‘A Disorder Peculiar to the Country’ is the story of Marshall and Joyce Harriman, a couple in the throes of a particularly nasty divorce when both are nearly killed in the September 11th terrorist attacks. Joyce abruptly cancels her flight on one of the hijacked planes, while Marshall, who works at the Twin Towers, is late for work and on one of the lowers floors when the planes hit. Both think the other is dead, and both are secretly and perversely pleased by the thought. Ken Kalfus deserves credit for writing one of the first novels to deal successfully with 9/11. His description of the carnage at the World Trade Centre is beautiful, harrowing and free of cant.
Kalfus views religious and cultural hatreds through the lens of the Harriman’s protracted, awful divorce. Husband and wife work to sabotage each other — bugging phones, torpedoing assets, sleeping with friends and making no effort to shield their two small children from the battle. Like other political enmities, their conflict becomes entrenched and self-perpetuating.
All in all, the book is very illuminating — not to mention daring. But a few things failed to click: we never understand how Joyce and Marshall got to hate each other so (indeed neither do they, but so what?). A chapter narrated by the Harriman’s 4-year old daughter feels false as a depiction of a child’s thinking. And the final chapter, which describes the discovery of WMD in Iraq, the spread of democracy in the Middle East and the capture of Osama bin Laden is a perplexing departure from the historical realism in the first part of the novel.