Bush-era Novel

A Disorder Peculiar to the Country: A Novel BY Ken Kalfus. Harper Perennial. Paperback, 256 pages. $13.

The cover of A Disorder Peculiar to the Country: A Novel

It’s hard to imagine how any novel could embody the Bush era without, in some central way, being about 9/11, the war in Afghanistan, and the Iraq war. And yet novels that feature these subjects must do far more than simply include them as a method of injecting seriousness (or, worse, “relevance”). Without naming names, I’ve read a few so-called 9/11 novels that borrow the inherent drama of tragedy and conflict yet fail to do justice to them; in an unsavory way, some writers rely on the tragedy and conflict to do the work of creating a climax. Then there’s Ken Kalfus’s A Disorder Peculiar to the Country.

Published in 2006 and nominated for a National Book Award, this dark, nasty, and oddly funny novel turns expectations about fictional depictions of 9/11 on their head. For one thing, rather than presenting 9/11 as the culmination of the plot, Kalfus has a plane hitting the World Trade Center in the first paragraph. Joyce and her husband, Marshall, both believe the other has died in the attack—and, further subverting expectations, they’re thrilled because they can’t stand each other. It comes as a disappointment when each learns that the other is alive.

Kalfus follows Joyce and Marshall over the nine months after 9/11, as they experience the national “new normal” (a condition that is in fact deeply weird). The threats of anthrax and the depravity of Abu Ghraib mingle uncomfortably with the more personal acts of terrorism the couple unleash on each other.

Kalfus does many things well: His language is seamless, his observations are knowing, his ability to call out all manner of hypocrisy is casual yet devastating. But for me, the novel’s most singular quality is that when I page through it now, almost fifteen years after George W. Bush was elected (or perhaps “elected”) and six after he left office, the book immediately evokes just what a strange, unsettling, and grim time his presidency represented for this country.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s novels include Prep (2005), American Wife (2008), and Sisterland (2013; all Random House.)