fear and loathing in Manhattan: 9/11 black humour in ken kalfus’ a disorder peculiar to the country


"A Disorder Peculiar to the Country"


Ken Kalfus’ ingenious new book about an explosive divorce might be the best novel yet about 9/11.


By Laura Miller


Maybe you think that comparing the bitter divorce of a New York City couple to what’s currently known as the war on terror is a bit overblown? I thought that myself about one passage in Ken Kalfus’ brilliant new comedy of manners, "A Disorder Peculiar to the Country," in which an estranged husband walks up to his wife in their contested Brooklyn Heights two-bedroom and tries (but fails) to set off a suicide bomb. Or at least that’s what I thought until recently, when news came of an explosion that destroyed a Manhattan townhouse. When the building detonated, the first thing bystanders must have thought was: terrorists! Instead, the culprit was a man so infuriated about losing his beloved home in his divorce that he decided to blow it up, and himself along with it.


Most likely, critics will say that "A Disorder Peculiar to the Country" is a novel that compares divorce, American-style, to geopolitics, 21st century-style, and that it shows how Sept. 11 has infected the very fabric of our personal lives. Almost, but not quite and not so conventional or narcissistic. Kalfus, an endlessly ingenious writer, is not trying to say something about divorce by likening it to the so-called clash of civilizations. Instead, he’s showing us that the far-off national conflicts we find so baffling and complicated actually work a lot like a really bad divorce. Switching the polarity of the metaphor makes sense because, let’s face it, most of us know a lot more about divorce than we do about the Middle East.


Joyce and Marshall, the couple in question, have found themselves stumbling from the fairly amiable realization that their marriage has lost its savor to a hatred that has "acquired the intensity of something historic, tribal and ethnic, and when they watched news on TV, reports from the Balkans or the West Bank, they would think, yes, yes, yes, that’s how I feel about you." It’s gotten so bad that when each one mistakenly thinks the other has been killed in the Sept. 11 attacks — he worked at the WorldTradeCenter; she almost boarded Flight 93 — they secretly rejoice.


—from  http://www.salon.com/books/review/2006/07/25/kalfus/



On the way to Newark Joyce received a call: the talks in Berkeley had collapsed, conclusively. She closed her eyes for a few moments and then asked the driver to turn around and head back through the tunnel. It was still early morning. She went directly to her office on Hudson Street to sort out the repercussions from the negotiations’ failure — and especially how to evade blame for their failure. About an hour later colleagues were trickling in, passing by her open door, and Joyce thought she heard someone say that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. The World Trade Center: the words provoked a thought like a small underground animal to dash from its burrow into the light before promptly scuttling back in retreat. She wasn’t sure she had heard the news correctly; perhaps she had simply imagined it, or had even dozed off and dreamed it after less than five hours of sleep the night before. Fighting distraction, she pondered the phrasing of her report, resolved not to be defensive; at the same time she wondered whether something had just happened that woulddominate the news for months to come, until everyone was sick of it. In that case there would be plenty of time to find out what it was. She presumed the plane had been a small one, causing localized damage, if it was a plane at all, if the World Trade Center had been involved at all. The towers weren’t visible from her office window, but she could see several of the company slackers in the adjacent roof garden, smoking cigarettes and looking downtown. She worked for a few minutes and then suddenly she heard screaming and shouts. She thought someone had fallen off the roof. 


Even now Joyce moved without hurrying, careful first to save what was on her screen. If someone had fallen she would shortly learn who, and the consequences would play out either with or without her. But as she stepped through the door to the roof she understood from their continuing shrieks what her colleagues had just witnessed: a second plane striking the World Trade Center. Every face of every man and woman on the roof was twisted by fear and shock. One belonged to the unyielding, taciturn company director, who had never before been seen to express emotion; now his mouth dangled open and blood rushed to his face as if he were being choked. Among her colleagues tears had begun to flow only a moment earlier. Women buried their faces in the chests of coworkers with whom they were hardly friendly. "No, no, no, no," someone murmured.


Joyce turned and saw the two pillars, one with a fiery red gash in its midsection, the other with its upper stories sheathed in heavy gray smoke. Sirens keened below. She could hear the crackle and chuffing of the burning buildings more than a mile away.


Nearly everyone in the firm had now come onto the roof, crowding shoulder to shoulder. Joyce stood among her colleagues rapt and numb and yet also acutely aware of the late summer morning’s clear blue skies that mocked the city below. A portable radio was brought out. Joyce’s colleagues haltingly speculated about what had happened, the size of the planes, how two planes could possibly have crashed in the same place at the same time. Their conversations withered in the heated confusion and terror spilling from the radio.


After a while one of the towers, the one farther south, appeared to exhale a terrific sigh of combustion products. They swirled away and half thebuilding, about fifty or sixty stories, bowed forward on a newly manufactured hinge. And then the building fell in on itself in what seemed to be a single graceful motion, as if its solidity had been a mirage, as if the structure had been liquid all these years since it was built. Smoke and debris in all the possible shades of black, gray, and white billowed upward, flooding out around the neighboring buildings. You had to make an effort to keep before you the thought that thousands of people were losing their lives at precisely this moment.


Many of the roofs in the neighborhood were occupied, mostly by office workers. They had their hands to their faces, either at their mouths or at their temples, but none covered their eyes. They were unable to turn away. Joyce heard gasps and groans and appeals to God’s absent mercy. A woman beside her sobbed without restraint. But Joyce felt something erupt inside her, something warm, very much like, yes it was, a pang of pleasure, so intense it was nearly like the appeasement of hunger. It was a giddiness, an elation. The deep-bellied roar of the tower’s collapse finally reached her and went on for minutes, it seemed, followed by an unnaturally warm gust that pushed back her hair and ruffled her blouse. The building turned into a rising mushroom-shaped column of smoke, dust, and perished life, and she felt a great gladness.


"Joyce, oh my God!" cried a colleague. "I just remembered. Doesn’t your husband work there?"


She nodded slowly. His office was on the eighty-sixth floor of the south tower, which had just been removed whole from the face of the earth. She covered the lower part of her face to hide her fierce, protracted struggle against the emergence of a smile.


They had been instructed to communicate with each other only through their lawyers, an injunction impossible to obey since Joyce and Marshall still shared a two-bedroom apartment with their two small children and a yapping, emotionally needy, razor-nailed springer spaniel Marshall had recently brought home without consulting anyone, not even his lawyer.




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