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A Disorder Peculiar to the Country: A Novelby Ken Kalfus
"The spectacle of middle-class, nearly middle-aged people behaving badly during tragic and historical times is gratifying, and A Disorder Peculiar to the Country is spiked with a wonderful black humor....But the overall effect of this novel is of a dark comedy of manners grafted onto a recounting of recent history, neither element satisfying in itself, nearly every segue between the personal and political jarring." Anna Godbersen, Esquire (read the entire Esquire review)
"Ken Kalfus's second novel is the most original to be written about America's moral climate in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Ian McEwan, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jay McInerney and, more recently, Claire Messud and Deborah Eisenberg have employed the attacks as a new metonymy of conventional anxiety — the inevitable death's-head figure for any fiction set in the present. Kalfus, however, is the first to take on the cliched idea that the terrorists really did inaugurate a new order and that the world, or at least our minds, changed the morning after." Marco Roth, The Times Literary Supplement (read the entire TLS review)
Synopses & Reviews
In a rollicking 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 astonishingly lampoons how our nation's public calamities have encroached upon our most intimate private terrors. It firmly establishes Ken Kalfus as one of the most daring and inventive writers at work today.
"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)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"An interesting departure from Kalfus's Slavic-inflected earlier fiction. Astringent, accomplished black comedy." Kirkus Reviews
"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." Library Journal
"...Kalfus pries away at a little piety and a lot of foibles — gently here, bubble-bursting there — with welcome humor, both escapist and insightful." San Diego Union-Tribune
"Kalfus is an impressively penetrating and precise novelist." Seattle Times
"[A] dark satire..." Booklist
"As a coda, Kalfus' history takes a surreal turn, as if we had wandered into a rhapsodized Rumsfeldian dream of a Middle East crowded with joyous anti-terrorists, rather than witnessing the Iraqi present." Los Angeles Times
"From the very first scene this is a bracing book of ugly deeds and even uglier thoughts." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
About the Author
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.
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