Interbirth Books / Say It with Stones, Dec. 21, 2011
Perfect bound, 180 pp., $15
Edmond Caldwell’s Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant is a journey into the depths of literary identity, a text in which the veil of fiction drifts, blurs, ruffles, and rips. I exit this book delightfully perplexed, satisfied like the feeling of swirling narrative strands together into shards that claw their way out from the inside of a human at war against himself. The shards bubble out of a nameless narrator, drip paths to memories of a divided condition or how my own identity as a reader is always in flux amidst all this fear of misrepresentation by the Other. We could be found out. And stylistically, there is a labyrinthine beauty to gigantic blocks of text: a mind unstoppable, thought-streams that slash and pile, how such meaning becomes crafted into a labor of beauty, messy thoughts muddying into golden sentences. This stylistic step took me a few pages to adjust to, but the results were gratifying—almost Lynchian. An unending stream of words drove me deeper into each chapter, each section, world among world among world. The inner. I felt entrenched within an extended monologue, suspended by the performability of our hero’s words. He says he looks like a terrorist, how he perceives himself, but he is American, which makes this terror all the more real. Fear is a given. Here we begin: in a zone of fear and uncertainty. Always beginning, probing. He has an American wife who is apparently much more academically active than himself, but our hero’s richness comes from his ability to stretch word-paths of immense depth and to wonder at the minutiae of the world; and a world forms like a wish. He is literary-minded, well educated, paranoid and curious, a tragicomic wanderer. This could be our friend. This could be us. But how? As the book unfolds from America to France to Russia and beyond, moving toward literary monuments and sites, we are pulled this way and that by the others around us and they know us, know of us. Yet, we are a foreigner to our own identities. Our ability to think is also our ability to be distracted. Steeped in The Story of O, we have to pee. We ogle the ass of a young Russian woman and that takes us down a rough vision of what it means to be a Russian woman as churned out from the words of a local. So many details to pierce. There is a cab driver, a monument. A horse. It stacks. This is our hero. He’s alone now. By the end of the work, or near the end, helpless at the pummeling blows of American military personnel, we become so entrenched within his fragile mind, we feel torn by the idea that such a harmless, intelligent, and humorous hero could be tortured—he’s innocent, right?—but behind this veneer is the thought that perhaps, just possibly, Caldwell has been keeping pertinent information from us, and perhaps our nameless hero has done things he has not confessed. Does it involve the little wayfarer? Critics? Awful things. Is she a combatant? Has he betrayed me within all these words? She was left behind. Are there logistics of evil I cannot fathom? This is war. She was spared. Perhaps it is my own paranoia, my own rotten agenda. And the spiral deepens. Is this a comedy when Beckett becomes a major player in the work? Of course, a manuscript was lost, discovered, discussed. Is this that work? A town named Lydda. It is before the book, too and back to him. The hero is aware of himself as a conflicted individual and a potential terrorist or perceived so by his self-driven image of others’ thought. We stand within his mind, a mind that mirrors our own world with heightened clarity, a refined mind in search of wholeness, on his way back home. Or has he arrived only to find himself waiting for himself at the end in yet another stroll through a foreign land or an airport in the homeland? We are at the terminal where you stand in line with that guilty look like maybe this time you, my friend and hero, are the enemy combatant.
Jamie Grefe writes fiction, poetry, reviews, and essays in Beijing, China. His work appears in elimae, The Bacon Review, New Dead Families, and elsewhere. He is currently a practicing stand-up comedian and a new father. Follow him: @ShreddedMaps on Twitter, or read his work at http://shreddedmaps.tumblr.com.