Saturday, January 06, 2007

"A disorder peculiar to the country" by Ken Kalfus

Straight off, I want to say I enjoyed the book. I was almost put off reading it by two poorly-written sentences on the first page, but I stuck with this book because I'm interested in the subject matter of post-9/11 New York, of which I've written two short stories myself.

I still have a problem with one sentence in particular, it is clunky and would be forgivable anywhere else in the book except for the first paragraph. I'm still amazed that all the agents and editors and readers who laid eyes on this sentence before publication somehow let it slip through:
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.

Now that I got that off my chest, let me talk about the book without giving away too much of the plot. When we meet the two main characters (Joyce and Marshall Harriman) on the morning of 9/11, they are already in the middle of a divorce. Both think that the other was killed during the attacks, bringing a sense of relief to them; now custody of the two kids, not to mention the pricey condo in Brooklyn won't have to be battled over. The survivor gets everything! Unfortunately, they both survive the attack and have to continue living together until the divorce (which drags on throughout the length of the book) is complete.

Neither character is very likable, as they battle for the upper hand, and for moral superiority during their bitter divorce. Meanwhile, America deals with the trauma of the 9/11 tragedy and the impending invasion of Iraq. The stress and tension of the Harrimans' life together is used as a metaphor for the rising tension of world events, as NY-ers are waiting for the other shoe to drop in the form of...what? An anthrax attack? A suicide bomber? Something unknown?

"A disorder peculiar to the country" is a National Book Award finalist, and though I recommend it, it's not a perfect book. The first page has Joyce returning to her office. Yet we never hear about her work life again. Toward the end of the novel there is a scene with Marshall and some sticks of dynamite that is so absurd I'm sure I must have missed something as a reader, or maybe it existed only in the character's head. I guess this is all symbolism: Marshall is a terrorist and his wife is America, the willing participant.

Just like in a marriage, and a divorce, and war: It takes two to tango.

4 out of 5 stars.