I read Edmond Caldwell’s Human Wishes / Enemy Combatant on a brief trip to France, and although it isn’t a novel in the realistic mode—expressly, intentionally, emphatically not so, in fact—it has the uncanny quality of great literature to make real life, whatever that is, feel like a particularly acute case of déjà vu. Caldwell’s novel is preoccupied with and often set in “in-between places”, among them an American baggage claim and a zone hotelière for semi-stranded travelers somewhere in Roissy on the outskirts of Charles de Gaulle. My own trip, paid for by a large part of the small advance I received for my own rather less inventive novel, was ostensibly for the purpose of getting some writing done, and I’d managed to find a lovely and cheap studio apartment in the 11th, far from the [Syllable]-[syllable]-itels that crowd around the airport. But there are few more non-places on this earth than terminal 2F at CDG, and jostling into the confused herd of international travelers trying to find their way through a maze of construction toward the SNCF and RER platforms had that feeling of half-waking long before the morning alarm and then swimming back into sleep and your most recent dream.
The narrator of Caldwell’s novel imagines himself to look vaguely Semitic, which he first credits to a mixture of Mediterranean European ancestors, though it’s later suggested as being more strictly and genealogically accurate. The question itself is never really resolved—resolution of the typology of character is very far from the point of this book, which is, among others, that these questions cannot be resolved. In fact, his phenotype may be wholly imagined. It is certainly invented. The novel is profoundly anti-realistic. The characters don’t exist except as they are on the page. That this is equally true of the realistic novel is one part of the ongoing joke, and that this unresolvable ongoing invention is also truer to real reality is the equal and opposite part. Travel makes our hero, as he’s sometimes called, nervous. Security checkpoints and cops and clerks and functionaries of all sorts make him nervous. I’m sympathetic. I’ve written about my own obliquely radical politics. I like to flatter my importance by imagining that some underpaid TSA agent at the end of her shift will actually care and is going to take the time to ask me about these opinions, giving me the opportunity to become indignant. (Would I become indignant? Probably not. Probably I’d just try to explain in my condescending college voice that all those radical blog posts were written in character.)
I knew Edmond Caldwell’s writing a bit before I read his book. I was blogging at the time, yes, in character, though probably less in character than I’d now like to admit. Caldwell was writing an at-turns angry, outraged, outrageous, ingenious, and hilarious blog called Contra James Wood. Some of the content from that blog became material in Human Wishes / Enemy Combatant. Caldwell calls Wood a “restorationist” and a “domesticator” with an ideological grist mill built to grind all fiction into a uniform flour of psychological realism which can then be baked by enterprising and entrepreneurial authors into spongy loaves featuring families and their small travails: thoroughly consistent and coherent character backstories with a minimum of politics (except as a psychological motivator), economic concerns (beyond bourgeois class status signifiers), or reader-challenging “experimentation.” As Caldwell wrote in a post-essay on Wood’s treatment of Bolaño: “a novel with ‘playful, postmodern impulses’ is OK as long as it ends in sackcloth and ashes.”
Human Wishes / Enemy Combatant is an anti-novel in nine parts, or a novel in three parts each divided into three chapters, “a verbal triptych of a triptych” in the words of Frances Madeson, with whom Caldwell did an extended and fascinating interview back in 2012. Most of the text is written without paragraph breaks in a form of prose that we were all at some point taught to call stream-of-consciousness. This is one of the book’s formal jokes, because it keeps banging us back toward the superficial, insisting on its own artifice, reminding us that there is no controlling consciousness at all, that the mind we’re overhearing is not a mind. (Ironically enough, as I wrote that sentence, my news feed informed me that some machine had just passed a Turing test for the first time. Mirabile dictu.) The first portion of the book tells in roughly reverse chronological order the story of our narrator and his wife’s trip abroad, moving backward from their re-arrival in the US to their transit through Charles-de-Gaulle to their stay in St. Petersburg. The second visits a highway rest stop, an art gallery for a show of Joseph Cornell boxes, and a mall (the narrator is hysterically in search of “dress pants”; he ends up in some kind of B. Dalton-ish bookstore reading flap copy for The Emperor’s Children, contemplating Art in the Age of Taylorist Scientific Management). The third reimagines his ethnographic heritage by way of recounting the 1948 expulsion of the Palestinains from Lydda in a devastating inversion of the frequent ahistoricism of historical fiction, followed by a lost Beckett play about a lost Beckett play about a Samuel Johnson-manqué, his supercilious cat, and a plot to replace James Wood (him again!) with a doppelganger, and finally a brief, horrific, and funny pastiche of Kafka, in which our hero wakes from troubled dreams to find himself “an enemy of the state”—his own airport paranoia reimagined as suddenly real.
At a moment when the New York Times Book Review section features fewer book reviews and more celebrity interviewees telling us about the Gladwell and Austen on their bedside table, when the same few dozen authors seem to appear on NPR with the frequency of The Four Seasons on the dwindling classical radio stations, there’s something thrilling and subversive and almost sexual about finding a novel (it was published by Say It With Stones, a small press that mostly publishes poetry) that bothers to think about what it is to be a novel—all the more so a novel that thinks and doubts and rethinks everything you’ve ever thought and doubted and rethought about a novel. Caldwell is rigorous and funny: a brief sketch about a sort of Fibonacci explosion of rabbits and the subsequent, requisite slaughter of them on the Ile-de-France will make you LOL, or nothing will; the chapter on the massacre in Lydda will tear out your heart; the criticism of contemporary criticism is murderous and sharp. But what I loved about this book—the last book I loved—is that it manages what so few books ever manage, and what so many more must if we’re going to hang onto books worth reading: it makes the debates about what a novel is and what a novel can do seem vital and important, and it suggests that all the conclusions here are not foregone.