SAY IT WITH STONES sayitwithstones.com ISBN 9780615577951
Say It With Stones/Interbirth Books are a small, Dallas-based press publishing mainly poetry; Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant is their first venture into the novel. They are to be commended on their enterprise and audacity no less than Caldwell himself. This is a witty addition to the ranks of the Postmodernist anti-novel.
But “anti-novel” is an over-used and imprecise term. Let’s use the term “novel-in-negative” – less snap but more precision.
Human Wishes proceeds by systematically breaking the rules, confounding the expectations of the novel – plot, character, background setting – so that what we are left with is a novel in reverse.
The rationale for this is given within the text: “If you were to write a truly ‘realistic’ novel it would have to include these histories of lives in labor and labor in lives, each novel would have to be an endless roman fleuve of these loops and strata, each novel a failure because it could not possibly encompass it all, each novel necessarily a fragment and a failure…” (p. 129). And to create “rounded” characters depends entirely on such infinitely regressing loops of back-story; on the appearance of psychological depth and temporal depth together causing the effect of realism, because “people just don’t go around doing shit for no reason that’s not realistic, but if they don’t do anything at all it won’t be dramatic, if for example they just wander round in circles trapped inside various non-places such as airport baggage-claim terminals and highway rest stops it wouldn’t be dramatic, you’ve got to be realistic yet dramatic….” (p. 159).
So here, in place of plot we have structure, and as reinforcement of the structure, a series of (very funny) running gags. The book is in three parts, each of three chapters. They all function discretely, and are all set in just those “non-places”, “In-Between Places” Caldwell warns against: airport terminal, Parisian hotel complex for “bumped” passengers, the tourist sites of St. Petersburg, rest-stop, shopping mall, art gallery…
This last also functions as a brilliant mise en abyme – the gallery is showing an exhibition of Joseph Cornell boxes, those still-lifescapes conjuring a universe in a peep-box. The chapters of Human Wishes work the same way, with a cumulative effect.
It also introduces one of the funniest running gags, featuring a constantly metamorphosing James Wood, the literary critic who is, to my amusement, taken very seriously in America (as he is not in Britain). In fact, the principle of Kafkaesque metamorphosis is at the heart of the book, as themes and settings darken.
For instance, the sixth chapter, Time And Motion, is set in a shopping mall bookshop, a B. Dalton bookshop in fact, an extended meditation on Taylorism, the “scientific” basis of industrial (and literary?) production, written in the style of Thomas Bernhard, and every bit as funny and acidulous. It plays with the possibility of Taylor’s book The Principles of Scientific Management turning out to be a parody, an anti-novel in the form of a spoof scientific study. But in passing, it relates Taylorism to the efficiency of the Nazi Holocaust. This is not gratuitous. It links subliminally with a later chapter, a backstory of sorts, although not the realist type Caldwell has dismissed, set in Lydda during the Israeli “cleansing” of 1948.
This in turn, by means of a searing image of a mutely screaming shell-shocked woman, morphs into an elaborate playscript involving Dr. Johnson, his cat, the ubiquitous James Wood, and an early, lost play by Samuel Beckett – Human Wishes. Thus is explained the first part of the title.
The second, Enemy Combatant, is prepared by another running gag – the (anti-)hero’s “facial dismorphia”, his obsessive worry over his appearance. Although of Portuguese-American descent, he is convinced he looks Semitic, either Jewish or, more worryingly, Arabic, equally convinced he will end up being arrested as not just a literary terrorist, intent on “blowing up the novel from within”, but a real, honest-to-goodness, Al Qaeda-type terrorist, an enemy combatant.
This “facial dismorphia” is, then, more than a trope for fluidity of character in place of Realism’s “rounded” character. It is the last and crucial metamorphosis of the book. The final chapter, Enemy Combatant, starts fittingly with a parodic reference to Kafka’s Metamorphosis. And as Kafka’s parables turned to chilling literalism under the Nazis – a whole people turned overnight into “vermin” – so the antihero’s dismorphic worries become real, or apparently so, when he is indeed arrested and interrogated as possible enemy combatant, during which the past scenes of his life/the book return and coalesce into Kafkaesque nightmare; a haunting tour de force to close the book.
It is not, though, despite that nightmare ending, a sombre book; on the contrary, it is bracingly literay in its references, and above all very funny in its wit and linguistic invention. No synopsis could adequately describe it, and this review doesn’t attempt to do so. It attempts only to encourage you to read it, slowly, enjoy the ride, and congratulate yourselves on being among the first to recognize the authority of a writer we will all be hearing much more about in the future.
David Rose is a British writer whose short stories have also appeared in Canada – in Front&Centre (Ottawa) and The Loose Canon (Montreal) – and the U.S.A. in the online Bicycle Review. His first novel, Vault, was published last year by the British press, Salt.