Ken Kalfus – A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (2006)

I read this book by accident. No, I didn’t fall, it was like this: After reading Ken Kalfus’ Three Stories from Madras Press, I ordered Thirst, his first collection of short stories recently re-released. At least, I thought I did. Turns out, I ordered this novel instead (I’ve been focusing my attention on short stories lately so I was not looking for a novel). At least I think that’s what happened. Maybe I deliberately ordered it because I knew it used 9/11 as a take-off point (though that would be more likely to disincent me), maybe I thought it was a collection, maybe I hit the wrong button, maybe I don’t know. Anyway, this book arrived, I ordered Thirst (which I’ve already talked about), and now I’m reading this, because, well, it’s here. And the New York Times review sounded interesting.

I am not a fan of 9/11 literature. Or 9/11 songs. Movies. Whatever. I have no particular moral stance on this, I didn’t even think about it until recently. It’s too soon. But, as I said, the book was here, so I am reading. And I’m commenting as I go, though I won’t post this until I’m done. The overall story concerns a couple, Joyce and Marshall, whose divorce corresponds to the immediate post-9/11 period.

Chapter One, titled “September”: On 9/11, Joyce is supposed to fly to San Francisco on the flight that crashed into the field in Pennsylvania, but at the last second the meeting is cancelled and she returns to her office in time to see the towers, in which Marshall works, burn. Both think the other has been killed. Both are happy the other has been killed. Both are wrong. Marshall helps another guy, Lloyd, as he escapes from the Tower, only to see Lloyd’s head split by falling debris. It reads like many of the survivor accounts we’ve all read. This is my problem with 9/11 literature. I don’t want to read fiction when there’s an abundance of history and biography that need to be heard. I guess I resent it. I don’t quite understand why, since I don’t resent fictional accounts of other disasters. Like I said, maybe it’s too soon. But the first chapter is good, if you don’t have my hang-up. Excellent, in fact. Their marriage, from amiable failure to war, is chronicled; “It was in a previous decade, another century, that this had started out civilly, as an agreement reached almost affectionately that their marriage was not as warm as it had been. In the six months of therapy in which they were encouraged to break down the barriers that prevented them from speaking frankly, Joyce and Marshall discovered that they hated each other.” Now that’s successful therapy. Then they move on to arbitration, and finally to cutthroat lawyers.

There are children, as there usually are. Viola, four, poops “willfully” in the park. Joyce leaves Vic unattended (in a New York park) to get her cleaned up, and this becomes custody fodder. Joyce muses: “The force of Marshall’s hatred was nearly self-validating: after all, how could a man believe with such fervor and be wrong?” Of course, such a man can be wrong, as we all learned and will review later on.

As Marshall works his way out of the crumbling Tower, he realizes “…in these moments of peril, decision, and action… something was being revealed. He could discern hope. He could, at this instant, glimpse a vision of the man he could yet be.” I understand this. So did Chekhov when he said, “Any idiot can face a crisis. It’s the day to day living that wears you out.”

“October”: We learn about terror sex. Joyce isn’t having any (she’s having terror Cherry Garcia), but a lot of her friends are: “She had come up out of the station, Dora said, and had absentmindedly looked for the towers to orient herself, but they weren’t there and the man was and he understood her confusion at once.” Joyce and Marshall are still living together separately, still not communicating except in minimal phrases about who picks up the kids today. Then Joyce’s building gets an envelope containing a white powder. Gee, I’d forgotten about the post-9/11 Anthrax. “The mail had become another kind of unsafe sex.” It’s a hoax, but Joyce thinks the handwriting on the envelope looks a lot like Marshall’s, so she goes for an interview with the FBI, gives them his name, and finds an incriminating bottle of baby powder in her bathroom. In a panic she emails the FBI agent, who flubs Reply (he hasn’t had his training yet… how much training does an FBI agent need to reply to an email?) but finally tells her they’ve located the hoaxter, at which point Joyce hits on him, all this while Marshall is pounding on the bathroom door demanding equal access as stipulated in their separation agreement. You have to read it to appreciate it. It’s good.

In “November”, the war proceeds in Afghanistan and in a certain Manhattan apartment. The baby powder turns out to be a remedy for a rash Marshall experienced. Joyce becomes enthralled with all things Afghan, including restaurants, jewelry, and “the enemy of my friend is my enemy” and all the permutations thereof. And the term “high-strung” becomes important. It’s applied to Joyce, per Marshall’s doctor. To Amanda, Joyce’s mother. And to sister Flora, who is getting married, when Marshall calls fiancé Neal and gets invited to his bachelor party. He also acquires a device that allows him to listen in on Joyce’s phone calls. Joyce calls up Roger (though apparently not while Marshall is listening), half of a former-friend-couple, to return a photo album which she forgets, requiring that he return to the apartment where they get it on in Marshall’s bedroom. At which point he reveals that he has some gripe against wife Linda, and he takes Joyce’s Afghan ankle bracelet as a trophy: “…she knew she had not seduced Roger at all. He had his own reasons for making love to her, something to do with Linda….. Every human relationship was a conspiracy.”

The bachelor party, plus wedding, happens in “December” along with some very clever psychological warfare on Marshall’s part during the bachelor party to plant seeds of anti-Semitism in the Jewish groom-to-be and his Jewish friends which then spread to the bride-to-be and her family as more and more Jewish elements are added to the wedding, including a chuppah which turns out to be very complicated and is the calling card by which Marshall announces his deceit. I still don’t quite understand why. To humiliate Joyce, the bride’s sister? To prevent the marriage, any marriage (this one being the one he has some connection with) from happening at all? Just to be a mean son-of-a-bitch? It’s quite stunning in execution in that way that I never understand, since I’ve never understood how this kind of manipulation really works. A key moment is when the children “play 9/11” by jumping from the porch.

We then jump to “May” and the third-person narration shifts to Viola. The kids learn their parents are getting divorced. They know all about divorce. I’m thinking it isn’t realistic to think they’ve been living in this – they see a child counselor and spend time with their parents on alternate weekends, so they’re already experiencing shared custody, what, they never overhear anything? Are they slow? I’m being mean, but it doesn’t ring true. Kids usually know what’s going on, or at least they know something’s going on. I’m not crazy about the shift in POV of this chapter, though I suppose it’s necessary to show how Viola processes knowledge of the divorce.

In “July” we see the divorce from Marshall’s eyes: does he know his wife well enough to decide if she’s bluffing or if she’s confident? He discovers her 401k, which he guesses she’s forgotten about since it hasn’t been touched. And it’s outperformed his dismal efforts by a factor of 10. She buys an espresso machine which infuriates him. He sets out to destroy her 401k, and discovers at last he’s got the Midas touch. He earns her $300,000 in a couple of days. And Joyce appears, while he’s wrestling with Victor’s shoe, looking wonderful, and before he knows it, he’s said, “Wow. You look nice.” This is Against the Rules: they have maintained strict silence, neutral tones, custody of the eyes, for this entire period and he blew it. She swears at him, and Viola, just graduated from day care with a 30 year old soul, explains it to him. And then the boom falls: his company dies, he is jobless, and he knows the Midas touch is gone.

“August” finds Marshall jobless after his company collapses, and he becomes psychically united with the victims of a pizzeria bombing in Tel Aviv as he constructs his own suicide bomb. It does not work, although Joyce tries her best to help him check the wiring.

The final chapter, lots of months, becomes surreal. Marshall goes to a bizarre party which seems to include an Abu Ghraib guard conducting an interrogation. The divorce is finalized, and neither Joyce nor Marshall is happy, of course, which means it’s the fairest possible settlement. The war in Iraq proceeds, is won in record time (here is where I got confused – what?), WMDs are discovered (now wait a minute), Saddam is hung and T-shirts with the image of his hanging become a worldwide rage (huh?), Syria becomes a democracy (now wait a minute…), Osama is found (oh, ok, now I see, it’s a fantasy! A “clean” war to contrast to the “dirty” divorce?) and Joyce and Marshall find themselves thrown together at a street celebration.

It’s funny how time changes things, to look through the retrospectroscope, and yet, it is cool to document things in the heat of the moment. The paranoia. The confusion – what if Bush is right, what if there are WMDs? How we sold our birthright for a mess of potage. How we might never get it back.

A book worth reading.

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