Tom Limbeck, a social worker in New York City, lives a mundane life. His office life constrained ever more by budget cuts, his social life limited by his own depressive and obsessive tendencies, his world is restricted and hemmed in. But one thing fascinates Tom: a homeless young man named Michael who becomes part of his caseload. Such is the premise of A.G. Mojtabai’s novel Parts of a World.
Relentless in its reality, this novel portrays the grittiness of life on the streets. Michael is a habitual dumpster diver who suffers under the delusion that his mother is somehow providing for him through the garbage. The narrator, Tom the social worker, struggles to understand this existence: “What should I call them, those shadow people in the alley? Collectors? Recyclers? Redeemers?” He wants desperately to help Michael, yet his every effort is thwarted.
Parts of a World becomes a novel about religion and desire. Tom wants salvation, wants to know he is helping others. He also yearns to feel and believe, something that his charge, Michael, clearly does, feeling and believing that the city is providing for him, even as he is poisoned and sickened by the food he scrounges. Yet, Tom realizes as he watches the dumpster culture that “nothing discarded was ever really lost.” This tension between waste and want is one he feels in his own life.
As it turns out, it is Tom who needs the help even more than Michael. As he tries to help this lost young man, his own life fizzles out. He struggles to maintain even the veneer of normalcy after his longtime girlfriend leaves him. He reports, optimistically, that “although I took my suppers alone, I set my place with care. I attended to what I was eating: I took the time to set down a plate. Now, as before, it was mainly takeout. But no more eating out of paper cartons.” His existence, though a step above dumpsters, is still a marginal one.
Ultimately, the novel resolves itself around the idea that Michael is no different than any other person. As Tom, haunted by his client’s disappearance, goes around the city searching for him, he shows a sketch to various people, only to be told that “the man in the picture here, he could be anyone—you , me, anybody.” This idea of universality seems to be the theme that Mojtabai is reaching for: the homeless aren’t any different, aren’t truly other, than the mainstream. We marginalize them to make ourselves feel better.
The richest parts of this work come from the social observations and from the moments when the mundane is lifted to the spiritual. However, too much of the novel is mired in cliché. On page after page, phrases like “hoping against hope,” “shaking like a leaf,” and “once-burned…twice-shy” cropped up. These overused phrases broke the spell in what was otherwise fine prose. Together with a plethora of exclamation points, the effect was one of reaching, wanting to achieve a moment, rather than letting the story make its own mark.