Monday, April 29, 2013

"Apologists of a larger insanity": Notes on Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant

Last year, I read Edmond Caldwell's novel Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant. In fact, I read it twice. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and though I've already said so in a previous blog post, I've been wanting to write something about it that will convey to you some idea of how good it is, or how it goes about being what it is, but all my attempts so far have quickly descended into meta-commentary and cutesy comments paired with long blockquotes.

It's tempting, isn't it?, to make overly extravagant claims about books you like and want to recommend, and heaven forbid one would give into such temptations. Out of curiosity, I looked the novel up on Amazon. There was one 5-star review, which begins "Through this book, Mr. Caldwell has created a new type of fiction" and only gets more hyperbolic from there. The review elicited a gratuitous, smug "oh really?" sort of comment from another Amazon reviewer. Make a strong claim and inevitably someone will sarcastically shoot it down. But has Edmond Caldwell created a new type of fiction? What could such a claim mean? Beats me. But let me tell you: this is an excellent novel. It's often brilliant, frequently very funny, allusive (Dante, Kafka, Beckett, Proust all come into play, among others), but not densely or ostentatiously so, and perhaps most impressively, it is politically astute.

But those are all superlatives that could be quoted to do heavy lifting in a blurb (echoing the novel's back-cover copy, 'if that guy at The Existence Machine thought Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant was fucking brilliant, maybe you will too!'). Characteristically, a number of meta-remarks come to mind about this book and its existence as a work published on a tiny poetry press that no one's heard of. But I'm wary of getting into that too much, and I already did some of it in that earlier post. Sometimes when I do the meta-stuff, it's because I feel the need to intervene in an ongoing conversation about some book or topic or other. In this case, there is no ongoing conversation. There should be one! What I want is for you to buy this book and to read it!

Still, as I mentioned in that post, I've recently noticed readers in my blogging/tweeting cohort have been reading Gerald Murnane and László Krasznahorkai and Clarice Lispector, Helen DeWitt and Lars Iyer, not too long ago I noticed an online reading group devoted to William Gaddis (there often seems to be a reading group devoted to William Gaddis), and as usual there has been no shortage of people invoking this blog's old standbys, Thomas Bernhard and Samuel Beckett, among others. I'm not intending any direct comparison between those writers' works and Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant; I would only suggest that Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant deserves to be read by the same set of readers, at least. It also deserves real reviews and genuine criticism. Reviews were never going to appear at certain mainstream organs, no matter who published it - The New Yorker is unlikely to review a book by a writer who'd written a blog called Contra James Wood; other similar outlets are just as unlikely to review it, no doubt for the same reason. But what about Bookforum? Or online outlets such as The Millions? The Quarterly Conversation? Such a book should be reviewed there. Were it in fact published by New Directions or Dalkey Archive or Melville House—and there's no qualitative reason why it couldn't have beenperhaps things would be different. Review copies would have been made more widely available. But it's not, and they haven't been; so here we are.

But enough of that. What is the novel? It is many things. It is an exploration of in between non-spaces and lost places, such as baggage claim areas, highway rest areas, shopping malls, destroyed towns. It is an anti-literary literary novel, if that isn’t too meangingless a turn of phrase. It is at times reminiscent of Bernhard, but not too much, or Beckett, ditto. It might remind you of some of the American post-modernists, but only superficially. It is, somewhat as one often finds with John Barth, further evidence that stories seem to accrue almost despite themselves and despite a narrator’s specifically stated attempts to sabotage them and avoid telling them. Little micro-stories abound and then are self-consciously abandoned amid patches of self-aware literary criticism. It is, as already suggested, effective political fiction—fascinating well-integrated stuff on class and race and gender and capitalism and Taylorism, and an astonishing account of possibly the main character’s mother in Palestine around the time of the Nakba and after.

What I'd like to do here, then, is offer some brief excerpts and some general remarks. The epigraph comes from "Orders from the general command to the Israeli Defense Forces regarding the townspeople of Lydda, Palestine. July, 12, 1948.": "All are free to leave, apart from those who will be detained". And then these are the opening few sentences of the book: 
They had just returned to the United States. He thought that the immigration official at the border-control booth had looked at him skeptically when running his passport, even though he was a citizen. Maybe he looked like a terrorist. Fortunately the line had been long and he was passed through with his wife. It helped that she looked more securely like an American, he thought. She had blond hair and an open face. Everything seemed to go easier when she was at his side. They went down the escalator to the baggage claim area. They had their item each of carry-on luggage but had checked their larger bags. Once in the baggage claim area, his wife said that she was tired and went to take a seat on a row of chairs against the nearest wall of the cast room. He hadn't slept well on this trip and should have been more tired than his wife, but he was filled with elation at the thought of being home, where he knew he would be able to sleep again and his bowels would return to normal. But at the far end of the baggage claim area he saw the customs gates and realized that home was still on the other side. They remained in one of those in-between places that existed only in airports, he thought.
And here we have introduced for us several recurring ideas. Attention to mundane details, the protagonist's anxiety about his appearance, including being mistaken for a terrorist, and the in-between place, or no place, of the baggage claim area. Settings in subsequent chapters include a hotel complex that exists to handle overbooked airline passengers, a highway rest stop, a shopping mall that had been converted from an old armaments factory, war zones, concentration camps, and interrogation rooms. In those opening sentences we have what this reader will always read as a slight nod to Bernhard, in those instances of "he thought", though perhaps I over-read that kind of thing, and it's not like the book itself, big blocks of text notwithstanding, is otherwise anything like a Bernhard novel, after all, so why bring it up? Only because. Later chapters remind me at times, lightly, of Beckett, but only lightly, the Beckett of Watt, not so much Beckett's larger project, but rather in the detailed attention to possible angles on a situation, but then Beckett is also more of an explicit reference, not least because one of the chapters (chapter 7: "Human Wishes") pretends to be a lost Beckett play about Samuel Johnson and his cat. And not only that.

Another excerpt, from chapter two, "Return to the Chateau", in which our hero ponders the airline overbooking and the hotels that exist to handle it; were it not for overbooking,
Nobody, nobody would come to these hotels otherwise. Except for a stray motorist perhaps or someone on a layover nobody in their right minds would ever allow themselves to be brought to this island, save those who were bumped. It was cheaper to give everybody a hotel room and meal vouchers and transportation on the shuttles than to stop overbooking the flights, clearly. Or perhaps the overbooking and bumping was going on solely to service these hotels, to keep them fed with warm irate bodies, even though Air France had to pay for everything the airline existed solely now and at a massive financial loss to keep this mechanism on the hill functioning. Nobody ever said such things had to be rational, he reasoned. Or rather, lots of people said they had to be rational, and even demonstrated in the newspapers and magazines and on news shows that they were indeed rational, but these were the apologists of a larger insanity.
So far so good.

Friends, readers, I cannot continue with this review, not in any proper sense. I'd been working on it on and off for weeks, re-read the book, put the review aside, talked about the book with friends - productive conversations! - was contemplating returning to the review, perhaps removing all block quotes, because none of them seem representative, or no, I worried that they would read as intended to be representative, which is somewhat different, so that having a few stand in seemingly gives the wrong idea of the book's tone and energy. And then life intervened; I forgot all about the book and this review. As I've come back to things, noticed all the posts I have sitting unfinished awaiting my attention, gathering moss in draft status, this one has continued to get buried - in part, I knew on some level that it was nowhere near being publishable; and so it would remain, getting no closer. Then I recently thought about it again, with some exasperation. I feel a responsibility to this book. I do! It is so good and yet so unknown. So I'm going to do what I can with what I've already written, leaving the block quotes in, representativeness and coherency bedamned, and add a few closing paragraphs.

I say above, after all of the other blurbable superlatives, that the book is perhaps most impressively politically astute. Why do I say this? I say this because being politically astute is all too rare for a work of fiction. I almost wrote that it does this by not being didactic, yet that's not quite right. It is didactic! We are so afraid of didacticism! I maintain that this fear is irrational - yet I understand it to some extent, and even share it. I further maintain that Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant is didactic in a good way. Consider this passage, from chapter six ("Time and Motion"), which finds our protagonist in a shopping mall converted from an old armaments factory:
And maybe it's just because of the mild buzz from the soda on his otherwise empty stomach that our hero in the food court of the Watertown Arsenal Mall now feels that there might be hope after all, the modern world has to be more than just a Taylorized conveyor-belt stuffing mass-produced trash into the open maws of mindless thumbless mall-zombies because he possesses this example from his own life this living example of a text conveyed to him by way of his Taylorized education [referring here to Animal Farm - RC] which he'd digested in his own way, turned to his own account, whose prescribed and orthodox meanings he had subverted and continues to subvert, maybe such opportunities for subversive appropriation are available to us everywhere, cracks in the armor of the big machine, fissures, gaps, opportunities to be seized, maybe every text of pessimism and despair can yield up subtexts of wild subversion, each type its antitype, shreds of heretical apocrypha, perhaps even here, yea here, in this food court in the Watertown Arsenal Mall where a hundred years ago the molders and machinists rose up against the Taylor method but because they had only been defending their AFL craft-privileges and their white dick privileges they had failed, maybe their grandchildren their great-great grandchildren would get it right one day because there's always this heretical subtext and antitype lurking somewhere, for every 1911 Watertown Arsenal strike there's a 1912 Lawrence Bread and Roses strike, the textile mills of Lawrence Massachusetts a few miles to the north of Watertown where the immigrant women workers were savagely exploited became the scene of the great Bread and Roses strike, organizes with the help of the IWW who didn't discriminate against race or sex but tried to bring all workers into One Big Union, Bread and Roses the road not taken, always a road not taken, always another branch in the river of time, never know when these proles and black proles and brown proles stuffing Cinnabons into their mouths out of cardboard containers and licking their fingers might rise up in a body and sugar-rush next door into the Foot Lock and Lady Foot Locker to grab the heaviest boots off the racks shouting Kick the Bosses in the Ass, Power to the Working Class!
This chapter includes huge amounts of stuff - information! facts! theory! - about Taylorism, not to mention a fanciful alternative biography of Taylor himself and his being in the world as a misunderstood artist. It's true that I am sympathetic to the political point-of-view that our narrator is putting across here and elsewhere, but the idea that I should have to bracket my own politics, my own understanding of the world, in order to adequately evaluate or respond to a work of fiction, or any work of art, that I should or could somehow approach it from some bullshit Kantian disinterested standpoint: this idea is deeply offensive to me. So I won't do it. How would a reactionary read these sections? Can't say I care. An objection might be raised that, if the 'didactic' material only has 'value' to a reader sharing its apparent point-of-view, then why bother? To which I can only add that this is a non-issue. If I can read, and get 'value' out of, novels entirely at odds with my political worldview, I don't see why other readers can't do the same here.

OK, it's time to wrap things up. I haven't said anything about how the chapters link together, or the stuff about Joseph Cornell, or even the mode of narration, among much else. Readers familiar with Contra James Wood may have heard that the novel includes similar material as that well-known blog; this is true. In fact, the blog grew out of the writing of the novel. Not to worry, there is plenty of James Wood here, and it is very smart and very funny. At times I wondered whether he'd pull it off, but he does. I did note above that one chapter includes a narrative possibly about the main character's mother. Where I've suggested that stories abound despite the narrator's misgivings, here the account of this Palestinian girl and woman lodged in my memory after one reading as a breed of gritty realism. And yet re-reading, I was reminded that the apparently realistic account is undercut at nearly every turn, the narrator consistently refusing to allow us to settle into simply accepting the narrative as realistic. In a sense, this very problematizing of the realism serves to enhance the realistic effect of the story being told. All of these different threads and others are brought together in the breathtaking final chapter, which to my mind is a brilliant demonstration of why literature, and literary criticism, matters, and is ultimately always political even when it pretends not to be. Which in itself is a good way to sum up the entire novel. Read it.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

"We'd now be living in a different world"

Early in Karl Ove Knausgaard's A Time for Everything (my post about the book is here), but after we've learned of Antinous Bellori's encounter with the angels and briefly of his own investigations, is this tantalizing passage:
And what was the legend of Faust warning against, if not the activities of Copernicus, Bruno, Descartes, Galileo, Leibniz, and Newton? We don't normally see it this way because of the impressively effective operation that was mounted during the Enlightenment, when demonic was the label attached to the obscure and the vague, the speculative and the occult, and truthful to the precise and rational, obvious and provable, with all the fateful consequences that would entail.

Because darkness isn't the danger, light is. That is where all the pitfalls are to be found.

Antinous Bellori's name is on the whole remarkable for its absence in such contexts, something that at first glance isn't in the least bit strange, considering the subjects that preoccupied him. It seems a long way from Newton's books on optics and gravity to Bellori's work on angels. But if we put what they wrote about to one side, and concentrate instead on the underlying mentality and philosophy, we will discover that the similarities outnumber the differences. Bellori employed the same methods as the others, he'd read the same literature and possessed the same knowledge. The only thing that distinguished him from them was that he looked in a different direction. That the secret into which he'd thereby gained insight would never be recognized was something of which he was ignorant, just as  the other movers of the age hadn't the slightest inkling of the consequences of their own discoveries. They lived in a period suspended between two contrasting views of the world and, like hermit crabs changing shells, were quite naked and vulnerable, always alert, always on the brink of scampering back to the old shell, until they'd crossed the invisible line and the new shell lay closer, after which they simply had to keep pushing on. The openness, fluidity, and uncertainty of the moment is there in Baroque art alongside a fascination with infinity and fixation on death. But the choice was made, the world's new boundaries were laid, and everything that was outside them sank slowly into oblivion. And rightly so, we might cry today, for Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton were right! After all, the ideas of Paracelsus, Landmark, and Bellori are monstrous, unscientific, superstitious. But if we remember that these writings date from the very start of the Enlightenment, before the new world philosophy was determined, it may be easier to see that such channels of thought represented an alternative to the road that was chosen, the one that has brought us to where we are today, and that it's precisely this choice that makes the ideas in, for example, On the Nature of Angels seem so outlandish and unfashionable. They weren't then. And therein lies the enticing point: what if Bellori's ideas had won through, and Newton's had sunk into oblivion?

We'd now be living in a different world.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Notes on A Time for Everything

Though I loved the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard's novel/memoir My Struggle, I wasn't sure if I was going to read his novel, A Time for Everything (translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson). After all, it's about angels, isn't it? And isn't it a bit of a historical novel? Yes, yes, both of these things are true. And yet, A Time for Everything turns out to be an astonishingly good novel.

On the very first page we read that "our world is only one of many possible worlds". The second page plunges us into an account of 11 year-old Antinous Bellori's 1554 encounter with two angels after a day of fishing. Bellori's day is recounted in what feels like moment-by-moment naturalistic loving detail, reading in parts almost like Thoreau. Angels become an obsession for him, and he ultimately writes his study, On the Nature of Angels. Our narrator tracks Bellori's studies, his questions as to the nature of the divine, his similarity to figures such as Newton, essays interesting and relevant questions about the nature of science - paths not taken and other possible worlds loom large here  - and anxieties about the value of the written word. All of this is endlessly fascinating, and it is not at all surprising that I would be interested in it, given the various threads I have pursued on this blog.

However, the bulk of the novel is devoted to psychologically detailed stories concerning Biblical figures, almost back stories, if you will, for such central stories as those of Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, the prophecies of Ezekial, Lot and the destruction of Sodom, the death of Christ. The nature of the angels, and by extension the divine, is further explored through their presence and role in each of these stories. And these narratives could almost be described as one would describe a fat historical novel about real historical people. I would not have expected to want to read such a thing. Put like that it frankly sounds somewhat dreary. Occasionally, too, Knausgaard's prose goes slack (as indeed it does at times in My Struggle). And yet I found these stories just as endlessly fascinating as the narrator's essays, if not more so. How is this?

This passage from Stephen Mitchelmore's review (which you should read) about this, including the prose (which he allowed was "vulnerable to criticism for stamping out generic passages from a stencil") suggests a possible reason:
Yet such prose in the context of biblical stories has the odd effect of naturalising events we would otherwise place at a distance. When Abel announces an expedition to the Garden of Eden, it is as supernatural as the North Pole. And when he is attacked by angels resisting his approach, they may as well be polar bears. Reading the novel late into the night I wondered if this is what genre fans enjoy in large volumes of speculative fiction, science fiction and fantasy: imaginary worlds presented in unadorned prose to evoke – albeit temporarily – an enchantment of the current, prosaic one. But the worlds and ideas they generate are weightless in comparison to this: our culture is founded on Bible stories. Every event becomes vitally real to us as they were for generations of Jews and Christians.
The speculation about science fiction is worth considering, but I love the point that the apparently flat "readable" prose "naturalizes" these stories for us. In any event, I was riveted throughout. The story of the Flood, for one, is terrifying and devastating. I also enjoyed how Knausgaard, or his narrator, seems gleefully unconcerned with anachronism in these Biblical stories, with respect to geography (e.g., fjords) and technology (guns); the scientific wave of the hand in which these are casually explained away is brilliant.

The story of Bellori's solitary life and his investigations is so convincing that it did not occur to me till rather late in the novel to doubt that he actually existed (he did not). The short coda turns to the narrator, and his father, and is somewhat puzzling as to its relationship to the novel, yet it appears to point us toward the writing of My Struggle. In my remarks and comments elsewhere about this book, I keep reaching for superlatives such as astonishing, remarkable, and so on, but it really was like no other book I've ever read.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Noted: Karl Ove Knausgaard

This passage comes from volume one of Karl Ove Knausgaard's novel/memoir, My Struggle (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett):
Looking back on this, it is striking how she, scarcely two years old, could have such an effect on our lives. Because she did, for a while that was all that mattered. Of course, that says nothing about her, but everything about us. Both Linda and I live on the brink of chaos, or with the feeling of chaos, everything can fall apart at any moment and we have to force ourselves to come to terms with the demands of a life with small children. We do not plan. Having to shop for dinner comes as a surprise every day. Likewise, having to pay bills at the end of every month. […] However, this constant improvisation increases the significance of the moment, which of course then becomes extremely eventful since nothing about it is automatic and, if our lives feel good, which naturally they do at times, there is a great sense of togetherness and a correspondingly intense happiness. Oh, how we beam. All the children are full of life and are instinctively drawn to happiness, so that gives you extra energy and you are nice to them and they forget their defiance or anger in seconds. The corrosive part of course is the awareness that being nice to them is not of the slightest help when I am in the thick of it, dragged down into a quagmire of tears and frustration. And once in the quagmire each further action only serves to plunge me deeper. And at least as corrosive is the awareness that I am dealing with children. That it is children who are dragging me down. There is something deeply shameful about this. In such situations I am probably as far from the person I aspire to be as possible. I didn't have the faintest notion about any of this before I had children. I thought that everything would be fine so long as I was kind to them. And that is actually more or less how it is, but nothing I had previously experienced warned me about the invasion into your life that having children entails. The immense intimacy you have with them, the way in which your own temperament and mood are, so to speak, woven into theirs, such that your own worst sides are no longer something you can keep to yourself, hidden, but seem to take shape outside you and are then hurled back. The same of course applies to your best sides. . . (pp. 36-37)

Monday, April 08, 2013

Noted: Karl Ove Knausgaard

In Karl Ove Knausgaard's remarkable novel, A Time For Everything (translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson), this passage comes from the novella-length section about Noah and the flood:
Milka had borne him. She'd known him since before he'd been born, his movements, the small habits that had formed while he lay floating within her, she had looked forward to his coming, and when he had come, he'd been just as she'd expected. Not in appearance, but in the atmosphere he brought with him. Perhaps it had something to with the way he'd looked at her the first time? Perhaps it was something about the way he'd crawled, still bloody and slimy, toward her breast? For months after the birth he'd been part of her, it had just been the two of them, nothing else existed, and even after that first time was over, and he slipped into the rhythm and life of the family, he was part of her. She knew his body as well as she knew her own. She washed him every day, she held him close every day, there wasn't an inch of his body her hands hadn't touched. When he raised his head for the first time, she'd been there, when he crawled for the first time, she'd been there, when he said his first word, she'd been there. All this had been stored within her. That was where he was. The smell of him, the taste of him, the feel of his skin against hers. Barak was a part of her, and when he died, a part of her died. Not in a figurative sense. Her body asked for Barak, it asked for Barak all the time, but it no longer got any answer.

For her it was no good throwing away everything to do with Barak, as his father had begun to do. For some reason this knowledge made her sorrow easier. There was comfort in knowing that, that the sorrow would never leave her. That it would always be with her.