Joyce and Marshall each think the other is killed on September 11—and must swallow their disappointment when the other arrives home. As their bitter divorce is further complicated by anthrax scares, suicide bombs, and foreign wars, they suffer, in ways unexpectedly personal and increasingly ludicrous, the many strange ravages of our time. In this astonishing black comedy, Kalfus suggests how our nation’s public calamities have encroached upon our most private illusions.
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About the Author
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.
Date of Birth:April 9, 1954
Place of Birth:Bronx, New York
Education:The New School for Social Research, Sarah Lawrence College, New York University
Read an Excerpt
A Disorder Peculiar to the CountryA Novel
By Ken Kalfus
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Ken Kalfus
All right reserved.
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 . . .
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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?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.
It was incredible how this author took entwined a bitter divorce with current events.