Ken Kalfus: "A Disorder Peculiar to the Country"
(First published in The New York Magazine)
How adaptive a species is Apocalyptic Man! With what astonishing self-regard do we totter back from a disaster like 9/11! Not five years on, our writers have already given us the 9/11 spiritual novel, the 9/11 graphic novel, the 9/11 tragicomedy of manners, even the 9/11 literary overview (Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, in which she used the excuse of the trauma to pull down her shades and review 45,000 pages). Now comes a stinging new fiction by Ken Kalfus set in the domestic battleground of Brooklyn Heights, demonstrating that the dust of the World Trade Center has settled into even the joints of that most homegrown and inward-looking of art forms, the divorce novel.
In A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (but of course the disorder is not peculiar to us; the only peculiarity is that we were immune for so long), our private lives have proved all too pervious to global pressures. Kalfus, the up-and-coming author of The Commissariat of Enlightenment and other quasi-historical tales, summons a relatively reliable brand of social satire to show us the myriad ways those pressures menace the family unit. No one is safe. When they’re getting along, the children of impending divorce "play 9.11" by holding hands as they jump from porches; when they’re not, they swat each other on the head with toy U.N. relief trucks—"some kind of Happy Meals prize." As for their divorcing parents—both 9/11 victims, of a sort: Marshall survived the South Tower, Joyce was supposed to be on one of the planes—they’ve turned into nothing less than marriage jihadists. On the day of the attacks, each was quietly thrilled to think that the other had perished. And now Marshall holes up in the "Tora Bora" of his bedroom, with guerrilla forays to undermine his sister-in-law’s wedding, while Joyce seeks her husband’s ruination "not only financially but personally, and not just for now, but forever."
Against a landscape this mean, no act of retribution is too petty, whether it’s absconding with someone else’s chuppa or BlackBerrying the FBI that your spouse may have put a suspicious-looking powder in the mail. Sometimes Kalfus spends too much time tracing the various vendettas; the narrative goes slack showing how far each partner will go to prove that "treachery was its own reward." But in such a caustic atmosphere, Kalfus also recalibrates all the standard divorce tropes into something sharper than that provided by more-innocent, or at least more-isolationist, divorce fare. The stock Kitchen Showdown is a scene of particularly vicious hilarity: the nuclear family in a classical frieze as they try to figure out why daddy’s suicide vest doesn’t work.
The problem for the 9/11 novelist, though, is that 9/11 as drama is both a cop-out and a challenge—there is such an abundance of material to satirize in post-disaster New York that it’s tricky not to have one’s own satiric efforts be seen as part of the problem, another instance of introspective excess. Can you imagine a novel bringing "those who hate us" more cave-comfort than this one, which shows the politics of terror trickling down far enough to poison a run-of-the-mill metropolitan breakup? If they could read how self-absorbed we remain, might it be possible for them to hate us even more?