Disorder Peculiar to the Country

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"In a black comedy about terrorism, war, and conjugal strife, the author whom Salon calls "a writer of chameleonic fluency" revisits some peculiar episodes in current American history." "Joyce and Marshall Harriman are struggling to divorce each other while sharing a cramped, hateful Brooklyn apartment with their two small children. One late-summer morning, Joyce departs for Newark Airport to catch a flight to San Francisco, and Marshall goes to his office in the World Trade Center. She misses her flight, and he's late for work, but on that grim
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2006 Hard cover New in new dust jacket. 237 p.

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A Disorder Peculiar to the Country

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"In a black comedy about terrorism, war, and conjugal strife, the author whom Salon calls "a writer of chameleonic fluency" revisits some peculiar episodes in current American history." "Joyce and Marshall Harriman are struggling to divorce each other while sharing a cramped, hateful Brooklyn apartment with their two small children. One late-summer morning, Joyce departs for Newark Airport to catch a flight to San Francisco, and Marshall goes to his office in the World Trade Center. She misses her flight, and he's late for work, but on that grim day, in a devastated city, among millions seized by fear and grief, each thinks the other's dead and each is secretly, shamefully, gloriously happy." Opening with a swift kick to our national piety, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country follows Joyce and Marshall as they swallow their mutual disappointment, their divorce conflict intensifies, and they suffer, in unexpectedly personal ways, the many strange ravages that beset America in the first years of the Bush administration. Joyce suspects Marshall has sent an anthrax-laced envelope to her office. Marshall taps her phone and studies plans for constructing a suicide bomb. The stock market crash and the war in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib and the clash of civilizations: all become marital battlefields. Concluding with the liberation of Iraq, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country lampoons how our nation's public calamities have encroached upon our most intimate private terrors.
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Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Yardley
Marriage as metaphor for larger conflict is scarcely new, but Ken Kalfus has put a new and singularly imaginative twist on it. A Disorder Peculiar to the Country -- the title comes from Oliver Goldsmith: "There is a disorder peculiar to the country, which every season makes strange ravages among them" -- is a dark comedy with serious things to say about the difficult, unsettling times in which we live. Occasionally, it is laugh-out-loud funny, especially a long set piece centered on Joyce's sister's interfaith marriage ("Joyce sensed that she was dining at a banquet with two clans forced by hard circumstance to accommodate each other's interests, in peril of being massacred after the first martini"), but it is also about "a world of heedless materialism, impiety, baseness, and divorce," a world in which "sense was not made, this was jihad: the unconnected parts of the world had been brought together and made just ."
— The Washington Post
The New Yorker
Like their country, Marshall and Joyce Harriman, a Brooklyn Heights couple, are at war. They are one year into an impossibly bitter divorce, and their hatred for one another has “acquired the intensity of something historic, tribal, and ethnic.” When Joyce watches the destruction of the World Trade Center she is seized by a “great gladness,” because Marshall works on the eighty-sixth floor of the south tower. But he escapes to fight another day in the apartment that neither will relinquish, home to their two young children—“their divorce’s civilian casualties.” Kalfus skewers the pieties surrounding 9/11, but, having set his black comedy in the shadow of that national trauma, he reverently charts the powerful sway that world events briefly held over the lives of individual Americans. As an Afghan émigré doctor who treats a rash Marshall develops after his escape observes, “Now you know what it’s like to live in history.”
Sylvia Brownrigg
Kalfus’s daring, intelligent exploration of animosity in its various forms (spousal and familial, political and religious) is a novelistic evocation of global despair: "This was a world of heedless materialism, impiety, baseness and divorce. Sense was not made, this was jihad. Yet in its final pages, the novel pulls a twist, moving into a surreal account of American success in Iraq and the dawning of democracy in the Middle East. The dream of a happy marriage may, Kalfus seems to suggest, be equally far-fetched as the political fantasy of a world made better by war.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
It's a familiar New York story: Joyce and Marshall Harriman's divorce battle escalates from a skirmish to a full-fledged territorial conflict, as both sue for custody of their coveted Brooklyn Heights co-op, and consequently they must both continue to inhabit it-along with their two small children, "their divorce's civilian casualties." Minor acts of domestic terrorism have become an unavoidable part of their daily lives, so when September 11 happens, neither is immediately very jarred. In fact, each thinks the other dead, and celebrates. Far from putting things into perspective, the tragedy and aftermath become a queasily hilarious counterpoint to the ongoing war to divide Joyce and Marshall's assets. Their pettiness reaches continuously lower depths - spying, psychological warfare and even anthrax comes into play. Joyce seduces Marshall's best friend, and Marshall sabotages Joyce's sister's wedding. The Harrimans enact the country's problems on their pathetically personal scale, but the novel miraculously manages to avoid patness or bombast. As in Jay McInerney's recent The Good Life, Kalfus puts 9/11 up against the steel-plated narcissism of New Yorkers-with very different, and very funny, results. (July) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Publishers Weekly

Kalfus's novel of post-9/11 anomie and family disintegration is barbed with hidden punch lines and embedded pockets of horror-clad humor. The tangled, slow-motion journey toward divorce of a harried, bitter upper-middle-class New York couple unfolds in the midst of a city under siege, during a time of catastrophic political and social upheaval. Respecting the nature of Kalfus's novel, Boles treads carefully and lightly. He rarely interferes in the hurtling motion of Kalfus's prose, studded as it is with asides and stray thoughts, preferring instead to stand back and allow the words room to breathe. Reading in a detached, polite manner, he grants Marshall and Joyce the opportunity to hang themselves with their own words, knowing they will need no assistance whatsoever from his performance. A simultaneous release with the Ecco hardcover (Reviews, Apr. 3). (Sept.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal
Even with the horror of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center, Joyce, thinking her husband dead, experiences a moment of glee. Similarly, with Joyce scheduled to fly to San Francisco that morning, when Marshall hears that the plane she was supposed to have boarded crashed into the Pentagon, he, too, is initially hopeful. Thus begins book reviewer and journalist Kalfus's (The Commissariat of Enlightenment) black comedy of post-9/11 New York, intensified by the parallel issues of divorce and terrorism. After the attacks, Joyce's office receives a letter containing white powder, while Marshall relives his traumatic escape from the Trade Center pavilion. This heightening of tensions corresponds to a heightening of the divorce wars as Joyce sleeps with Marshall's best friend and Marshall sabotages Joyce's sister's wedding. As the world adjusts to the new state of being, Joyce and Marshall also adjust, eventually finalizing their divorce. Kalfus places the events of the year following 9/11 in perspective, and it is the reflections on this period with the benefit of years of hindsight that make this novel with a twist ending such an appealing read. Recommended.-Joshua Cohen, Mid-Hudson Lib. Syst., Poughkeepsie, NY Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The fallout from 9/11 casts a pall over an already moribund marriage in Kalfus's second novel (following his terrific The Commissariat of Enlightenment, 2003). When NYC working mom Joyce Harriman hears the bad news about the World Trade Center, she instantly fantasizes that her husband Marshall (who works there) is among the dead. In fact, he walks out alive, and back into a contentious detente in which the battling spouses coexist angrily in the comfy apartment neither wants to give up, tiptoeing around the needs of their demanding, borderline-"difficult" young children Viola and Victor. Kalfus deftly charts the unraveling pair's separate experiences of resentment, loneliness, pursuit of replacement love (or at least sex) in assorted wrong places and the gradual adjustment to their irreparable incompatibility. Bravura sequences include Joyce's rather sad and pathetic seduction of a longtime friend's unhappy husband, Marshall's amusingly intricate demolition of his sister-in-law's wedding and-in an ingeniously contrived scenario that nevertheless doesn't quite work-Marshall's failed attempt to dignify his despair and frustration by becoming a suicide bomber. Both the strength and the weakness of this clever novel in fact inhere in the structure of parallels Kalfus draws between the Harrimans' escalating "war" and the embattled Middle East, beyond the terrorist bombings here at home, through the U.S. invasion of Iraq and into a fantasized alternative future that slyly mocks America's-and the Harrimans'-naive idealism. Both Joyce and Marshall are sharply drawn characters, and Kalfus makes us feel their pain even when both are indulging their most infuriating traits (her quick resort totemper tantrums, his tendency to hatch overly elaborate plans that collapse under their own weight). An interesting departure from Kalfus's Slavic-inflected earlier fiction (including PU-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, 1999). Astringent, accomplished black comedy.
The New Yorker
“Powerful. . . . Kalfus skewers the pieties surrounding 9/11.”
The New York Times Book Review
“Brilliant. . . . It’s an engaging and provocative enterprise, a novel that challenges accepted pieties and dislodges expectations.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060501402
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 7/3/2006
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.89 (d)

Meet the Author

Ken Kalfus

ken kalfus is the author of a novel, The Commissariat of Enlightenment, and the short story collections Thirst, which won the Salon Book Award, and Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.


Ken Kalfus is the author of a novel, The Commissariat of Enlightenment, and the short-story collections Thirst and Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, all of which were named New York Times Notable Books. His writing has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Harper's, Tin House, and Bomb. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and daughter.

Author biography courtesy of HarperCollins.

Good To Know

My computer runs on Windows, but for my work I still use the DOS-based program XyWrite, a stripped-down Ascii processor from the 1980s. All my books have been written on XyWrite. It's the best writing program out there.
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    1. Hometown:
      Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
    1. Date of Birth:
      April 9, 1954
    2. Place of Birth:
      Bronx, New York
    1. Education:
      The New School for Social Research, Sarah Lawrence College, New York University

Read an Excerpt

A Disorder Peculiar to the Country

A Novel
By Ken Kalfus

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Ken Kalfus
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060501405

Chapter One


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 would dominate the news for months to come, until everyone was sick of it. In that case there would be plenty of time tofind 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 the building, 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. (The children had been delighted.) In the year since they had begun divorcing, the couple had developed a conversation-independent system for their day-to-day lives, mostly centered on who would deposit the kids at day care (usually Joyce) and who . . .


Excerpted from A Disorder Peculiar to the Country by Ken Kalfus Copyright © 2006 by Ken Kalfus. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Reading Group Guide

Terrorism, anthrax, the stock market collapse, war. Are we having fun yet? Marshall and Joyce Harriman aren't. The couple is attempting to divorce—and destroy each other—while sharing the same cramped Brooklyn apartment.

A small glimmer of hope appears one late summer morning. Marshall goes to work in the World Trade Center; Joyce has booked a flight out of Newark. On that grim day, when their city is overcome by grief and shock, each thinks the other is dead, and each is visited by an intense, secret, guilty satisfaction. Both manage to survive, only to continue their struggle against each other, a virtual clash of civilizations, while every other weird public misfortune of our nation's recent history indirectly involves them as well.

A Disorder Peculiar to the Country is a brilliant, withering satire of American life during the years of the Bush administration that establishes Ken Kalfus as one of the most daring and talented writers at work today.

Questions for Discussion


1. What do Joyce's and Marshall's individual reactions to the catastrophic events of September 11 suggest about the nation's grief on that day?

2. "If you isolate each of our betrayals and self-indulgences, the mean things we've said to each other . . . on their own, they're quite heinous. Yet neither of us did anything to the other that wasn't in the context of something else." Why is Marshall and Joyce's divorce so bitter? Does it suggest anything about conflicts in contemporary world affairs?

3. To what extent do Joyce and Marshall treat each other fairly in their divorce settlement negotiations, and how does their behavior impact Victor and Viola? Why are the children referred to as "civilian casualties"?

4. Joyce finds herself fascinated by the Afghan war and our country's new intimacy with Southwest Asia. "It was commonly held that September 11 had changed America forever. Joyce wondered if the real transformation would come now, in America's close embrace with warlords and peasants, fundamentalists and mercenaries." How is her seduction (if that's what it is) of Marshall friend's Roger a satiric commentary on certain Afghan mores?

5. Why does Marshall interfere in Flora's and Neal's wedding preparations? How might the interference reflect certain aspects of the Afghan war, especially the manipulation of the US military by feuding tribal elements?

6. Why do you think the author chose to depict Joyce and Marshall's failing marriage against the backdrop of some of the most painful moments in recent American history?

7. How is Marshall's suicide bomb another example of the Middle-Easternization of American life? Is it in some way prophetic? Does Marshall really make a suicide bomb or is he simply imagining it? In literature, is that a useful distinction? Compare and contrast with Gregor Samsa, the insect in Franz Kafka's story, "The Metamorphosis." What are some of the other fantastic elements in this novel?

8. In the argument Marshall provokes with Joyce's Jewish future brother-in-law, he declares, "What do you think makes people anti-Semites? It's that every dissent from Israeli policy provokes an accusation of anti-Semitism. It's the fact that we're not permitted to talk about Israel in this country, even though it's our number one foreign policy problem..." Marshall has said this only to stir up the party, but do you think there's any justification in his remarks? Why does he make comparisons with Somalia and Kosovo?

9. What elements of this novel define it as a dark comedy and is this kind of humor justified by recent current events?

10. How did the capture of Osama bin Ladin, and the Harrimans' brief moment of reconciliation on the perimeter of Ground Zero, deepen and enlarge your understanding of the main themes of the novel? What happens to the fantasy as the novel comes to a close?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 9 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2006


    Behind the backdrop of the terror of 9/11 the author creates a symbolic look at what we do to each other through the messy and often 'terroristic' divorce of two New Yorkers. Woven in a web of personal (the divorce) and current event (9/ll) details. A masterpiece.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 5, 2006

    dark comedy at its best

    It was incredible how this author took entwined a bitter divorce with current events.

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