Human Wishes /Enemy Combatant
by Edmond Caldwell.
Grand Iota 2022.
When my first novel was published in 2011, Edmond Caldwell, then unknown to me, heard of it, read it, reviewed it on Goodreads, and sought me out on Facebook; we became friends as well as ‘friends’.
So when his first novel came out some months later – early 2012 – I bought it initially as a return of favour. However, once I began to read it, friendship and favour became irrelevant; this was about the novel itself, its scope, ambition, brilliance. I was overwhelmed, speechless with admiration and, I admit, envy. But I overcame that sufficiently to champion the novel, reviewing it several times, including in American Book Review (ABR). Meanwhile, we remained friends, although our contact was intermittent; Edmond would disappear from Facebook for long periods, and eventually we lost touch.
In 2017, I received a message from a close friend of Edmond’s informing me of his sudden death, and asking me if I could supply the text of the ABR review, to add to a memorial to Edmond.
At the beginning of last year, I learnt that the small press, Say It With Stones, that had published his novel, had itself expired. I initially understood that that had happened subsequent to Edmond’s death; in fact, it was some years before. Either way, the novel was out of print and circulation. This, for a writer, is the Biblical “Second Death”.
I wanted to do what I could to rectify that. After trying a few small American presses, without success, I sounded out the UK press Grand Iota, whose mission, apart from new British fiction, is to restore to circulation important but out-of-print American fiction. When they announced an open submission window last June, they invited me to send them the text.
They (the two editorial partners Ken Edwards and Brian Marley) agreed with my judgment of the novel, and, to their credit, unhesitatingly decided to publish it – with the bonus of an Afterword by Joe Ramsey, long-time friend of Edmond’s and academic.
What follows is one of the reviews I wrote at the time (not the ABR one), rather than a rehash or new review. It captures the excitement I felt at the time;
it’s for others, new readers and reviewers, to approach the novel now and negotiate its terms afresh.
On the back cover of this novel are three boxes, each carrying an explanation of what should be found in it: the blurb; the synopsis; the author biography. They aren't; only the absence of them.
This is witty, and sets the tone, the purpose, and the approach of the novel. It is, then, an anti-novel, a novel-in-reverse, a demolition job - blowing up the novel from within - and the explosion releases a huge amount of linguistic and literary energy, and a great deal of fun.
There is a rationale to this, as the text explains: the "realist" novel, as portrait of the Universe, would need to include everything, which is impossible, rendering every novel a failure. A novel can thus only succeed by a systematic breaking of the novelistic rules, one by one: plot, character, motivation; what we are then left with is a novel-shaped hole. An intricate and often very funny hole it is, too.
It starts with a series of discrete chapters, showing the anti-hero and his (heroine?) wife in an American airport terminal, a hotel complex in Paris for "bumped" air passengers, the tourist sites of St. Petersburg, a highway rest-stop, an art gallery. All of them neutral spaces, In-Between places.
The art gallery is showing an exhibition of Joseph Cornell boxes. Thus the chapter turns into a brilliant mise en abyme of the novel: each chapter forms a similar discrete peep into the anti-hero's life. It also introduces a running gag to the novel: a metamorphosing James Wood; and a funny riff on Moleskine notebooks, the "notebook of choice of Hemingway" and, as it happens, our anti-hero.
Then follows a subversive chapter on Taylorism, the early Time-and-Motion approach to industrial (and literary?) production, foundation of American corporate success (and avidly copied by Lenin). The meditation on this takes place in a bookshop, a B. Dalton Bookseller shop, the writer is at pains to explain, and written in the style of Thomas Bernhard, the acidulous Bernhard of Cutting Timber. And Caldwell is every bit as acidulous, every bit as funny.
But the mood darkens as another running joke comes to fruition. The writer suffers from "facial dismorphia" - an obsession over his appearance. Although of Portuguese/American descent, he is convinced his looks are Semitic, Arabic or Jewish, and expects at any time to be mistaken for a terrorist. Not the literary terrorist he is, but a real, honest-to-goodness Al Qaeda-type terrorist. Which naturally is what happens, even if only imaginatively.
But first, a non-realist plot loop gives him actual Semitic origin, masked by early adoption. This sets up a back-story involving the Israeli cleansing of Lydda in 1948, which in turn, by means of a haunting image of a soundlessly screaming woman, segues into a chapter involving Dr. Johnson, his cat, the ubiquitous James Wood, and a lost Beckett play - Human Wishes.
The spirit of Beckett hovers over the whole novel, along with Bernhard, Celine and Kafka. But it's Kafka who presides at the end. As Kafka's parables became hideously literal in Nazi Germany - humans turned overnight into vermin - so here, the final chapter, parodying Metamorphosis at the start, turns into a combination of The Trial and In The Penal Colony, a nightmare interrogation, part of the "war on terror", in which the anti-hero (maybe now a hero) sees his past box-lives rerun, but in a macabre light, a Kafkaesque nightmare that is, despite its anti-realism, sickeningly plausible.
This attempt at synopsis is, like the realist novel, doomed to failure; it is not finally reducible to synopsis (which is one more reason for there not being one in the cover box). What the attempt may do, I hope, is to prompt you into reading Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant for yourselves, very slowly, savouring every joke and flourish.
(This review first appeared in The Bicycle Review in August 2012)