By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Tuesday, August 1, 2006; C03
A DISORDER PECULIAR TO THE COUNTRY
By Ken Kalfus
Ecco. 237 pp. $24.95
The boldly original premise with which this exceptionally smart, provocative novel begins isn't going to sit well with some readers. The time is the early morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and the place is New York. Joyce Harriman, in her office in lower Manhattan, and Marshall Harriman, heading up to his office a mile away at the World Trade Center, suddenly are caught in the horror of that day's terrorist attacks. Joyce watches in astonishment from the roof of her building:
"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."
Why? Because Marshall works on the 86th floor of the south tower, "which had just been removed whole from the face of the earth." For months she and Marshall have been locked in the divorce battle to end all divorce battles, and now she believes that he is dead and she has been freed. What she doesn't know is that he has managed to escape from the tower and that he too is elated, because he believes that she was on United Flight 93, from Newark to San Francisco, which crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after passengers overpowered the hijackers. She is dead and he is free!
Okay, it's a pretty macabre premise, but it also reflects some realities about the human mind and heart that generally we try not to acknowledge. Sometimes people really do hate other people so much that they wish them dead. It was precisely such hatred, on a global scale, that motivated the hijackers of September 2001, and it is such hatred that exists between this man and woman who once loved each other, who have two children together and who now have "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."
Joyce wants "to ruin him, not only financially but personally, and not just for now, but forever." Marshall? "He could have written sonnets of hatred, made vows on his hatred, performed daring, heroic feats of physical labor to prove his hatred." All in all, "feelings between Joyce and Marshall acquired the intensity of something historic, tribal, and ethnic, and when they watched news of wars on TV, reports from the Balkans or the West Bank, they would think, yes, yes, yes, that's how I feel about you ."
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 ."
While Joyce and Marshall wrangle over the details of their much-desired divorce, the world falls apart around them: anthrax in envelopes, suicide bombings, the war in Iraq -- all the insanity of the past few years both mirrors and mocks their own ludicrously bitter estrangement. It's all so senseless: Marshall "would stand on a randomly selected street corner and think of Joyce and how thoroughly their lives had been ruined. What had he done to her? Why did he deserve this? Why did she hate him so?" They're just like the Israelis and the Palestinians:
"Their divorce negotiations had stalled again. Court dates were set and postponed, the lawyers continued to coo and bill, and then nothing would be decided. Still they lived together. Every once in a while an outside party would come up with a stratagem to break the deadlock -- a simultaneous exchange of major concessions, a splitting of the differences -- but Joyce and Marshall closed ranks against it. Their positions had shifted shape to exactly meet and oppose the contours of each other's interests. . . . Their apartment was the world of derangement and chaos."
Is this really the way it had to turn out? There was a time when they loved each other, genuinely and deeply, and each of them looks back on it with wonder and -- however reluctantly -- longing. Marshall remembers meeting her in college and being obsessed with her: "She had been a strange girl, immature, he thought, as fresh and fragile as a newly independent nation liberated from colonial misrule. She was still composing her constitution, finding allies, striking new emotional coinage, and rediscovering and rewriting her past. Marshall had been required to learn her obscure language." She, too, remembers good times, trips they took on which they made love constantly, deliciously, ecstatically, and times when he had been kind:
"Although she hated him with every cell in her body, she didn't believe he was a bad man, not really. She had loved him once, and the memory was a little traitor sabotaging her every effort to survive this divorce. He had nursed her through a month of meningitis before they were married, bringing her wonton soup and a single red rose every night after work. At Viola's birth he had gently lifted the girl from the bloody sheet and laid her on Joyce's chest."
Without giving away the many things that happen in the book's closing pages, it betrays no secret to report that Joyce and Marshall don't reconcile. Kalfus is wise as well as smart, and he knows that's not the way the world works, at least not this world. But he grants a small measure of surcease to these two troubled people, with implications for the rest of us that the reader can contemplate with pleasure and relief as this pungent yet oddly lovely novel comes to its end.