to be a parent.  

In full disclosure, when I first picked up the book, I read two chapters and then put it down because I had a hard time with the narrator’s voice.   To pass time, I decided to research the author, which I could defend as “book related research,” even though I was pushing off going back to the novel itself. In doing so, I discovered not only Dibbell’s writing history as a rock critic (and the way rhythm influenced her writing), but also her personal history: she’d wanted badly to become a mother and upon discovering her infertility, had spent a decade trying various treatments that included medication, surgeries, acupuncture, and dozens of tests, before she and her husband decided to adopt a baby girl.  Her journey to becoming a mother – and her navigation of conversations about nature vs. nurture and what makes a “real” mother – informed the story and the internal debate we wage alongside I.   

But remember what Rauden said, well it’s hard enough to be a good mother but harder if you’re dead?  I had some good points as a mother, and the best one was, I was still alive. My own mother – my birth mother? That was her big problem as a mother. She was dead. — 105

Dibbell’s The Only Ones is set in the near future in New York City. The world has (barely) survived pandemic after pandemic, and is in dire straights: the economy is a mess (survivors use coupons to pay for things and subsist on goods they find while foraging abandoned shops and homes), “real” food is hard to come by (people live off food process dropped off to struggling neighborhoods), natural reproduction is about impossible (replaced by donors, hosts, and much medical intervention required for pregnancy and birth, though continued viruses wipe out many who make it to birth), and those who have managed to stay alive run from either viruses or the vaccines that would cure them, depending on which of the stories they have heard they choose to believe.  I is a “hardy,” part of a segment of the population that is immune to disease. Hardies are sought after for anything that they’re willing to sell:  blood, urine, teeth, fingernails – even a chance to have sex with a hardy might prove to be an inoculation against the next virus that reaches a given community.  I signs up to be a donor before eventually allowing herself to be cloned for a very rich woman who wants a child immune to disease; when the would-be mother backs out, I decides to parent the child herself, and experiences all the terror, rage, delight, exhaustion, relief, and pride inherent in being a parent, regardless of how you got the title.  The relationship they have with each other is endearingly resonant, even though filled with I’s musings about what it means that she is an Original rather than a mother and that her child is her clone rather than her child.  

The way it seems to work, when I walk, she sleeps. When I run, it could go either way. If I keep walking, she keeps sleeping. She wakes up if I lie down.   
Remember Rini said it would work for Ani the way it worked for me? The way it works for me is, when I’m tired, lie down. The way it works for Ani is, when I lie down, cry.  The way it works for me is, when she cries, get up. Pick her up, walk her, till she sleeps again. Then lay her down. Lay down too.
She woke up.
Here we go again.

As a mother, I’s chief goal is to give her child a life different from the one she had growing up.  And so she begins life as a single mother, doing her best to give her child opportunity while keeping her hidden from those who would notice the two are clones (namely, both the government and also the fire-happy fundamentalists who like to stone and/or burn anything they decide is outside of God’s will). The pages that give us their life together are some of my favorites, peppered with I’s perpetual concern about whether a given response of her daughter’s is because she is a child or because she is a clone. She spends page after page consumed by two chief thoughts: worry about whether her daughter is normal, and relief at having kept her alive this long.  

So what is this?
“Ani, for real.”
“Ani, for real.” So this is the new thing.  
Like, when I turn the cartoon tapes on and go, “Don’t you want to learn ABCDE?”
She goes, “Don’t you want to learn ABCDE?”
It made me nervous. Why is she talking like me? Maybe she got too stimulated. Maybe it is a Phase.  In one of those pamphlets from Alma Cho, I read about the Phase.
The dirt Phase is still on.
Here is something Ani does with dirt. Digs, builds a heap, then hops one two three to the heap, points one finger at it, and says, “Do she want to touch a fish?”
Then she hops three two one away. Then she mouths, so you can hardly hear it, “Tank!”   What is she thinking?
Still alive. That’s the main thing.
–183, 184

Dibbell’s writing is fresh and easy, and once I got used to I’s speech patterns (her tenses aren’t consistent, and it took everything I had to keep from marking up corrections in the library book), I fell in love with the story. The narrator is likeable, if a bit paranoid and risk-embracing, but it fits for her, and that she — a donor who ends up saddled with a kid she did not plan for — is a strong and complex character rather than a shallow victim is just one more reason to love Dibbell for giving us the story through her.  

The Only Ones is the next book Bookish will be reading — it will be discussed at our September meeting. If you’re waiting for a copy of the book and want to catch up on the first pages while you wait, the publisher has made the first three chapters available here.  While I can’t promise you’ll be able to join us for our meeting (we were at capacity at August’s meeting, and I’ve begun a waitlist for September), you’re heartily invited to read along with our group and share your thoughts with us online.