Edmond Caldwell

Edmond Caldwell's Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant (Say It With Stones) is a much worthier and more accomplished book than 99% of what is published as "literary fiction" by most "name" publishers. It takes numerous risks, both formally and thematically, but it also manages to be entertaining without conceding to conventional notions of plot arcs or backstory or "fine writing."

Of course, that it does take risks is the primary reason it couldn't be published by one of those name publishers. While it may be true that adventurous, iconoclastic writing has never found much favor among publishers (Sorrentino, Gaddis, e.g.), even publishers who claim to prize "literary value" as much as commercial value, these days small presses and self-publishers are taking up even more of the slack left by the abandonment by publishers of all but the safest, most formulaic versions of the literary. Such books might tweak established practice here and there, but the truly innovative writers are inhabiting the fringes of literary culture, as represented by mainstream publishing, more than ever. (The career of Gary Lutz seems to me a prime example.)

The first thing that undoubtedly would trouble many would-be publishers of Human Wishes/Enemy Combatants is to be found most directly in the title, which is taken from two separate chapters (the last two) in what the title page identifies as a novel, but which could as easily be taken as a sequence of stories featuring the same protagonist. The "unified" collection of stories has become something of a commonplace in current fiction, but in most of these books the connections between stories are superficial, an attempt perhaps to get around a short story collection's lack of marketability by making it more like a novel. The stories in HW/EC do center around a single protagonist (fairly transparently, Edmond Caldwell), but the connections between them go much deeper both implicitly and explicitly, so that, although some of them could certainly coherently stand on their own as shorter fictions, all of them work most resonantly in relation to each other and within the context of the book as a whole.

The stories most immediately share a common style and structure, the seemingly shapeless and deceptively formidable nature of each undoubtedly also features of the book that make it unpalatable to many publishers. Except for one piece, and a small part of another, in the form of a play (the former a parody of Beckett featuring Samuel Johnson and his cat as characters), the stories/chapters of Human Wishes/Enemy Combatants are composed in a single, uninterrupted block of text, the sentences of which can frequently become quite long and unwieldy. Although in my view this strategy is a little too reminiscent of the work of Thomas Bernhard, it does work well in conveying the protagonist's experiences, which do not occur in discrete, paragraph-sized slices but as one-thing-after-another, as well as his mental processes, which are not exactly organized. This is reflected as well in the rush of sentences, which don't so much meander as collide with each other in a grammatical free-fall. Since Caldwell's prose avoids conventional figurative ornamentation, however, it actually works to advance "story" fairly straightforwardly, even if the story simply accumulates incidents rather than imposing on them more artificial plot devices. Although these formal and stylistic features might at first seem intimidating, I think most readers would readily enough discover that they can adapt to the book's different, but not inaccessible, way of organizing language. (They will further discover that the book's first piece, "Apple Seized," is also the shortest and that, in addition to the thematic elements it introduces, it provides a good opportunity to begin adapting.)

I believe most readers will also find a unifying source of interest in the novel's (unnamed) protagonist, but again it is probably not the sort of interest that would commend itself to a publisher hoping to appeal to those seeking to naively "identify" with a fictional character. Although this protagonist is not without his charms, they are the charms of a sad sack, schlemiel-like figure to whom things happen rather than becoming an active agent of his own fate. His misadventures can be quite entertaining, while at the same time an undercurrent of menace is also decidedly present. The threat is embodied on a personal level by the protagonist's sense that, though he is presumably a caucasian American, somehow his physiognomy suggests to people he is Semitic, either Jewish or Arabic, the latter of which makes onlookers especially uncomfortable, of course. On the social level, the threat posed by the American surveillance state is invoked in the very first story, set in an airport, but the protagonist doesn't so much feel he is himself under suspicion because he might be a terrorist but because his general demeanor betrays his status as a slacker writer contributing nothing productive to the social order. The one tie he does have to that order is through his wife, whom we never see but who seem to be organized and successful (making us wonder, of course, why she's married to our protagonist).

That the protagonist is a writer supplies Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant with an additional unifying element, one that also marks it as an "experimental" work and thus less attractive to publishers' marketing departments. The book is also about its own composition, the metafictional strategy most visible in the book's fifth story/chapter (out of nine), as the protagonist visits an art museum featuring a Joseph Cornell exhibition and "stands before the fifth box in the middle of nine boxes devoted to his nine lives, to his left are the four previous boxes and to his right the four subsequent boxes." The boxes bear the titles of the nine chapters of the book we are reading. Literary self-consciousness is manifested as well in the mock Beckett play and in the final chapter, which begins: "Someone must have dropped a dime on our hero, for without having done anything wrong he woke up one morning from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed in his bed into an enemy of the state."

For the most part, the metafictional contrivances are clever and amusing, although there is one self-reflexive gesture that works less well. Caldwell uses his book as an opportunity to extend his critique of the critic James Wood, to whom there are numerous references and about whom "Samuel Johnson" engages in prolonged discussion in "Human Wishes." While I agree with much of this critique, the very fact that I found myself agreeing/disagreeing with these sections of the book as critical discourse ("A real critic would be discovering new writers and new trends in writing, not just passing judgment on whatever the publishing megaconglomerates choose to shovel onto the shelves of the big chain-bookstores") made for an awkward pause in the reading experience as I struggled to understand the aesthetic purpose of this discourse. At best it seems to me an ultimately superfluous satirical gesture, that pause of mine a rip in the book's aesthetic fabric.

Unfortunately, I would have to make a similar judgment about those parts of the book, in particular "The Little Wayfarer" and "Enemy Combatant" that take it away from geopolitics used as atmospheric backdrop into what borders on geopolitical agitprop on behalf of the Palestinians in their conflict with Israel. Although this is made relevant to the protagonist's story through a rather long digression tracing what may (or may not) be his lineage as the actual son of a Palestinian immigrant to the U.S, the pause required to assimilate an otherwise clearly polemical interlude is even longer, and, to me at least, significantly weakens the second half of Human Wishes/Enemy Combatants.

Nevertheless, these are flaws that I would attribute to a writer trying to do too much rather than settling for too little, and if Caldwell needs his rage at perceived injustice (part of a more general dissatisfaction with the world--including the literary world--as it is) to inspire what is still both an iconoclastic and intricately fashioned work such at this, I for one am prepared to accept such flaws as incidental damage. Sometimes in attempting to "say something," a writer manages to make something even more interesting.


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