Parts of a World: A Novel (Tdriquarterly Fiction)
A. G. Mojtabai
204 pp., 24.95
Stranger in a Strange Land: John Wilson
Parts of a World
In 1974, I was working at a bookstore in Eagle Rock, California. In the fall of the previous year, I had started a PhD program in English at Claremont Graduate School. Improbably, it was the fourth grad program in which I had been enrolled—a little like having been married four times by the age of 25. Living in South Pasadena while attending classes in Claremont, I had taken a part-time job at the bookstore, a branch of a venerable Pasadena institution, Vroman's, where I had spent many hours (and many dollars) as a customer. The Eagle Rock store was located in a brand-new mall (this was the heyday of malls). Soon they were asking me to work full time. Within several months, I withdrew from Claremont.
One of the inducements of working at Vroman's was the 40 percent discount on books. The main store—which still exists today, on Colorado Boulevard—featured an excellent selection of new fiction. I was browsing there one day in 1974 when a book with a strange title caught my eye: Mundome, by A. G. Mojtabai. From my point of view, the novel had a couple of strikes against it. I looked cautiously at the inside flap (sometimes jacket copy reveals too much ahead of time) and saw that the book (the author's first novel) was described as "a brilliant self-contained reflection of schizophrenia." I generally avoid books and movies about mental illness. The reality of it is terribly dreary, and imaginative treatments of the subject (so I thought, and still feel) are almost always loaded with false emotion. Then there was the cover art, a reproduction of Magritte's The Lovers. On the other hand, the information about the author was intriguing:
A. G. Mojtabai was born in Brooklyn in 1937. She graduated from Antioch College in 1958 with a B.A. in philosophy and a minor in mathematics.
Soon after graduation, Ms. Mojtabai married and moved to Iran, where she lived with her husband in a large, extended family. They later moved to Karachi, Pakistan, and then to Lahore.
When she returned to the United States, Ms. Mojtabai did graduate work at Columbia University, receiving an M.A. in philosophy in 1968 and an M.S. in Library Science in 1970. She lectured in philosophy for two years at Hunter College and is now a librarian at City College. Ms. Mojtabai lives in New York City with her daughter; she is at work on a new novel.
And—another plus—the narrator of Mundome is himself a librarian, an archivist. I turned to the first sentence of the novel:
When I think of our library I think of nothing less than the archive of the human estate, the house of the memory of man, and more than a house, memory itself, and more than memory, the slow cess of the spirit: vanity and devotion, illusion, and the martyred rose of prophecy—torn, yet living still.
I've been reading Mojtabai ever since, as her slim and potent novels have appeared at intervals over the years. Even if we concede that every interesting writer is in a sense sui generis, Mojtabai has had a career that distinguishes her as one who follows her own path. In some respects, she could be said to have had an anti-career, as stubbornly resistant to literary fashion as to the imperatives of the marketplace. Her books are not like anyone else's. She hasn't been taken up by critics as an example of this or that tendency or school. In addition to novels, she's published a very fine book of stories based on her experience as a hospice volunteer, Soon (1998), and a work of nonfiction, Blesséd Assurance: At Home with the Bomb in Amarillo, Texas. For some time she taught at the University of Tulsa.
In 1995, Mojtabai published an essay in The Wilson Quarterly, "Religion and the Writer," based on a conference presentation. The papers from that gathering, revised and expanded, were published in book form as The Writer and Religion, edited by William H. Gass and Lorin Cuoco (Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 2000), and it would be worth your trouble to track down that volume, not only for Mojtabai's essay (here titled "A Writer and Religion: Musings, Interrogations, Avowals") but also for the responses to it from panelists and audience members. Mojtabai argues that too many writers of fiction (herself included in her first several books, she says) have been guilty of "shutting out the voices we don't want to hear," voices expressing "a religious hunger in our country and in our world so widespread that writers ignore or disdain it at our peril." She speaks, rather allusively, of her Jewish ancestors, and seems to place herself among those who have "lost much of the traditional language of religious belief" yet "haven't lost the yearning for that belief." Her argument is (mostly) received with a mixture of incomprehension, condescension, and barely suppressed anger. Marc Chénetier, a French professor of American literature, lays down the law: fiction, you see, is "all about doubt." (These primitive Americans!)
Mojtabai's new novel, Parts of a World, just published by Northwestern University Press, is one of her finest. In certain respects it harkens back to her first novel, for it too centers on "mental illness." But where Mundome flourishes its virtuosity, Parts of a World is at once simpler, deeper, and more genuinely mysterious.
The character at the heart of the novel is Michael, a 28-year-old street person, "St. Francis of the Dumpsters" as some wit dubs him, a wandering soul whose "absolutism" is yoked with a Christlike "mildness." An unprepossessing figure, stoop-shouldered, with "flat affect," Michael was abandoned in a dumpster after his premature birth. A policeman found him, wrapped in newspapers, and took the baby to a hospital, where—against the odds—he survived. His mother, a 14-year-old who'd been in and out of institutional care, hadn't even known she was pregnant. Nothing about her subsequent life is included in Michael's file.
Michael's story is told by Tom Limbeck, a social worker in his forties who has become obsessed with Michael's "case." Michael has often been hospitalized—shortly before his first appointment with Tom, he has been beaten, raped, and left for dead by another street person, a stranger—and he can recite a long list of medications he's taken over the years. When he's not in the hospital, he lives on the street. Tom's job is to get him off the street: place him in a halfway house, help him find a job, and keep an eye on him. It sounds straightforward enough, and at first all seems to be going reasonably well.
But there are signs that Michael is unwilling to conform to this regime—most conspicuously, his refusal to eat his meals at the church-sponsored shelter where Tom has placed him. Instead, he continues to find his food—and other treasures, as he sees them—in dumpsters. What nettles Tom most deeply is Michael's air of serenity, despite his circumstances, an enigmatic confidence ("I know where I am," he says).
The source of that confidence, Tom finally discerns, is Michael's belief that his mother, whom he has never met, is leaving food and other gifts for him in the dumpsters where he scavenges. Tom determines to "cure" him—to give him "a dose of reality, after which, his bluff called, his delusion in shreds, he might begin to see the world as it is and come to terms with it. In short: begin to grow up."
Tom is not so much an unreliable narrator as an unlikable narrator—unlikable above all in his own eyes, though his compassion for the down-and-out is clearly heart-felt. His father, he tells us, was "a devout atheist," and the family followed suit. But Tom himself lacks his father's certainty: "I learned to breathe within his strictures, to 'suppose that' or 'for the sake of argument assume' but as a result, to this day, I cannot say I believe—anything. Always, always, I hedge my bets. I shift from foot to foot."
Books that wrestle with the claims of faith and skepticism come pouring into my office every week. This one is a keeper. Not stylistically, but in its combination of clarity and enigmatic power, Parts of a World reminds me of Tolstoy's "Master and Man," a late work in which a lifetime of writing pays off.
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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