Sunday, July 8, 2007

After the Fall

One of the fruits of my very brief (like, two-issue) stint as the books columnist for Chatelaine. This was from September 2006. The folks there were nice and the coin was good, but I wasn’t too sad to see the gig go – I found it logistically stressful, and the short word counts (usually much shorter than this particular piece) were a little bit cramping.

Five years after the 9/11 attacks, the horrors of that day and its aftermath are turning up in popular culture with more frequency, and with fewer hand-wringing cries of “too soon.” Hollywood turned to the subject only recently, but fiction has been leading the way – there’ve been earnest novels about terrorism (Neil Bissoondath’s The Unyielding Clamour of the Night), about citizen anxiety (Ian McEwan’s Saturday), and even about the families of 9/11 victims (Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close).

The key word, though, is “earnest.” And that raises a question: Is the world ready for a novel that uses the 9/11 attacks as a backdrop for black comedy?

Ken Kalfus decided to find out. The American cult writer is known best for a couple of books set in Russia, but for his new novel he’s found inspiration closer to home. A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (Ecco/HarperCollins) is the story of Joyce and Marshall Harriman, a thirtysomething New York City couple in the middle of a bitter divorce fight. While the lawyers haggle over the terms, Joyce and Marshall keep sharing their apartment, divvying up the care of their two small children while shooting each other silent, seething bolts of hatred.

That would be grim enough – or funny enough – but there’s more. The novel opens on September 11, 2001, with both Joyce and Marshall narrowly escaping death: he flees the burning World Trade Center, while she misses a business-trip flight on what turns out to be one of the hijacked planes. For each of them, the day’s horror is mingled with a brief flash of ecstasy over the other’s presumed demise.

That pretty much sets the tone. As Joyce and Marshall inch closer to finalizing their divorce and parting ways, their vanities and jabs of petty malice are played out in a world of anthrax scares and plans for war. The couple’s antics are funny if excruciating, from Joyce’s hapless attempts to flirt with an FBI agent to Marshall’s vindictive schemes to disrupt his sister-in-law’s wedding. All of it is lively enough – and Kalfus gets us into the characters’ heads enough – that the proceedings never seem pointlessly mean-spirited, which they easily could.

You can’t get too comfortable with this book, though. You might think Kalfus is simply playing the twin stresses of a marriage and a country off of each other, using each as a metaphor for the other. But then you start to notice that the metaphors are getting more intrusive and jarring, the events more surreal, the geopolitical backdrop more and more divergent from reality as we know it. What starts off as a straightforward if tart black comedy slowly turns into something disturbing and dreamlike, and like so much good fiction, Kalfus’s novel is a delightful but unnerving experience.

Related reading

Ken Kalfus isn’t the only fiction writer to pair domestic stress with international security issues lately. For example, the title story of Deborah Eisenberg’s most recent collection, Twilight of the Superheroes (Farrar Straus & Giroux), is a raw whimper of post-9/11 despair and fear, focusing on a group of jittery Manhattan twentysomethings trying to go on with their lives.

Sharper and more acerbic is Carolyn See’s novel There Will Never Be Another You (Random House), set in near-future L.A. A subplot about impending biological attack provides the book’s suspense and timely frisson, but it’s the everyday desperation of the two main characters – a hapless doctor and his bitter, widowed mother – that will stay with you. Especially recommended for Joan Didion fans.

John Updike gets points for audacity with his latest novel, Terrorist (Knopf), whose main character, Ahmad, is an 18-year-old Muslim living in northern New Jersey. Ignoring those who reach out to him, including his high-school guidance counsellor, Ahmad slowly becomes entangled in a bombing plot. Updike’s descriptive powers are as effortless as ever here, but he strains for social relevance, and the dialogue is heavy with political and philosophical speechifying. Not his best work.

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