The Best Book You Can’t Buy at the Mall this Christmas

I know which book I’d like to get for my left-wing literary friends this holiday season.

You can’t find it in bookstores.

Sadly, this book, Edmond Caldwell’s radically insightful, astoundingly experimental novel, Human Wishes / Enemy Combatant (2012) has gone out of print, since its small independent publisher, Say It With Stones Press, folded in 2013.

No doubt there is something tragically appropriate about this utterly intolerable situation. For if there has ever been a novel that seeks to shed, shred, and publicly set flame to its status as a commodity, it is this one.

I was lucky enough to obtain my copy of this searingly subversive text directly from the author. Thankfully, copies can also still be found via Amazon.

A well-known gadfly of the “respectable” literary and cultural establishment here in Boston, Edmond Caldwell combines a sophisticated aesthetic intelligence with a serious historically attuned, unabashedly revolutionary, anti-capitalist politics. As his website tells us, “Edmond Caldwell got a literature PhD from Tufts University and then decided he would prefer not to.” And we should be glad he did (or didn’t). For he has written an astonishing, mind-bending novel—one that is as radical in form as it is in content, a book that should be read, discussed, taught, shared.

For a taste of what I mean, let’s start with the volume’s back cover. Moving counter-clockwise from top left to bottom right, Caldwell’s irreverent meta-critique commences in all caps:






Even the book’s double title, Human Wishes / Enemy Combatant rattles the cage we expect upon reaching for a “book of fiction.” How can a book have two titles? And what is the relationship between the two? Between the notion of “Human Wishes” and that of “Enemy Combatant”? The title itself raises the question of what the relationship is between the utopian impulses and the dystopian structures of contemporary life and literature, a tension that tears at the pages of this volume.

Yet Caldwell’s is no mere postmodern playfulness, reveling in the self-reflexive unravelling of Language. Readers of Human Wishes / Enemy Combatant (HW/EC) who work through the winding mobius strip sentences—sentences that are at times as complexly webbed as the brutal and contradictory social totality they illuminate—will find that Caldwell’s ecstatic, meandering literary experiment expresses an unabashed radical vision, albeit negatively. The text seeks to explode “from the inside” a range of ideologies that hold back writing and reading, thinking and acting, naturalized habits that help perpetuate the compliance and complicity of the so-called intellectual classes in the belly of the imperial beast, this society that plows Arab homes to spread airport tarmac and buries historic worker struggles under shopping malls, whose bookstores advertise refashioned cliches as literary masterpieces, whose spy masters study humanwishespostmodern theory. It is a work that suggests the need to transcend feel-good individualist and idealist illusions that many still hold and perpetuate about “literature”— how books should help us “escape,” how books can “make us better people,” and so on. HW/EC is a text that stresses the need for readers and writers to challenge the commodity form of “the novel” itself if we are to ever have a chance of speaking words of truth or justice. The playfulness here is in the service of puncturing the manifold covers of bourgeois ideology, a Brechtian attempt to estrange and thus expose for us the man-made machines that perpetuate of our own social alienation—as well as our blindness to so many others’ suffering—in hopes of opening authentic glimpse of a collective, revolutionary horizon.

Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant is a book whose radicalism inheres in its very form—it positively overruns the brilliant digressions, a few of which we’ll sample below. Nonetheless, a survey of the basic ‘storyline’ suggests the text’s radical coordinates. Between and among the many twists and turns, HW/EC offers us the narrative of an adopted Palestinian orphan, son of a traumatized survivor of the Nakba of 1948, a woman subjected to sexual and psychological violence both before and after seeking refuge in the USA. In the present, our nameless hero, deprived of knowledge of his own roots—little does he know that he may be descended from the family of George Habash, founder of the People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine— wanders through various public spaces, in a state of perpetual anxiety, a struggling novelist, a hyper-sensitive marxist intellectual, a self-loathing yet brilliant observer of art and literature. Our inadequately American hero lives in a state of paranoia—later it is proven to be warranted—forever worried that his “Arab-looking” appearance renders him suspicious, subject to surveillance (or worse) in the post-9/11 era.

The ‘plot’ of this story is not the central focus. For this novel is in truth a kind of *anti*-novel, a book that seeks to self-consciously sabotage a long list of conventions associated with standard “literary fiction.”  It is a novel told out of chronological order, with only the uncertain sketch points of a Plot, whose nameless main Character is more or less a pronoun and a subjective screen for observation and analysis of the social environments in which he is placed. Here is a “novel” without Epiphany, without Redemption, without Narrative Closure, without a Hook, without Deep Psychological Development. It is a novel whose Setting—in a way its real ‘main character’—encompasses places that we generally think of as *non*-places or *in-between* places, the kind of spots that a “realistic” literary narrative usually skips over so the protagonists can continue on their heroic way. And yet, as Caldwell shows, if radically probed, such places—the very sorts of non-places that consume us during holiday shopping seasons) reveal much about the reality in which we live. Rejecting the convention of literary movement, the stasis of HW/EC illuminates key conveyor belts that make this world move.

The book starts in the US customs baggage claim area at Logan Airport, proceeds through a visit to a highway rest-stop, a shopping mall bookstore, and a hotel that is established specifically to serve those who get bumped from overbooked flights from Paris. It ends with a moving description of the erased non-place of Lydda, Palestine (now Lod, an impoverished area outside the Tel Aviv airport) and an inside view of a secret US black site for ‘enhanced interrogation,’ where our suspiciously ‘Arab looking’ protagonist finds himself inexplicably in shackles.

The thrust of the book’s vivid explorations of such “non-places” and “in-between” zones is to bring into the foreground the objective, historical confines and social circuitry that delimit individual agency or subjective autonomy in an age where capitalist domination is coupled with pervasive state surveillance and “security” operations. How can we honestly speak of Unique Characters and Individual Agency in such a standardized, pervasively policed, commodified situation?

In the spirit of the Theodor Adorno who famously quipped that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” Caldwell’s anti-novel suggests that “To write ‘literary fiction’ after the Nakba–and again after Guantamo Bay and 9-11–is both delusional and complicit.”

And yet this is not a book without hope.  Arguably, the point of intensively dissecting the confining ‘non-places’ of contemporary life under capitalist empire is precisely to suggest the need to move beyond and to dig beneath them to find more solid footing. (Not to spoil, but it ends with a glimpse of Israeli Arab and Mizrahi Jew solidarity in Lod, beneath the shadow of the airplanes and tour buses speeding their passengers between ‘non-place’ destinations. Denied the right to return, our hero nonetheless slips the torturers’ grip to rejoin his placeless people.)

How does all of this unfold on the page?

With the holiday shopping season upon us, let’s zoom in on Caldwell’s sixth section, an amazing chapter set in the Arsenal Mall, an actually existing place in Watertown, Massachusetts, built upon the site once occupied by the actual Watertown Arsenal, the site of the first recorded worker strike against the implementation of the Taylor’s system of Scientific Management, in 1911. Moving from the pervasiveness of mall security cameras and surveillance systems in the wake of 9/11 to the implementation of the widely detested “Spy system” of Taylorism over the objections of working-class artisans a century prior, the text explores to devolution of the Arsenal from a place where people once actually made things, to a place where people buy and sell things made elsewhere. While rejecting nostalgia—the self-defeating racism, nationalism, and sexism of the old-time industrial workers with their “white penis privileges” comes in for critique here— Caldwell offers a truly astounding reflection (through the lens of the spying that Taylor inaugurated) on the transition from industrial class struggles of the early 20th century to the pervasive service labor and consumerism of the 21st.

To give a sense of the breath-taking momentum and astonishing historical grip of Caldwell’s prose, I will present three passages—each a single long sentence, each found within just four pages of this 272 page text. I admit they are among my favorites, but by no means are they alone in their dense layering of social, political, and literary commentary.

Following a startling account of this forgotten history—one that weaves in actual worker testimonies protesting the degrading effects of Taylorist deskilling and spying—the narrator reviews:

The rule of thumb was replaced by the rule of Science and Efficiency which was really the juju-rule of war-managers, the craftman’s thumbs were cut off and made into slide rules and stopwatches and job cads for the managers and every job that was not a professional-managerial job was reduced to something that could be performed with few skills and vestigial thumb-stumps or no skills and no thumbs, the workers were turned into thumb-less employees and consumers, employees on the job and consumers off the job or rather consumption everyone’s second job, the imperative to consume and consume, this insatiable hunger to buy the quenchless hunger for a substitute object for the lost thumb, from the humvee and the flat-screen TV to the iPod and the Blackberry this search for the bygone thumb, replacement objects to such as fetishes and pacifiers, the workers reduced to sheer thumb-sucking orality which my witty spellcheck insists on correcting to “morality,” the Arsenal where the rule-of-thumb once prevailed now a shopping mall where the great-grandchildren of the rule-of-thumb craftsmen come in search of replacement objects for their bygone thumbs, haunted by a vestigial memory  like the flesh-eating zombies in George Romero’s movie Dawn of the Dead, which is set in a shopping mall (126).

Vast historical movement—captured in a single breathless sentence. On the very next page the text moves to consider how the surveillance photography developed by Taylorism to study, extract, and expropriate worker know-how was then redeployed by the emergent film industry:

Using the very same means by which they disassembled the work-                                               process and the workers and took away their lives they would give them back a simulacrum of their lives, they would dazzle and distract them with the ghost lives and fantasy lives by running the frames forward at the precisely-calibrated time and motion of the situation of life even though it was really just pictures in motion, or motion pictures (127).

This reflection on the ironic repetition of Taylorist representational methods as a means of masking working-class alienation through filmic spectacle then prepares us for a meta-reflection on the place of literary “realism” and “literary fiction” itself. Bear in mind that this entire searing historical tangent takes place as our nameless hero stands meandering, browsing a cliche-ridden best-seller in a B. Dalton bookstore, in the Arsenal Mall. Caldwell reminds us that even the river on whose banks the Watertown Arsenal Mall sits—which we now call the Charles—was once called by native inhabitants the Quinobequin or “Meandering One.” He then prompts us to reflect on the way reality—inspected closely— is not in truth is a singular linear narrative—though some stories dominate over others—but “different times different histories different strata and all still here, brimming beneath our hero’s feel and looping in our hero’s mind this collective unconscious of lives in labor and labor in lives…always flow and always strata and always histories, sedimented, layered, each place, its herstories and theirstories.” The text then moves from reality to “realism” in fiction:

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, the only integrity again and again to start and to fail, each novel a failure and a botch and the measure of its success its degree of failure, its pitch of failure and abdication of authority, but the publishers won’t                  print such novels, novels must participate in the alienation of their time and endorse and reproduce the alienation of their time or else they won’t be bought and they won’t be sold, the marketplace the non place where commodities are cleansed of all traces of work, for a commodity to be a successful commodity and especially the commodity called “literary fiction” it must effect history and efface labor, every trace (129).

As these short slice of Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant demonstrate, Caldwell’s is a meandering literary realism that refuses to efface the history and the social labor that have brought it into being, from the idiosyncratic privately pleasurable musings of his hero-thinker, to the systematic, suffering collective pains of the toiling and expropriated masses whose thumbs and bones lie beneath the shining tile of the shopping mall floor, where book’s like his cannot be bought. And for that very reason all the more need to be read and shared.

This holiday season, give a gift that can’t be bought in stores.