Ekeing humor out of national tragedy is hard work -- "I flew all the way from Hiroshima, and, boy, are my arms tired!" -- but Ken Kalfus extracts ghoulish glee out of 9/11 with A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (Ecco, 2006). In cobbling together a class on "The Literature of 9/11" (see below), this novel handily made the list. It speaks to my own interests, of course -- the intersection of personal life with national narratives -- but the wicked satire is sharp enough to skewer constructed notions about 9/11.
Consider the ghoulish glee of the opening chapter. As Roger and Joyce, an endlessly divorcing couple, discovers that the other is believed to have perished, they react with unabashed joy: Joyce smiling as the Towers collapse, Roger skipping away from the Tower site itself.
It's a tough act to follow.
The remainder of the book follows Roger and Joyce's attempts at sabotage, with varying degrees of success (Joyce tries to implicate Roger in an anthrax hoax, Roger tries to drain Joyce's 401(K) account). But what would otherwise be another "divorce-from-hell" story takes on new implications in the altered New York City landscape; as much as the United States tried to make sense of the new war in which it found itself embroiled, Roger and Joyce muddle through their own war.
Kalfus' witty language keeps the growling antagonism between the main characters vivid. His attempts at more broad humor miss their mark, however; Roger's sex-obsessed divorce lawyer and Joyce's FBI paramour feel too contrived to hit their mark. But when Kalfus hits it, he really hits it. The scene involving Roger's ersatz suicide vest manages to be simultaneously hilarious and discomforting, one that exposes the blurry faultline between love and hate. It ranks with the opening scene as a standout moment.
Kalfus ends the book on a positive note, which belies a deep, biting irony and a more pessimistic worldview. Roger and Joyce achieve a kind of peace, but, Kalfus implies, their happiness is as much a fantasia as a happy ending for our current state of war.