I’m At Sam’s Club Checking the Price of Bulk Bottled Water and Hand-Crank Radios: Collapse Fiction and Carola Dibbell’s The Only Ones
by Kayla Rae Whitaker
The standards for near-and-post-apocalyptic Americana have risen, not least of which because the past two years have offered a surfeit of quality world’s end fiction with 2014’s bestselling Station Eleven and, this year, the more rarified In the Country of Ice Cream Star and Find Me available for pickup. The mental landscape of the North American writer – and the North American reader – appears to stand at a weird, anxious intersection of Mad Max and The Stand (raise your hand if you know anyone who’s named their pet Randall Flagg. Oh yes. Those people are out there) in which order crumbles and populations thin. This is collapse fiction, and it can often become its own sort of abandonment porn, a highly engrossing cultural pastime encompassing everything from a popular Reddit subthread to a documentary-style series on the Discovery Channel featuring deserted locations as precursors to the human-free world. Soaring above the hodgepodge of anxiety and tech guilt is Corola Dibbell’s The Only Ones (Two Dollar Radio, March 2015), perhaps the most enthralling and deeply-felt addition to this vein.
Set in a not-so-distant U.S. after a series of pandemics have destroyed the social infrastructure, The Only Ones occupies a world in which people have become so accustomed to panic that their shorthand reveals their intimacy with chaos; pandemics that nearly wipe out whole continents are “pandies,” ID cards carrying a person’s whole genetic and social history “swipes,” and a top-rated TV show, “Gone Too Soon,” displays an endless series of photographs of children killed by the devastating Mumbai virus.
Our heroine, Inez, is a survivor in every sense of the word, a stolid denizen of the terrifying new America as well as a “hardy,” one immune to the diseases that have left the US in shambles: when discussing viruses, she claims, “If they penetrate my system it is their misfortune.” Inez is as unnervingly cavalier about the invasive medical procedures that ruined her reproductive system as she is about the gutted, smoldering Queens in which she lives, a place where supplies are delivered by boats, proprietors fearing for their lives too much to venture inland.
The quality that fetches the highest dollar in the new world is immunity and the ability to reproduce immunity. Which is how Inez, on a courier’s errand to rural Pennsylvania, is recruited by hard-drinking renegade DVM Rauden (recommended as a practitioner to desperate parents as a man “so unethical he might do the work”) to become not a surrogate, but clone material for a wealthy grieving mother willing to pay top dollar for a baby who cannot be killed.
Inez’s voice is filled with the ash and dust of the new world, yet tinged with an endearing curiosity for the world around her; despite the horrors she has seen, she is driven by the undeniable desire to “see what happens.” For both this reason and the prospect of payment, she agrees to be cloned at Rauden’s makeshift lab in rural Pennsylvania, a world in which “pie” and “meatloaf” are scrumptious, foreign words, the company of community is a rare commodity, and human life is being created in a petri dish. When a series of events plagued by panics, quarantines, and mini-pandemics leaves Inez as the sole mother figure to her daughter/clone, Ani, she is compelled to take Ani back to Queens to start a new life. Collapse story turns love story as Inez becomes a parent.
The book’s most endearing facet is how very little the nuances of parenthood are changed when set in purgatory. Even amidst wide-spread social collapse, Inez discovers, the world has no problem judging the new mother – how she holds, feeds, and comforts her child are all fodder for public criticism. But as a rare fellow mother (while hiding her polio-stricken child in a public bathroom while police perform quarantine sweeps on the street outside) reassures her, “If your baby’s still alive, you’re doing something right.”
Inez is stunned by the all-consuming anxiety of being in charge of another human being, the uncontrollable love she feels for Ani, and the lengths to which she will go to provide not only a better life for Ani, but a different life. Plagued by the constant worry of someone discovering Ani’s illicit conception, Inez reassures herself that, as long as she and Ani are alive when so many others have died, they can struggle through the worst. The trauma of the child becoming distinct from the parent is, for Inez, thrilling confirmation that Ani is not a clone, but her own person. “I’m pretty sure it is not unique, to feel this way,” Inez says. “I hope it isn’t.”
It is, at day’s end, The Only Ones is another credit to the high standards of the Two Dollar Radio catalog, maybe the most exciting and innovative independent press going – a story with rich, dark prose, intricate construction, and an undeniable human pull, a book that lives and breathes and exists as its own entity. It deserves a prime spot on anyone’s collapse fiction shelf – or any other shelf, for that matter.
Kayla Whitaker holds an MFA in fiction from New York University, and her work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, BODY, Bodega, Joyland, The Switchback, Five Quarterly and others. Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, she recently appeared alongside such luminaries as Lynyrd Skynyrd as a commentator in the History Channel’s southern culture documentary You Don’t Know Dixie. Originally from Eastern Kentucky, she currently lives in New York. Her debut novel is forthcoming from Random House in January 2017.