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Another fine mess

Reader fan critic teacher reader fan.

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Ottessa Moshfegh
Knife Fight and Other Struggles
David Nickle
Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity
Andrew Solomon
The Good Lord Bird
James McBride
Ancillary Justice
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Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More (New Edition)
Derek Bok
Dissident Gardens
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The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
James Gleick
Complete Novels
Dashiell Hammett, Steven Marcus
A Disorder Peculiar to the Country - Ken Kalfus This is my favorite 9/11 novel. So far. Why -- why this nasty account of two nasty narcissists involved in a bitter divorce?

I admit to an unhealthy love for characters who behave horribly. When Kalfus recounts how his two protagonists respond to the events of 9/11 with a startled smile (and even, for Marshall, a little jig/dance), thinking that in this shocking tragic event their despised soon-to-be-ex-spouse has perished . . . my eyes twinkle even now at the aggressive inappropriateness of the behavior. Fictional assholes float my boat; inappropriate behavior makes me all warm and fuzzy.

And there's something gloriously deconstructive about such glee around this event, still somberly addressed in almost all public discourse, or any kind of comic resistance to grim memorial. I recall the comic Zach Galifianakis' throwaway joke -- when asked where he was on 9/11, he always responds "What year?" I don't just laugh at tragedy, snicker at others' pain, chuckle over the death of baby seals and the horrors of illness. A sharp, bitter comedy disrupts the public narrative, provokes a kind of reflection on how we engage. Or at the very least thumbs its nose, drops its pants at the assumptions guiding social interaction.

What Kalfus does exceedingly well here is responsive to such public discourse, which has often reduced the complexity of this history to a certain genre of story: the personal becomes the only way for people to tackle the political. There are some good reasons for such narrative response: we experience 9/11, Afghanistan, the war on terror through our own personal lives. So it makes sense that we’d see narratives of people trying to make sense of “history” (the event, the trauma) in relation to their own personal worlds/understandings.

I read–and mostly disliked–Neil Labute’s "The Mercy Seat" and in his introduction as well as throughout the play he enacts exactly what I’m trying to name above. He refers to his writing of the play, how it ended up revealing something like “the ground zero” in our hearts and between us. And throughout the play, we watch people not very honest with themselves and their intimates grapple–-as dust and ash from the Trade Centers covers everything–-with moral decisions. The events of 9/11 serve as catalyst and context, but in such fictions the terrorist attacks are (merely?) useful metaphors for what ails us. In some instances, there’s a heartfelt earnest sense that 9/11’s tragedy reveals and then perhaps redeems the disconnect of our everyday moral lives. (A film like The Great New Wonderful does this, horribly; Jonathan Safran Foer is up to something similar, but succeeds, regarding the existential pain of love and loss.) Such earnest attention to the self isn’t necessarily bad or wrong or an immoral use of the events . . . or at least I’m not arguing such. But I am struck by how it keeps the narrative centered in the realm of American narcissism.

Even when a fiction criticizes such self-absorbed reactions to 9/11–as in Labute and Clare Messud and some others–nonetheless it strikes me that we are being invited to read the failures of these “selves,” the lapsed or absent morality of these characters–-and, again, 9/11 becomes backdrop and background and banal symbol for these individuals in the fore. We still read the events through the prism of an individualized morality, an individualized sense of psychology, a personal reaction to trauma.

Kalfus does something really damn interesting: he foregrounds this vicious divorce, these two characters behaving horribly, and 9/11–-then the bombing of the Taliban, the collapse of Enron and WorldCom, suicide bombings in Israel, the search for WMD and the invasion of Iraq–-are the background events in each chapter. As the world turns, the characters engage with one another in ways that riff on, resemble, resonate off the geopolitical. Seems like the same thing I’m questioning. . . yet I think Kalfus’ book enacts a reversal, so that the central characters–-these selves-–are the metaphors, the figurative devices which allow us in this narrative to grapple with the ethics and social contexts of global political history. Rather than keeping us stuck in selves, we see these selves as metaphors of an American subjectivity, and the book’s corrosive energies become far more incisively political. For me, and my focus is less on testimony or witness than on historiography (how we represent and understand historical events, as means for shaping our actions and understandings in/of history), Kalfus does something really amazing.

And often bitterly, bitingly funny.