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.


Ethan Robinson said...

In a time when pointing out that words of praise are depleted is itself depleted it's really hard to write about a book this praiseworthy. Nice going.

Not a very substantial comment, but I just looked at Amazon and it appears the "oh really?" response is no longer up. So that's something?

Unknown said...

I have no idea if this blog is still going, but if it is: I'd like to point as that Edmond's novel has now, following the demise of the original small press, Say It With Stones, been reissued by the UK indie press Grand Iota (, this month, with an Afterword by Joe Ramsey.
I might have been the author of that Amazon review; I went on to write several more, including one in American Book Review (July/August 2012), and was instrumental in persuading Grand Iota to republish it.