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Friends, enemies

A Disorder Peculiar to the Country A Novel Ken Kalfus Ecco: 238 pp., $24.95

July 09, 2006|Art Winslow | Art Winslow, a former literary and executive editor of the Nation, writes frequently on books and culture.

THE children admitted they "were playing 9/11" when Viola got hurt. Brother and sister had been jumping for hours from the side of the porch, hundreds of leaps, "and every time it had been like new, with the towers still standing, spewing flame and black smoke." Victor was supposed to be holding Viola's hand, but he let go, and because of that, she might have broken her wrist.

Well, kids will be kids, except when they are philosophers, as Viola is at another point in Ken Kalfus' new novel, "A Disorder Peculiar to the Country." Trying to puzzle out the welter of contradictory and confusing facts she faces as a nearly 5-year-old, Viola asks her mother, Joyce, "How do we know?"

"Know what, honey?" her mother responds.

Know all things, any thing -- it is an epistemological inquiry. Viola has been witnessing, without understanding, the bitter paroxysms of her parents' divorce struggle. Even at a tender age Viola understood that "you could identify what lay in front of you, but what it meant was invisible" and further that words were crude approaches to ideas, so that "language failed."

We have seen these themes of meaning and truth pondered before by Kalfus, something of a philosopher himself but stuck in a novelist's body. Being a satirist, he can at least see the humor in the situation. In his first novel, "The Commissariat of Enlightenment," his filmmaking protagonist, a budding propagandist, knew that the image was ascendant over the word and that "deceit was ingrained in cinematographic reporting, as it was in every kind of storytelling. You were presented with a set of facts ... and it was your task to order them in a way that imparted meaning."

Iconography and representation, and the potential cumulative falsity of fact, were themes of "The Commissariat of Enlightenment," named for the government body charged with "the task of conquering the Russian imagination." In it, we learned that the West was creating an image-ruled empire of its own, an "electrified web of pictures, unarticulated meaning, and passionate associations forged between unrelated ideas," where the masses would either be starved of meaning or exposed to so much "that the sum of it would be unintelligible."

Like a fever dream of recent events, Kalfus' new novel floats us from Sept. 11 through the ensuing anthrax scare (in which "the mail had become another kind of unsafe sex"), the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan ("missed targets and slain civilians"), the lead-up to war in Iraq, suicide bombing in Israel in August 2002 ("in a single lightning flash the unconnected parts of the world had been brought together"), the incineration of the space shuttle Columbia ("NASA's unequivocating, hard-faced experts ignored warnings") and the fall of Baghdad in April 2003. 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.

Alongside the public history, "A Disorder Peculiar to the Country" juxtaposes the not entirely private suffering of Joyce and Marshall Harriman, parents of the little porch jumpers and the inspiration for Viola's emerging questions. When the novel opens, Joyce and Marshall have been legally separated for a year, but who would know? They still reside together, hatefully, sharing the children in their Brooklyn Heights co-op, each advised by counsel not to abandon the apartment and not to communicate with the other. Their maneuvering rivals Broadway's longest-running plays -- it just won't come to a close. If forced to converse, the couple "spoke with elegant concision, unless of course they were screaming."

Through the interbleeding of public and private story lines and his lampooning approach, Kalfus has an evident mission: freeing the way we think about Sept. 11 and the war on terror from a ready-made mold, the rigid cast of a hardening historical view. If hyperbole can be weaponized anywhere in literature, it is here. Do the destructions of a home and of the homeland bear similarity? Joyce, resenting her former belief that the country was protectively isolated, thinks, "Someone had lied to them as shamelessly as a spouse."

On the day itself, shoulder to shoulder with co-workers "rapt and numb," watching the south tower collapse, 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," and she covered her mouth "to hide her fierce, protracted struggle against the emergence of a smile." Marshall, you see, worked there.

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