Sunday, February 25, 2007

9-11 Fiction, Part 1: A Disorder Peculiar to the Country

I was listening to the radio the other day and heard a song that blew my socks off: "While You Were Sleeping" by Elvis Perkins. Perkins is a son of the late Anthony Perkins and the photographer Berry Berenson, who was in one of the planes that flew into the WTC. "While You Were Sleeping" seems to be about his mother and that day, and it's beautiful and moving and it is (I think) the first piece of "9-11 art" that I've heard/seen/read that really works. Of course, Perkins has a personal connection to the material. If *I* wrote a 9-11 song, it would feel wrong and exploitative. (Not that I have written a song in my life.)

"While You Were Sleeping" awoke in me a desire to read ALL the 9-11 novels. The last couple of years have sprouted a bunch of them, and I've been avoiding them all. I didn't want to relive the horror and I didn't want to be subjected to others' interpretation of it. But now I do want to see how writers have handled it. They are writers with more nerve than I.

So I started with A Disorder Peculiar to the Country by Ken Kalfus, which was a National Book Award Finalist last year. I get the impression that Kalfus was most energized by his clever and compelling premise: a divorcing couple each thinks the other is killed in the WTC attacks, and are disappointed when they each show up back home. Most of the rest of the book is about the divorce, painfully dragged out over the anthrax- and war-infused years that follow.

What is best about the book is the way it shows how current events have inserted themselves into ordinary lives. It's something worth writing about, for sure. And though some reviewers have interpreted the book as a condemnation of the way Americans went temporarily insane in the run-up to the Iraq War, I think Kalfus is a little more forgiving than that. His characters are too shell-shocked to fully absorb or think critically about what's going on around them, and so are easily exploited by greater forces. (Exploitation again: definitely a theme of the times.)

The ending of the book is interesting and surprising and it works, but I won't spoil it for anyone.

Next I think I'll give The Emperor's Children a go. Reactions to it have been split and I'm curious to see where I stand. Then maybe Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close?


Anonymous said...

I read the book. Funny and sad. But the 9/11 part felt contrived to me. As thought the basic outline for the book had already been set out before 9/11. And the story was reworked to fit it into the historical narrative.

Trevor said...

I haven't read the book, but I'll check it out; that is a good premise. I wanted to echo my love for that Elvis Perkins song, and, hell, the rest of the album that follws it. What a surprise find. I've been waiting for someone to fill the void Neutral Milk Hotel left.

Anne said...

I'm kind of obssessed with 9/11 novels, too. I just finished an advance copy of DeLillo's Falling Man which I really liked a lot.

I also liked McEwan's Saturday.

Beigbeder's Windows on the World was annoying in a really riveting way.

The Messud awaits...

audiojoe said...

An audiobook edition of A Disorder Peculiar to the Country will be available on March 28, 2007 from A sample of the first chapter is available as a free podcast at