diaCRITIC Eric Nguyen reviews Viet Dinh’s debut novel After Disasters.
In January 2001, an earthquake struck the Gujarat area of India. In its wake, between 13,805 and 20,023 people were killed, an additional 167,000 were injured, and nearly 400,000 homes were destroyed. While it doesn’t count among the deadliest earthquakes nor the biggest recorded, it was the first large one of the new millennium, ushering 2001 in with the collapsing of buildings and the deaths of thousands. It is against this backdrop that Viet Dinh places his meditation on suffering and redemption, a debut novel aptly titled After Disasters.
In the wake of the earthquake, aid teams from around the world make their way to Bhuj, India, including the four characters at the center of the story. Dev, an Indian doctor and the most local of the rescue workers, is the first on the ground, where “[d]ebris has choked off roads [and] points of exit.” Here, in a place that “bears no resemblance to the city [he] visited five years ago” with his wife, Dev is quickly thrown into a makeshift operating theater where “limbs that might have been saved are now gangrenous” and “concussions have bled into subdural hematomas, leaving patients disoriented, unable to sit for examinations.” A doctor who runs an HIV/AIDS—“long-term essential services”—Dev is unprepared and overwhelmed. There is a shortage of supplies and an accumulation of nameless bodies. In the midst of this, Dev wonders what he can do but feels himself silently slipping, metaphorically, “into the landscape of ruin.”
It is Andy, a closeted British firefighter, who is doing the physical task of recovery. With his rescue team, he throws himself into countless broken and dark buildings where he is “unable to tell the living from the dead.” A novice, he is both frightened of and anxious about what he will find and at the prospect of failure. After his first rescue, he meets American aid workers Ted, with whom he shares a kiss—“any little bit of happiness” in the midst of death and destruction—and Piotr, a veteran aid worker.
With such a wide range of characters, Dinh’s novel risks being unfocused. But as their narratives collide, we learn that their lives are irrevocably woven together. Mid-way through the book, we flashback to Ted’s past life as a pharmaceutical rep for Avartis. A major drug company, Avartis holds the patent to Triacept, an AIDS drug still pending final distribution approval. With a former lover who has AIDS, Ted sees himself as helping to bring into existence—via the market—a drug that will help those with AIDS.
On a trip to India for an AIDS conference, Ted meets Dev. Dev is already a “rising star” in the AIDS activism community for being a “patent scofflaw,” who “sidestepped intellectual property issues to focus on the imperative for poorer nations to treat HIV infections cheaply and effectively.” A mutual attraction leads them to a one-night stand, which later turns into a train trip to Benares and the Ganges River. There, Ted and Dev have a fallout that has an intensity that recalls the most explosive parts of another work addressing AIDS, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. When confronted about his job with a company that is withholding a life-saving drug, Ted proclaims that “It saves lives.” Dev rebuts sarcastically: “And you think this makes you a better person.”
By the end of the flashback, it becomes clear that Ted joined USAID as an act of repentance, a chance to do something good in the world. Of course, it isn’t that simple. “When Ted first started training with USAID, he imagined himself in front of television cameras, holding a housing kit to a grateful family,” Dinh writes. But the landscape of post-earthquake Bhuj offers no easy and clean satisfaction. There are complications with language barriers and logistics. There are victims but there are also opportunistic bandits. A woman buried under rubble might ask for a hammer to get herself out; a village with destroyed homes might offer an aid worker shelter. As Ted learns, being an aid worker and doing good is difficult because people are difficult and complex—both the victims and the rescuers.
This might be what all four characters learn: eliminating the suffering of others is not easy. The question Dinh raises, then, is: what can one do in the face of those who are suffering? What do we owe to those who suffer? And, conversely, what do the suffering owe to those who (attempt to) reduce their pain? And how does this function in the modern-day economic system with all its trappings, including unequal power relations? (Piotr thinks at one point he’s doing good work, “but,” he admits, “it’s also profitable.”)
Dinh’s exploration of suffering isn’t focused on natural disasters. With After Disasters, Dinh has written an AIDS novel for the new American century as well. Dinh’s characters, entering mid-life in the late 90s, are part of a “generation for which HIV was not a surprise, but for which it was an unfolding mystery,” Dinh writes. They are the bridge between the early AIDS epidemic of the 80s and the generation coming of age today who have the benefits of PrEP. It is Ted’s inability to handle the suffering of his AIDS-afflicted lover that leads him to work for Avartis and eventually to travel to India as part of USAID. This inability to cope is the impetus of Ted’s story, making After Disasters a successor of the AIDS narratives of the eighties and nineties: whereas the world then was the world of epidemic, the world of After Disasters is a place where we see the monetization of suffering.
Interestingly, the novel ends in the aftermath of 9/11. This sharp role reversal—where the American everyman is the victim instead of the witness or helper—takes the book full circle, completing an ambitious novel that largely explores and critiques America’s role as a world leader. It is perhaps why Dinh chose to write from the point of view of, for the most part, white men. The landscape of post-earthquake India allows his characters to act on white authority then turns the script on its head: the white man as savior trope becomes white man as intruder and white man as incapable of saving anyone, least of all himself. That the novel also ends with the main characters leaving India prematurely after a tragedy speaks volumes given that Dinh is a Vietnamese American author with the baggage of the Vietnam War all Vietnamese Americans have. In that way, After Disasters can be seen as a postcolonialist text as well as a Vietnamese American one. At the same time, Dinh never misses the human heart of his characters—their desires and needs. The resulting book is one that is intellectually and emotionally stimulating. After Disasters is an impressive debut from a writer we will all be reading more of in the future.
Buy the book here.
by Viet Dinh
Eric Nguyen has a MFA in creative writing from McNeese State University and BA in sociology from the University of Maryland. He has been awarded writing fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation and Voices of Our Nation Arts (VONA).
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