by Edmond Caldwell. First published in 2012, this edition 2022.
In this book Edmond Caldwell is a purist writer with a visceral aversion to the artifices of fiction, such as plot, character development, dramatic turning points.
I can understand that. Such techniques often feel cheap and meretricious, sugar to help the medicine go down.
His reluctance to pander to the reader extends even to paragraphing – he dispenses with them. Dispenses too with the typical disclaimer ” … names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons …”
He is on a mission to achieve authenticity, perhaps, or to break down the borders that limit fiction and make it 'safe'. He wants to shape a new type of writing.
One of his characters begins to explain it but stops: “As a writer I'm committed to an anti-story aesthetic, or rather anti-aesthetic, blowing up story and aesthetics from-“
Caldwell's stance seems to be one of both taste and philosophy. There is anger and resentment in these pages. He/his narrator seems to doubt the idea of human agency. Agency is part of the myth and the story-telling we console ourselves with.
And so these episodic adventures of our 'wayfarer' emerge from that attitude of doubt and anger with the world.
It begins with our narrator in the baggage claim area after a return home flight to the USA. He tells us his appearance is a touch Middle-Eastern, and in the subsequent chapters he is often sensitive about this, and imagines others perceive him variously as a terrorist or a Jew. He is about to crack a joke with a fellow passenger waiting at the carousel, but holds his tongue and decides the response would be friendlier if his blonde-haired wife were by his side and not in the rest room.
This first section is a close observation of an in-between space and a preoccupied state of mind. “They remained in one of those In-between spaces that exist only in airports … ” he muses. “There were hotels, and especially airport hotels. There were highway rest stops. There were the spaces of shopping malls, including the food courts, and the more confined spaces of supermax prisons.” That's a meta hint: the subsequent sections visit precisely these places. It's episodic, rambling, very real, and always run through with the narrator's endless thoughts circling in his mind. Often these thoughts become the main narrative and the sense of location recedes. This is so particularly in the section Time and Motion. It's an extended treatise examining the development of American capitalism by focusing on the history of the Arsenal Mall: in its early days as an arms factory it was the site of the first recorded workers' strike against the Taylor system of scientific management.
The book (marketed as a novel but it isn't) has the appearance and quality of autofiction. But there's no info on the author publicly available. For example the book's narrator is adopted, but I can find no such info on the author. I googled “Edmond Caldwell biography” and I found this: Author's Bio: information about the individual calling himself “Edmond Caldwell,” claiming to be a “writer” and publishing so-called fiction in intranets “zines” such as Word Riot, DIAGRAM, and SmokeLong Quarterly, please contact the Boston Police Department.
(Caldwell died suddenly in July 2017 and a movement grew to see this novel republished in the UK.)
Once the reader loses their expectations of plot, they can enjoy the book – it's like signing up for a holiday and after a couple of hours in the train realising that there will be no destination.
In the second chapter he is in a hotel outside a major airport, and on a leisurely stroll sees there are five or six other hotels in the vicinity – the vicinity being a nowhere-place surrounded by motorways. “As tired as he was he could not help continuing to reason, restlessly to reason.” He begins to realise this is a zone of hotels for people who have been bumped off their flights, connected solely by shuttle bus to the airport and nowhere else. It's a zone where one might feel one's sense of self dissolve. He perceives the things around him as being 'laminated' and the reader will intuit what he means. He walks further and comes across a village, but it is not a real village “it was shiny and clean and laminated and new”. (Something very like this happened to me on a hill walk around Oxford. We came across a village with an olde village school and olde village parsonage – but these old stone buildings were now private residences for commuters to Oxford city a mere 10 minute drive away.)
But it doesn't get bleak. Our narrator is always thinking, making connections, speculating, observing the rabbits, the typeface of road signs, making associations with historical events – and also worrying about how he might appear foreign to others.
And so it goes on. In the next section he is in St. Petersburg. Not exactly a holiday, he has gone with his wife who is at an academic conference. Again he is restlessly wandering, always puzzling, trying to penetrate the essence of this place.
His anger with the publishing industry emerges in the lost Beckett play section. “It's a platform, see? You can't get a lift-off these days if you don't have a platform!” Hodge (apparently an alter-ego of the narrator) screeches.”These days it's the mainstream or it's nothing.” He needs a provocation, and so unveils a plan to kidnap the critic (he's real) James Wood.
Well, you can see why this novel was never going to be accepted by one of the big 5 publishers and launched into the stratosphere.
William Storr in his book The Science of Storytelling expresses says this (in 2019, after Caldwell's book which in all probability never came to his attention):
Humans might be in unique possession of the knowledge that our existence is essentially meaningless, but we carry on as if in ignorance of it. We beetle away happily, into our minutes, hours and days, with the fact of the void hovering over us. To look directly into it, and respond with an entirely rational descent into despair, is to be diagnosed with a mental-health condition, categorised as somehow faulty.
The cure for the horror is story. Our brains distract us from this terrible truth by filling our lives with hopeful goals and encouraging us to strive for them.
Edmond Caldwell's narrator:
“Story was a trap, a false friend, an unreliable prosthetic, a delusion. He would go without story to make his fortune, without story his literary fortune would be made.”
That lost play by Beckett is a bit juvenile, too smug with its own irreverence. I had thought the book was on a journey from aimless interiority towards a greater sense of being embedded in history – a sense perhaps of having to make the decision to be involved in history. But then the Beckett play comes along and it's too showy for me – intellectual sparring while trying to shock with sexually explicit banter. I didn't understand why that section was included.
The book is defiantly original and stubborn, I keep going back to read sections again, seeing new things in it.