First there was post-9/11 fiction, now there's post-Katrina fiction (and, probably soon, Iraq War II fiction and Bush II fiction). I don't doubt the need for writers to try their hand at making sense of major events, but it strikes me as a little strange to start forming fiction subgenres around disasters and such. It also strikes me as a little troubling the way fiction is being increasingly marketed around events (usually tragedies), as if novels and story collections were some kind of literary op-eds.
I actually do doubt "the need for writers to try their hand at making sense of major events," precisely because the expectation that they will do so inevitably reduces the writing of fiction to a kind of "literary op-ed." Fiction writers are granted the dispensation to "reflect" on the meaning of "major events" and to dramatize their reflections through the use of story (a mode that is in turn granted more immediacy in capturing readers' attention), but ultimately the work produced is judged by what it has to "say" about the event or era in question, by how strikingly it rehashes what we already know.
I have mostly avoided the mother of these "subgenres," the "post-9/11" novel. I well recall the assertions made in the months following 9/11/01 that this event had "changed everything," that writers would have to give up their postmodern game-playing and go back to writing real novels about the real world, blah, blah, blah. I remember hoping that most writers would ignore this critical blather and go on writing whatever kind of fiction suited their fancy. Indeed, I thought that the best response to such sanctimony would be for postmodernists to enage in even more game-playing than ever before. It would seem, however, from such post-9/11 novels as DeLillo's Falling Man and the response to it that such resistance was never very likely.
Recently I gave up my own resistance to the "post-" genre and read Ken Kalfus's A Disorder Peculiar to the Country. (This was after I read Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown, which is a post-9/11 novel only indirectly and might even be said to contain a bit of postmodern game-playing.) I know it's a post-9/11 novel because its story literally takes place during the months following the attacks on the Twin Towers and because all of the reviews of the novel said it was, but although the novel clearly wants mightily to "say something" about this "major event," I honestly can't figure out what this is supposed to be. Ordinarily, I would consider it a mark of a novel's accomplishment that the reader can't exactly pin down its meaning, but in this case the novel in question doesn't open itself up to the possibility of multifarious interpretation. It pretty clearly intends that its parallel between the trauma inflicted on New York City on 9/11 and the trauma of its protagonists' divorce, as well as between the events that ensued in the aftermath of 9/11 (anthrax attacks, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) and the tawdry events leading to the couple's final divorce decree be seen as, somehow, very significant.
But in what way are these parallels significant? Divorce is like terrorism? The blowing up of a marriage is like the blowing up of the Twin Towers? In an unhappy marriage the participants are waging war against each other in the same we waged war against the Taliban? Surely Kalfus doesn't intend for his novel to "mean" things as banal, or as offensive, as these. But what does he intend? Laura Miller suggested in her review that "Kalfus, an endlessly ingenious writer, is not trying to say something about divorce by likening it to the so-called clash of civilizations. Instead, he's showing us that the far-off national conflicts we find so baffling and complicated actually work a lot like a really bad divorce." By this measure, then, the novel is indeed "about" the world wrought by 9/11, and Kalfus is indeed trying to "say something," which is that the war in Iraq can be understood as similar to divorce? He's "not trying to say something about divorce." If someone can tell me what sense this distinction is supposed to make, I would appreciate the explanation.
I was tempted to conclude that what Kalfus was really saying was that, to the extent his protagonists are representative of the America the hijackers thought they were attacking, they had some justification, given how thoroughly detestable "Joyce" and "Marshall" turn out to be. Probably not, but it seems to me as intelligible as any other interpretation one might offer of this really quite dreadful book.
Frances Madeson's Cooperative Village is also a post-9/11 novel, but, despite being published by a start-up press and consequently much less publicized, it has the virtues of being both entertaining and thematically coherent, neither of which can be said of A Disorder Peculiar to the Country. It is a transparently comic novel, pitched somewhere between outright satire and what used to be called "black humor." Although I am more a fan of the latter than the former, the cheerfully absurdist tone of Cooperative Village keeps it from lapsing into facile moralizing.
The novel's black comedy is on display in the opening chapter, as its protagonist, a self described "flameout" in her "previously lucrative career as a professional doormat," discovers a dead body in her co-op's laundry room:
I won't over-dramatize and say I was in shock to find death in the laundry room, even though it's a place I associate more with renewal than dissolution, but it was a little disturbing. Maybe that's why I went ahead and started doing the laundry, which is what I'd come for, knowing that if my hands were busy, my mind would soon follow and clarity would replace confusion. So often I find that if you just put your shoulder to the wheel and start pushing, eventually it'll turn and you'll be on your way to wherever it is you were going, and that's what I did now with Mrs. Plotsky dead on the laundry room floor.
Noticing a smell already emanating from Mrs. Plotsky, Frances decides to take some pre-emptive action:
. . .since I had extra bleach that I didn't absolutely need for Joseph's underwear, and bleach is an excellent odor fighter, I splashed a little on Mrs. Plotsky, thinking it might help. And it did! So then I thought, if a little bleach helps, a lot would probably lick the whole problem altogether.
The machines are front loading, which I generally find very convenient, but now even more so because it would've been too difficult for me to pick the dead-weight of Mrs. Plotsky up off the floor, the dead being as heavy as they are, and I very well might've broken my back trying to load her in the top. But with the ease of front loading, I could unfold her legs into the machine, kind of scoop her tiny little self up, and shove her in. I'm not claiming it was easy, but I pride myself on my physical strength, problem-solving abilities, and a certain can-do attitude that's served me well over the years--well, at least it used to before the, you know, flame-out.
Frances subsequently tries to divest herself of the body, but she finds this not such an easy task when she is told by Mrs. Plotsky's surviving son (who has been sharing a co-op apartment with his mother) that he wants nothing to do with it. Frances winds up hauling the body around on a luggage carrier, before finally managing to have it removed to a crematorium. (And to her credit, Frances later arranges to sit shiva for Mrs. Plotsky.)
In A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, Kalfus also attempts several episodes of what are clearly meant to be black humor, as when husband Marshall rigs himself up in a suicide jacket, only to have wife Joyce try to help him fix it whan it malfunctions due to his incompetent construction. But such scenes are so clearly striving to be "dark" they come off as mostly just foolish. The off-kilter comedy of Cooperative Village is established immediately and creates a consistently off-kilter fictional world.
Frances additionally discovers that her library card has been used by someone else to check out books that come under suspicion via the Patriot Act, and she is informed by the local librarian that she will likely be investigated by the FBI. Here Cooperative Village takes its satirical turn, as eventually Frances goes on the lam, leaving graffiti messages around town announcing her defiance, including one that proclaims, "We Will Not Cooperate."
Thus, "cooperation" becomes the novel's obvious unifying theme. The villagers themselves are not always so cooperative with one another, while an overly intrusive government demands a compulsory cooperation. The thematic convergence is ultimately perhaps a little too neat for my taste, but I'd surely rather have Frances Madeson's more boldly comic treatment of post-9/11 New York than Ken Kalfus's forced, incoherent "serious" account. In its way, Cooperative Village seems truer to the creepy form of insanity we've been experiencing for the past six years.