Saturday, October 14, 2006

Book Review: A Disorder Peculiar To The Country by Ken Kalfus

“Love is such a disappointment…” notes a character in an early Ken Kalfus story, “Rope Bridge.” “It becomes another measure of age, of the passing of time," she continues. “Your gums recede, your skin dries out, your love gets overused. It requires maintenance, compromises. Eternal love, my ass -- it’s the most ephemeral thing in the world. In the end, it diminishes into just another responsibility.”

If you’re lucky. But if you just get enough germs to catch pneumonia or only get lies and pain and sorrow, this vaguely Bacharach-ian option is much safer than the black heart of combative separation, jihad style, central to A Disorder Peculiar To The Country, where the versatile Kalfus, the Audubon of all albatrosses, can put you. Getting out of those chains that bind you and cutting your losses is much preferable to, as it so happens in Disorder, being bound in explosives and blasting caps held intact with two dry cells, wiring, alligator clips, and switches bought at Radio Shack.

Sometimes though, despite your best efforts, this Suicide Bomber of Lost Love approach -- certainly not covered in How to Do Your Own Divorce -- backfires, even with some help that borders on neurotic erotica:

    “Let me check the other wiring,” she said. He scowled and wriggled halfway out of the robe. The intertwining wires for the device looked about as logically ordered as a bowl of spaghetti. She ran her fingers along the black and red. Against his will his body grew warm. Her fragrances were like second nature to him, even now. He was breathing hard; he realized that she too had quickened her breath. A drop of perspiration trickled down his side. She murmured, “I’ve never seen dynamite sticks before. They look like just in the cartoons.”

Despite the audaciousness of being set against the background and aftermath of 9/11, Kalfus’ satire does have a psychotic-Roadrunner vs. sadistic wild-eyed Wile E. Coyote cartoonish quality -- not only in an exceedingly dark tone along the lines of the outrageous “Itchy and Scratchy” from The Simpsons, or Spy vs. Spy, but in the sense that there are no real people -- you hope -- who act in such a desperate, War of the Roses manner. Don’t expect the humanity and hope that emerged from Jay McInerney's recent The Good Life, which mined similar territory.  No, regardless of some sympathetic personal traits incisively depicted, the redemptive qualities in Disorder come elsewhere.

In this departure from Kalfus’ notable earlier works of wide-ranging realism and the fantastical -- the remarkable all-over-the-thematic-map and eclectically unstuck-in-time collection of stories, Thirst, and the Slavic-centric story collection PU-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, and the novel The Commissariat of Enlightenment -- you may feel free to hate the lead characters, the divorcing Joyce and Marshall Harriman, with impunity. None of this “love to hate them” or “hate to love them” qualification -- you’ll just hate them.

But this black comedy is so subtly sly and nefariously inventive, and you’ll be so filled with anticipatory curiosity and so engrossed by the machiavellian mind games, you’ll be too preoccupied with the sickening plots in the thickening plot, and find yourself diverted by the weapons of matrimonial destruction, delighting in the on-target accuracy of each Acme Anvil hitting its mark.

It’s not hard to not like the Harriman’s right off the bat as they witness and are close-call victims in the World Trade attacks of 9/11, and secretly and self-servingly take delight in what dreams may come true for them. Joyce, thinking her husband, who works at the World Trade Center, dead -- has a perverse reaction, feeling 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.”

As for Marshall, who survives and walks out alive and well, he believes Joyce -- who actually missed her flight intended for a San Francisco destination -- was on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. He, among the horrible scene and “the flood of refugees: filthy, dazed, grieved, bereft” and amid those whose “faces had gone as blank as the indifferent sky,” stood out: “Marshall went among them and headed for the bridge, nearly skipping.”

But the rude awakening and visions of sure things gone wrong means a return to an anything-but-peaceful coexistence in a a coveted Brooklyn Heights apartment that each refuse to give up while divorce proceedings get uglier and incidents seem to very loosely parallel the early-stage events -- from spying to psychological warfare -- in the repercussions of 9/11 and the incipient War on Terror. Marshall sends what may be an anthrax-laced letter to Joyce’s office and taps her phone. Joyce engages in complex campaigns of deceit, seduces Marshall's best friend, and befriends a bumbling, defensive FBI agent. Marshall elaborately conspires to sabotage his sister-in-law's wedding: Mission Accomplished.

The war in Afghanistan, the economic and stock market vicissitudes, Abu Ghraib and the clash of cultures all form backdrops for the shock and awe marital strife. Even their two children “play 9/11” which consists mainly of jumping off tables and simulating dead bodies as they fall. The absolute highlight of effrontery, or low point, as it may understandably be perceived, comes in the wickedly mordant and matter-of-fact scene in which the increasingly unstable Marshall straps on the explosives in a serious attempt to eliminate his woes and half a block: “God is great” he announces, touching the alligator clips, to no avail.

The consequent and impromptu fix-it project ironically becomes a family affair in an off-kilter anti-Norman Rockwell setting, a terrorist-drenched travesty tableau with his young son “resting against his father with one of his tiny hands on a dynamite cap.” “This is how the family once looked to the outside world,” Kalfur goes on, “how it had once been: a compact unit, loving and intimate.”

Though Kalfur is careful and deft enough not to draw exact and falsely forced correlations, he can’t help but tweak our expectations with a little grapefruit-in-your-face impudence before moving onto a twist ending every bit as surreal as The Commissariat of Enlightenment’s surreal conclusion. Watching the TV images of the celebrating Iraqis as they pull down the forty-foot statue of Saddam Hussein, Marshall feels compelled to protest, perhaps too much, that there is no comparison between him and the deposed Iraqi leader. “You think it’s symbolic, don’t you?...There’s no analogy here!" he implores. "I gave up more of my basic human rights than you did.  I was the one who was oppressed!"  Ah, but the strawberries...

Kalfus alludes a few times in Disorder to the immediate post-9/11 world-to-be of a unified earnestness, now that irony and humor was dead -- a sea change of transition that was pompously pronounced over and over. Did anyone with any real understanding of human nature and partisan political proclivities truly believe that this was the case? That people wouldn’t return to form and forgetfulness, let alone to the point that little professors profess nonsense and paranoid conspiracy crackpots question patent realities, and to the extent that politics would not go back to being divisive, let alone become polarized and largely gridlocked?

The United States, as resilient in the face of these unexpected pendulum swings here and overseas in the war, has seen numerous books, and increasingly, movies, that deal critically with the seriousness and heroics of 9/11 and the war issues. Without undermining or detracting from the gravity of the issue, and really without overt commentary or resorting to unnecessarily scabrous tactics, Kalfus skillfully and healthfully pries away at a little piety and a lot of foibles -- gently here, bubble-bursting there -- but with welcome humor, both escapist and insightful.


He approached in slow, steady steps, his hands heavy with electrochemical potential.  She had picked up a carrot and was peeling it over the sink.

"God is great," he announced.  He took a moment to inhale and brought the clips together.

She looked up, annoyed that he had spoken to her, apparently without necessity.  It was against their ground rules.

"Since when?" she snapped.

"God is great," he repeated, again touching the clips.  He opened one and clipped it around the other, but it slipped off.  He then squeezed both clips and snagged one in the other, jaw to jaw.  They held.

"What are you doing? What is that?"

"A suicide bomb."

His bathrobe had opened and the explosives wrapped around his midsection were visible.  She raised an eyebrow.  "Really?"

"I made it myself.  I have enough dynamite to blow up half the block.  God is great."

He put the two clips between his thumb and forefinger, squeezing hard.  He imagined, for a moment at least, that he could feel a tickle of a shock.

"Why doesn't it work then?"

"I don't know," he said, irritated.  "The wiring is tricky."

"Did you follow the instructions?"

"They were in Arabic.  But there was a diagram."

She put down the carrot and the peeler and sighed wearily.  "Let me see."

"I can fix it myself," he declared.

"Don't be an asshole."

"Too late."

She said, "Do you want me to look at it or don't you?"

He grimaced and shook his head.  But he said, "If you want to."


Post a Comment

<< Home