The chastisement of America, with bourgeois unrest, foreigners watching in humiliation, and citizens of other countries enjoying the downfall of the once mighty country, is the grim scenario Ken Kalfus imagines in his latest novel, “2 AM in Little America. ” Whatever side one takes on the issues that confuse America, readers familiar with his work will probably agree on this point: Calf is an insightful guy. Whether he writes about Russia and radiation poisoning in “Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies”, 9/11 in “A Disorder Peculiar to the Country” or the Dominique Strauss-Kahn saga from 2011 in “Coup de Foudre”, Kalfus has a gift to penetrate to the core of current events and present issues in a provocative way.
If anxiety is a condition you want literature to create in you, or you just like a challenging read, you will be happy to know that Kalfus succeeds again, this time with a quiet dystopian novel that presents a disturbing portrait of a humble America as seen with the eyes of a migrant who is a not entirely reliable narrator.
Review: ‘A Disorder Peculiar to the Country’ by Ken Kalfus
The book takes place in one of the most popular time periods for fiction: the not too distant future. In an unnamed country, Ron Patterson, an American migrant, lives in a grungy “cinder block midrise” with other men and performs “semi-menial” work repairing security equipment in office buildings.
At a job, he repairs a roof system as he inadvertently looks out a window and sees a woman taking a shower. He quickly finds out that her name is Marlise, and she looks a lot like a classmate in high school. When he sees her again on the street, he knows it’s her, even though she looks like another person.
It is only the first of many uncertainties that populate the narrative. As Ron’s new country adopts stricter immigration laws, he and Marlise travel to separate countries. A decade later, Ron has moved again and finds himself trapped in an enclave of dilapidated buildings, called Little America. Again, Ron finds work servicing safety equipment. He hopes this is his last move.
But politics intervene. The Americans in the enclave are becoming as divided as they had been at home. A student protest becomes so violent that the military has to suppress it. Rival militias are formed. A detective turns Ron into an informant. And Ron meets several residents who look like people from his past, including possibly that classmate from high school.
At times, Kalfus is too shy. A good way to build suspense is to withhold information, but an excellent way to destroy it is to prolong a mystery for too long. Some readers may feel that Kalfus is waiting longer than he should before making the contours of the atrocities of the United States more definable.
And he tends to make some points too clearly, like when he writes about certain news outlets that present disturbing “exposures” of “how our countrymen had been manipulated” by movies, TV shows, novels – and newspapers. As a result of these missteps, “2 AM in Little America” often feels like the literary equivalent of an elegant coffee table with one leg slightly shorter than the rest: well-constructed but skewed.
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Yet readers receptive to its qualities will not mind a slight wavering here and there, and occasional decay does not diminish the resonance of lines like “A roughly equal number of atrocities were does not committed by both sides, “or that the problem stemmed from” a single page’s self-interested distortion of American history. ” conclusion.
Halfway through the story, Ron notices physics devices in one of the schools where he services equipment that reminds him of the camera obscura box that his physics teacher, Mr. Strauss, had shown.
“We do not see anything directly,” Strauss had said. The world is real, but “you have to recognize how our perceptual tools work, how they are limited, what they distort, what they amplify, what they diminish, and what they omit.” As this demanding novel makes appallingly clear, distortions and lack of clarity can produce interesting photographs, but in everyday life they can lead to devastating irreconcilability and horrific beliefs. Put them together, and that’s how the hostilities begin. Hate is a bad look.
Michael Magras is a freelance book reviewer. His work has appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Economist and the Times Literary Supplement.
Milkweed Editions; 256 pages; 25 USD
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