A Sadistic Divorce Undeterred by 9/11

Much of the fanfare that accompanied the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks was either shocking or repetitive, with the media recounting a star-spangled history of the last five years while intermittently seething over ABC’s factually deficient pre-9/11 “docudrama.” The art that accompanied this observance mostly allowed Americans to relive the event without forcing them to do any meaningful self-reflection.

Ken Kalfus’ new novel, “A Disorder Peculiar to the Country,” is one of the only pieces of 9/11 art that forces Americans to look at how the spirit of the country has changed after the terrorist attacks. His uneven but captivating rumination on the intersection of divorce, terrorism, and national unity perfectly describes some of the darkest machinations of the American soul with an odd muddling of insight bordering on the Shakespearean and sardonic litotes befitting Jon Stewart.

Unlike Stewart, Kalfus mostly refrains from judging the subjects of his comic eye: Joyce and Marshall Harriman, a fictional couple mired in hateful divorce litigation, yet still living together in non-fictional New York City during and after 9/11.

The attacks that killed thousands are especially relevant for Joyce and Marshall. She was supposed to be winging her way to the Bay Area on United Airlines flight 93—which crashed in Pennsylvania—for a business trip, and he worked on the 86th floor of the South Tower. Each of them takes private delight in their soon-to-be-ex-spouse’s supposed demise: “It was nearly like the appeasement of hunger. It was a giddiness, an elation.”

But sadly for the Harrimans (and their lawyers), Joyce’s business trip is canceled before she gets to the Newark airport, and Marshall, late for work, isn’t at his office when the second plane hits. No armistice follows the Harrimans’ pair of close calls. If anything, Joyce and Marshall feel more trapped by their loveless marriage post-9/11 than pre.

While Joyce’s female coworkers seek out “terror sex” with surviving firefighters, she stays home to change diapers—she and Marshall have two children, “their divorce’s civilian casualties”—and sulk about how “she hadn’t had any terror sex, just terror Cherry Garcia.” The divorce negotiations continue, laden with new searing acrimony.

Kalfus mirrors the postdiluvian upheaval in the U.S. through the battles fought in the Harrimans’ marital war. Both the commentary in Kalfus’ novel and the joy of reading it radiates from this nearly-pornographic voyeurism into the couple’s fights, the epic “blistering argument[s] encompassing all the issues that had brought them to divorce in the first place,” and their underlying emotional dysfunction—“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.”

Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear victim in this divorce, no protagonist with whom to identify. Joyce and Marshall are so malevolently calculating, so odiously sadistic, that I couldn’t help but detest both of them.

She tells Marshall’s prospective employer that he joined the Taliban, he covertly monitors her phone conversations, she cheats on him in his bedroom with his best friend, he tries to sabotage her sister’s wedding by starting a fight at the bachelor party—and this is barely the beginning.

Connubial battles punctuate the novel with tightly drawn scenes of psychological trauma. The hate that permeates the Harriman saga doesn’t make it palatable—if anything, it makes it easier to accept the harm being inflicted upon them and their friends. But such emotional detachment makes the novel read like the screenplay to a mediocre action movie. This tacky quality is disappointing considering the maturity and wit of Kalfus’ overall narrative aesthetic.

In Kalfus’ envisioning of the American mind, our twisted desire to gawk at the Harrimans’ fights echoes a similar desire to watch the 9/11 footage over and over again. On the day of the attacks, when the smoking towers were glowing in every TV set, two people were deriving the utmost pleasure out of the possibility of each other’s demise. Kalfus suggests that such seething schadenfreude, while repulsive, is inescapably American.

As in the real world, memories of 9/11 give way to anthrax scares—a prankster targets Joyce’s office with an envelope filled with talc, and she suspects that it could be Marshall—the bombing of Afghanistan, renewed surges of terrorism in Israel, and the invasion of Iraq. Kalfus portrays post-bellum reality as few other 9/11 artistes have, showing how the attacks have faded into the background radiation of our country’s life, occasionally surfacing sharply in phrases like “suicide bomb” and “Orange Alert.”

Toward the end of the novel, Kalfus fictionalizes real world events and departs for global Candyland. All of a sudden, the War on Terror is actually working. Iraq embraces democracy. Syria follows, sans invasion. Marshall and Joyce’s two children, along with children across the globe, wear t-shirts with Saddam’s dead silhouette that read “Death to Terrorists!” As one of Marshall’s co-workers puts it, “Bush is a Bible Belt moron who can’t put together a coherent sentence, but wow, look....”

This post-terror world Kalfus portrays is encouraging, but sadly impossible. This perfunctory meditation upon the fragility of national security isn’t explored until the last chapter, giving the novel a sour, discordant aftertaste.

And the allure of Kalfus’ utopia isn’t all that compelling, either. When the Harrimans’ offspring sport their “Death to Terrorists!” t-shirts, we wonder how a post-terror world could ever be anything except terrifying.

—Reviewer Kyle L. K. McAuley can be reached at kmcauley@fas.harvard.edu.

A Disorder Peculiar to the Country
By Ken Kalfus
Out Now