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
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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