Sunday 27 April 2008

Punching 9/11 sentimentality in the neck

Yesterday, I finished reading Ken Kalfus's novel A Disorder Peculiar to the Country. I'd been looking forward to reading this one for awhile as it's part of a new sub-sub-genre of contemporary American fiction addressing the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the USA; I'm curious to see how this evolving mythology of good and evil is going to play out.

Fellow American Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close also fictionalized reaction to this event, but in a much kinder and more gingerly fashion than Kalfus's book does. Safran Foer is, I think, essentially a pretty optimistic guy and while he didn't reiterate the sort of fundamentalist/patriotic approach that has dominated in politics and talk shows since the event, he also doesn't really question it. Rather, he sort of side-steps the self-righteous hysteria and uses 9/11 as a backdrop for exploring inter-generational cultural trauma not obviously related thereto - the WW2 holocaust of the Jews in Europe.

Sherman Alexie, in one of the stories in Ten Little Indians (I can't remember which story, and in fact I'm not entirely sure it was even in Ten Little Indians), briefly wonders if some people aren't happy their dads or husbands or wives aren't coming home from the attacks, but backs off of really exploring the answer to that question. Kalfus, on the other hand, embraces that question and grabs 9/11 fundamentalist/patriotic sentimentalism by the balls and then punches it right in the neck, hard.

Spoiler Alert!
The story begins on Sept. 11 with Joyce and Marshall, a bitterly divorcing couple, arriving home (Marshall having escaped his office in one of the towers and Joyce missing her flight to California, which ended up crashing into the Pennsylvania countryside) to find one another and being desperately disappointed - both having earlier celebrated one another's presumed deaths. The rest of the book follows their increasing bitterness and vindictiveness, the attacks having in no way mitigated their animosity towards one another. The book spirals into divorce hell, exploding pretty much every aspect of the American dream and its associated cultural identity along the way until the book culminates in a strange (and to me very sad, because so very, very untrue) fantasy of the US simply liberating Iraq and leaving it in good hands, finding Osama bin Laden almost immediately (and being sure he was behind the attacks), and celebrating together in a strange moment of cultural cohesion outside Ground Zero.

I don't know if I enjoyed this book but I think it was a very good and maybe important one; I also think Kalfus is a pretty phenomenal writer. In a strange case of serendipity (and missing the showtime for the new Jet Li/Jackie Chan film), I saw a film last night that also punches 9/11 patriotism in the neck: Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay.

Another Spoiler Alert!
Harold and Kumar, two young stoners, are on a plane to Amsterdam when Kumar pulls out a homemade bong which everyone thinks is a bomb when they see him trying to light it - they, of course, end up in Guantanamo Bay. Many hi jinx ensue as they escape, are recaptured, etc. Nothing is sacred here and racial stereotypes are torn down just to be fairly gently reiterated and mocked.

Most interestingly, to me, was how viciously the government's Homeland Security organization was skewered. The primary agent in the case is kind of rapaciously aroused by the thought of punishing these guys and this is echoed in the uncomfortable way the guards at G.Bay make the prisoners "eat cock sandwiches" (I'm sure I don't need to explain that). This film doesn't hold back at all and I'm a little amazed that it was released, given the controversy that just won't die, although it's been blunted recently, surrounding the USA's continued abuse of prisoners at its various camps.

I guess the culture is becoming less sensitive and can handle some questioning - but is this the kind of questioning that changes things or is it the kind of questioning that allows people to laugh off their discomfort and forget about it? A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, I think, won't allow that kind of forgetting, but I'd say about a bazillion more people will see Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay than will read Kalfus's novel. And that's sad for lots of reasons.

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