As with pop music and fashion, literature tends to follow the tide of emergent cultural movements, ideas, conflicts, and challenges. Occasionally, as with Ken Kalfus’s latest novel, 2 A.M. in Little America, a work of art looks further ahead, responding to our present moment by imagining a possible future. Ostensibly responding to our own increasingly sundered political poles, Kalfus’s novel places the reader in an alternative history in which America has been decimated by a partisan-fueled civil war, forcing citizens to migrate to neutral host countries around the world. Not ten years ago, that premise would’ve seemed impossible. In 2022, Kalfus’s vision of America’s future feels depressingly salient.
2 A.M. in Little America is narrated by a somber, awkward, and socially cloistered man named Ron Patterson, one of the aforementioned American migrants trying to eke out a living abroad. Ron walks us through his daily routine, an exercise in vagueness. He bikes through an unnamed city in a nameless country, fixes essential yet unexplained electric boxes in buildings, and even adopts a dog, which he names, of course, after the unnamed city.
A timid man, Ron Patterson prefers to remain invisible when it comes to relationships with other humans. The host country’s natives are occasionally hostile and unpredictable, and interactions with his fellow expats tend to teeter on a partisan chasm. Politically, Americans are split into two groups—what a surprise—and they’ve dragged their divisive baggage abroad. While Ron touches on the indefatigable partisanship between the two sides, he avoids not only associating with either group, but also resists outlining their respective pasts, preferring to eschew details of the bloody feud that destroyed America—in particular the waterboarding, imprisonment, murder, and horrors that took place in his hometown. The one thing Ron is somewhat straightforward about is his cognitive condition. He suffers from prosopagnosia, or an inability to distinguish one human face from another.
Partly because of Ron Patterson’s inability to recognize faces and partly due to his stubborn political neutrality, his limited perspective paints an increasingly unreliable picture of “Little America.” Unreliable narratives are designed to remind us of our incapacity for objectivity, a fitting model for a book that circles a catastrophe created by subjective biases. This unreliability of perception is occasionally comic, as with Ron’s love life. He begins to love one woman but can’t recognize her when he sees her next. He meets another woman and thinks she’s the first woman. Later, he starts to fall for another woman, who might be the first woman, and so on. Occasionally, all the women in the nameless host country, both young and old, resemble the woman Ron thinks he loves. This dissociation from objective reality is both reminiscent of Mersault’s existential detachment in The Stranger, and echoes the foggy, nihilistic path of Kafka’s protagonist in The Castle. There’s also a labyrinthine and dreamlike quality to Kalfus’s prose that recalls the surreal expressionism of movies like Brazil and Delicatessen:
In the basements and subbasements I could feel the press of life above me, a seething human mass that implied more of a metropolis than the district actually was. I sensed it around me too, because tenants occupied other sections of the basement, everything modified to maximize room for living. The buildings, well beyond government inspection, were riddled with cubbyholes, recesses, and imaginatively modified crawlspaces, as well as with baffles and conduits that carried the odors of cooking from one habitation to the other and down to me.
Kalfus divides the book into two parts, corresponding to Ron Patterson’s residence in two unnamed countries. The first part of the book is lighter fare, focusing on Ron’s amnesia-clouded love story. In the second part, Ron lives in a cramped ghetto, and the stakes are higher. Though he tries to remain unnoticed, Ron is forced into a conundrum when a native detective, who may or may not be working for the police, orders Ron to eavesdrop on Americans and report their activities. It turns out Ron’s penchant for anonymity makes him an excellent voyeur, though it would help if he could remember a face. His spying leads to the crisis of the book, a series of events in which Ron Patterson must choose a side—a nearly comical proposition considering Ron’s inability to clarify the difference between the two American political factions.
To reveal whether or not Ron Patterson successfully navigates the two rabid groups vying for his loyalty would be to spoil the riveting last quarter of the novel. That said, the overall effect of the book is one of condemnation. The novel’s presupposition is that, given our irredeemable and ugly partisanship, our future is doomed. As when Ta-Nehisi Coates was asked if there is any hope for America, Kalfus answers in the negative.
In 2022, we are near midnight on the Doomsday Clock, whose hour hand perpetually ekes toward catastrophe. In Kalfus’s novel, it’s now 2 A.M. and migrant Americans are alienated, fractured, and desperate. They cling to their culture by building fake Targets and McDonalds, scrounging inoffensive books in English, and reminiscing about baseball. Nostalgia has never felt so toxic.
About the Reviewer
Kirk Sever teaches and writes in Los Angeles. He is a fiction editor at MAYDAY Magazine.