Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A disorder peculiar to the country - Ken Kalfus

A disorder peculiar to the country is a novel that is very pleased with itself. It’s a bit rude, a bit irreverent, a bit – well, puerile, really. It delights in taking the sacred cows of 9/11 and trashing them. At the very start, watching the Twin Towers ablaze, Joyce has to cover her face to hide her ‘protracted struggle against the emergence of a smile.’ The reason for the smile is that she thinks her husband, from whom she is in the middle of a protracted and nasty divorce, is unsafely ensconced in the upper reaches of the tower. He escapes, of course, and despite a traumatic incident while trying to save a fellow victim, he is seen ‘head[ing] for the bridge, nearly skipping.’ The reason for his delight is that he believes his wife to have been on Flight 93 which crashed in Pennsylvania with the death of everyone on board.

Now, I have no problem with demolishing some of these sacred cows. I’ve written before about the unsavoury whiff of iconography which is building up around things like the photos of the missing or the honour of the firemen, and the pricking of pomposity is an important task of the writer. It’s just that, with A disorder peculiar to the country, Kalfus doesn’t really carry it through.

Instead, he gives us a novel which irritates me twice over. Twice because there are two different books here, as though he didn’t really know what he wanted to say, so said it twice to cover all the bases. The first irritant is the first 80% of the novel, which is, for all his toying with our sensitivities at the start, really nothing more than yet another straightforward narrative conflating the domestic and the tragedy of 9/11. What is it about 9/11 and divorce or marital disharmony? Beigbeder, O’Neill, DeLillo, McCauley, all of them have twisted some form of relationship problems into their versions of 9/11, as if it’s the only metaphor in town. This one goes the whole hog. It’s the longest, most acrimonious divorce in history, and the story suffers badly because both characters are so repellent it is impossible to feel any form of empathy, let alone sympathy.

So much so conventional. But Kalfus is only toying with us, of course. He’s not conventional, and this isn’t a conventional novel. There is a scene between ‘Dr Nancy’ and ‘Mr Peter’, in which they observe children drawing scenes from the World Trade Center, which appears completely without context and makes no sense within the narrative. And postmodernism isn’t dead, so later in the story we get, completely pointlessly, a page and a half where each sentence is numbered. Naturally, they make no sense. Honestly, Barthelme did this sort of thing much better in the 60s and 70s.

But this is by way of preparing us for the second book in this novel, the ending. Here, Kalfus simply descends into insanity. Essentially, he creates an alternative reality where everything – the war and the domestics – turns out much more harmoniously than in real life. Iraq and Afghanistan are triumphs. The world is a beautiful place. Everybody say aaahhh.

The infuriating thing is that if Kalfus had written the whole novel like this it could have worked. But instead we have something which is a complete shambles. The majority of it is straightforward narrative with a few peculiarities and postmodernisms thrown in to keep us wary. Then it drifts off into a completely different realm, but by this stage it is impossible to accept: the register of the novel has been set, and the shift required for the ending is too great. Take this exchange, for example, when the male character decides to become a suicide bomber:

“What are you doing? What is that?”
“A suicide bomb.”
His bathrobe had opened and the explosives wrapped around his midsection were visible. She [his estranged wife] raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
“I made it myself. I have enough dynamite to blow up half the block. God is great.”
“Why doesn’t it work then?”
“I don’t know,” he said, irritated. “The wiring is tricky.”
“Did you follow the instructions?”
“They were in Arabic. But there was a diagram.”
She put down the carrot and the peeler and sighed wearily. “Let me see.”
“I can fix it myself,” he declared.
“Don’t be an asshole.”
“Too late.”

Now, I’ve already mentioned Donald Barthelme, and isn’t that an absolute ringer for his work? It could be funny – it is funny, but not in the context in which it’s placed. You can’t have a story which is straight for 80% of its length and then becomes surreal.

As I say, this really is a disappointing work. It is nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. It doesn’t begin to ask any of the important questions raised by 9/11, about American life, the American dream, global politics, the future. It raises a few smirks that scarcely rise above undergraduate humour and finally sinks into self-satisfied smugness.

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