Wanna hear a joke? I got After Disasters out from the library the week after the election. Get it. Get it. Because the election was a disaster and now we are after it.
After Disasters circles around a lot of different events, but the one at its center is the 2001 earthquake in the District of Gujarat, in India. Ted and Dev and Piotr and Andy are all involved in the earthquake disaster response, and this story follows their recovery efforts as well as how they came to be in their professions and how all their lives intertwine. It is one of those books with many moving parts that reaches its conclusion and feels — though not every loose end gets resolved — both satisfying and inevitable.
Viet Dinh employs a style of reveal of which I am particularly fond, which is to unspool gradually the emotional backgrounds of these characters in a way that casts light backward onto what we’ve seen from them already. It’s done so smoothly that even saying “reveal” is overly sensational. In practice it feels more like a gentle reminder: You knew already, didn’t you, that Ted used to work in pharmaceuticals and that this current job is a kind of atonement? Yes. The information feels so familiar that you must have known it in the first place.1
I also loved Dinh’s depiction of the practicalities of disaster relief work. I’m not in a position to judge the accuracy of how he wrote about these people, but it felt at least very real, how the workers from different countries and agencies would remember each other from previous disasters, or how the practicalities of transportation would supersede nearly everything else. It was a reminder that no disaster is ever damaging enough, and no job stressful enough, that the people involved stop being human.
“This is a high-stress job, and when people work in close proximity — what do you expect? It’s emergency sex. All the aid workers sleep with one another.”
“Even Catholic Charities?”
“Especially Catholic Charities!”
I am a Catholic, and I endorse this joke.
He can’t take it, he can’t take the collapse, the damage, the dust; he wants to know that the world hasn’t forgotten him; that, in these moments after disasters, people are reaching out, so even though all the lines are still busy, all the lines are occupied, he tries, again and again and again, until — finally — he connects–
After Disasters is a lovely and sad book that gets at the meaninglessness of the disasters it depicts without ever sinking into despair. I haven’t seen much coverage of it thus far, and I’m hoping this year brings it the acclaim (I think) it deserves.
- This is one of Maggie Stiefvater’s greatest gifts as a writer. ↩