Monday, April 2, 2012

Edmond Caldwell's Commitment to a Certain Kind of Sentence

Photos by Steve Hull
 First of all thank you very much for publishing Apple Seized in Dark Sky magazine because it—both its content and form (or unified conformtent, to coin a portmanteau (which is fun to do regarding a literary work about luggage!))—entered my long-term memory where the story's been looping on its own baggage carousel since I read it two winters ago. I've had the advantage of time to consider its revelations. I was lucky to get eased in.
You’re welcome, and let me thank you in turn for the opportunity to talk about my novel in the context of interview questions that aren’t drawn from the shallow well of literary journalism.  I hope my responses will do them justice.

And it’s interesting for me to focus on “Apple Seized” because I wrote it originally as a stand-alone story, with no notion of its being the first chapter of a novel.  Yet I do find, as your words suggest, that the succeeding chapters of the book are all there, stowed away in the luggage and waiting to be unpacked.

Let me just say at the outset that your work explodes any lingering false dichotomy between morality and aesthetics, as if they were separate categories; they are one and the same, you make that explicitly clear, a topic I can't wait to hear you explore more fully vis a vis your rejection of the paragraph as a way of ordering text. 
I’m glad you see it that way since the book turned out to be very concerned with exploring/exploding dichotomies, and about seeing how things are defined by their margins.  I don’t often think in terms of morality, however, so you’ll forgive me if I substitute for it a word I feel more uncomfortably comfortable with – politics.  There is most definitely a wall erected between aesthetics and politics in conventional approaches to fiction, and it brings out the arsonist in me.

So my first questions, or series of statements and questions I'd like you to respond to as freely as you like, center on Apple Seized. Later I hope maybe we can talk parts to wholes, because that's where I think Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant  really distinguishes itself, in creating a satisfyingly complex and thrilling vibrational composition—three parts comprised of three chapters each, a verbal triptych of triptychs. Or as you term it in Return to the Chateau, “a triskelion pattern” (but I don't see the curves or bentness. Or I do, but I see them scrawled on blocks of text resembling more the panels of a triptych (especially because of the concern about placement and displacement)), but maybe you'll change my mind about that.
I’m glad you bring in the term “triptych” because I was thinking a lot about visual art while I was writing the book, especially about the idea of surfaces and about the page as a surface.  I wanted to get away from depth-models of narrative, especially psychological depth but also temporal depth (“backstory”) and spatial depth (foreground/background).  I hope I was able to suggest, without explicitly stating it, that the looping of the baggage-claim carousel and the looping of my protagonist’s thoughts are in fact “the same” loop, without any priority assigned to one or the other – they’re a continuum on a single plane (and the same with the other “non-places” in the other chapters of the book and my hero’s experiences of them – the hotel zone, the highway rest-stop, the shopping mall, etc.).  Likewise, the character isn’t supposed to preexist whatever happens on the page; he has no backstory beyond what the sentences propose (or take away, or omit) at any given moment.  He “exists” only in the nine boxes of the book’s nine chapters, and even then he’s not necessarily the same character from one box to the next.  And in the same spirit I’ll suggest that there’s not necessarily any contradiction between the “curves and bentness” of the sentences and imagery on the one hand and the “blocks” of text (or boxes, panels) on the other, once we see that the former constitute the latter rather than being engraved on them or placed inside them.

Published by Say It With Stones; also available on Amazon, B&N and wherever books are sold.
And now that I've said that please feel free to talk about its placement now. The finger-fucking you refer to later in the book, author diddling reader, does it begin in Apple Seized, do you think? Was it your intention to hook your authorial finger in our fresh holes right from the beginning (before we got a chance to think about where else that finger has been!!!)? 
During most of the composition of the book I can’t say I was thinking of the reader at all, or rather I was thinking primarily of myself as reader.  One of the early principles of the book was self-pleasure (the alpha and omega of finger-fucking, after all).  In fiction workshops (of which I attended a number in an earlier incarnation), writers are constantly enjoined to keep “the reader” foremost in mind, not to lose their attention, maybe to tease them a little but always to please them, etc.  So this reader really turns out to be some kind of cop, or a john, in relation to whom the writer occupies the place of a prostitute.  I don’t read anything like this so-called reader, so why should I write that way?  In revolt against this early training I wanted to compose something solely for my own delight, in the name of masturbatory and polymorphous desire as opposed to the reproductive-genital sexuality of the conventional novel (the conventional novel is in fact connected to a regime of reproductive-genital sexuality, meant to contribute to the reproduction of society at the level of ideology).  My whole book is a finger-fucking book; one either joins in the fun or feels diddled in the pejorative sense, conned.  But the shadow of this critical authority is always there in the novel as well (in various guises as airport security, museum guard, literary critic, etc.), because the book simultaneously represents the struggle to free itself from this regime.

With its setting of the baggage claim area of an international airport within the U.S. and its emphasis on his and her luggage items, Apple Seized appears to be your very real exploration of the unpacking of your own gendered displacement in the terror/police state that is now America. You depict the dangers as different for men and women, even as you acknowledge the privilege in feeling that displacement only recently. It's implicit anyway that pre-9/11 there would not have been so much concern with looking like someone from the Middle East. And I took your evocation of shittiness (talk of bowels returning to normal and dumps on the carousel) to be an acknowledgment of the unfairness of that special red, white and blue American privilege even more than its revocation.
At the time of composition, and at the level of conscious intention, I was mostly trying to get the sentences right, so that they might convey the conveyance of the carousel in the way it constructs, moment by moment, my hero’s so-called “consciousness.”  I wanted to capture, or be captured by, the essence of the baggage-claim terminal, in the same way that my hero wants, in a later chapter, to capture the essence of the highway rest-stop.  I trusted that if I got the sentences right, the other matters (of content, theme, etc.) would take care of themselves, would emerge on the carousel from the bowels, and no doubt trailing clouds of shitty glory from whence they came.  So I don’t disavow any of the items you’re noting on the carousel, it’s just that my relationship to them is different from the intentionality implicit in the way you frame the questions.  Obviously one of the things that’s going to come out on a luggage carousel in a contemporary U.S. baggage-claim terminal is Terror, not from so-called Islamists or other officially-suspicious persons but courtesy of the U.S. itself.  About gender I will note that my protagonist becomes increasingly “feminized” (by hetero-normative standards) as the novel goes on, until he is identified with his mother rather than with all of the white male literary fathers, from Joyce to Beckett, that populate the text.  The more Terror-fied my protagonist becomes, the more feminized, the queerer, the darker his skin.

A jingoistic shittiness, but also unadulterated shame in the literal notes in red words on the custom form, marking your hero as a rule breaker (why not just tell him to trash the apple?). It's the overkill in establishing a written record for such a trifling event, that disorients him (“it was very difficult to concentrate”) suggesting a primal, almost sexual disgrace in getting caught. This is sealed by the allusion to Scarlet Letter, but it had been evoked earlier in his wife's casual immodesty in exposing her bra cups when taking off her sweater. Are you intending us to be thinking about honor crimes, specifically?
Not consciously, but once again I’m not responsible for everything that comes out on the carousel.  I think the hero both admires and is intimidated by the absence of self-consciousness that the figure of his wife always suggests.  She represents a whole host of things that are Other for him, that he might feel ambivalent about but that he relies on all the same – she is science, rationality, technology; professional success and financial security; she has immunity from illness and interrogation.  Her laptop is a phallus, and she is devoted to it and the power it gives her; she has sublimated her own eros through it so that she lives pleasurably but makes her way in the world.  She has, or at least appears to have, firm boundaries and a stable ego, no doubt at a cost.  The hero has weak boundaries and an unstable ego, at a very great cost indeed, but perhaps with an additional benefit as well.

Can you say more about rule breaking and heroism and the assertion of sexual desire (searching out the attractive passenger whose butt had clearly caught his eye; his checking out of the sexy stews or pilots; and his fantasy about using his wife as a foil so that others could hear his joke about the loud noise and perhaps admire him) so present in your writing and in your attitude toward writing. Or if heroism's too hyperbolic, leadership?
The form of this question is interesting to me because, at first glance at least, the items in the parentheses tend to undermine rather than bolster conventional notions of heroism and leadership, suggesting a “hero” who is voyeuristic, vain, too furtive to act.  And indeed that’s my hero, in all his anti-heroism.  Airport baggage-claim terminals are kind of crazy places when you think about it – there’s so much sexual desire on the loose, so much “looking,” so much proprietary-territorial aggression, so much terror and relief. The energies are so much in excess of their various occasions or manifestations in the form of this or that person, this or that object – is that my suitcase or your suitcase? is that my desire or your desire? – everyone’s struggling to get a grip. The weaknesses and flaws of my hero – his anti-heroism – are precisely those things that allow him to “tune into” all these discordant frequencies, become their victim, subject, receptacle, and, at another level, their oracle.  That’s the level of the sentence, which doesn’t belong to him as a character, but of which he is the occasion, the focalizing point.  He is made up of these sentences of desire and terror; he is sentenced to desire and terror.

With the apple, the seized one,“...yellowish green with orange flecks and not too large,” you've circled back for Hawthorne again, but Hawthorne of The House of Seven Gables, no? Its existence seems both an admonishment of its own neglect, forgotten in the hero's luggage item, and also a dire warning—“the weighty lesson from the little-regarded truth that the act of the passing generation is the germ which may and must produce good or evil fruit in a far-distant time; that together with the seed of the merely temporary crop, which mortals term expediency, they inevitably sow the acorns of a more enduring growth, which may darkly overshadow their posterity.”
That apple does come bearing a lot of symbolic baggage, doesn’t it?  As well as being “just an apple,” innocence interdicted.  At some point it might even be rendered into watery applesauce in the Taunton State Hospital for the criminally insane. And what about that rusted tin pastille case with a rubber band around it that the dog and the customs agent overlook?

But the chief figure I’d like for my book is a little less organic than Hawthorne’s oak and one less premised on continuity (whether “good or evil” in the fruit it produces).  That’s the figure of the mise en abyme, the infinite repetition of the same image (like the cereal box with a picture of a kid holding a cereal box with a picture of a kid holding a cereal box etc. etc. etc.).  In the case of my book it’s loops, bigger and smaller loops, loops inside loops inside loops, maybe even fruit loops.

In trying to think about the distinction implicit in the book's title, are you trying to get at a way of thinking about non-human wishes for agency? Are you also sounding an alarm about the displacement of privilege of the human vis a vis the fruit or the dog, for instance? Is the apple seeking revenge against humans for its millennia of being maligned as forbidden? Is the beagle answering its own monstrous enforced domestication and enslavement as a sniffer-outer for Power?
I like the idea of having a book with two titles.  At first they were just two candidate titles that I couldn’t decide between, and then an early reader of the manuscript helped me to realize that that very undecidability was the matter’s riven heart.  Of the non-human wishes for agency, are you thinking ahead to the way my hero “misreads” Animal Farm in a later chapter?  Once again, I can’t say it was a conscious choice, but I wouldn’t discount your reading by any means.  I think “the human” as an ideological category is overrated at best, and pernicious at worst, and I hope the book finally reflects that.

Regarding the liberation from the hierarchy of the paragraph, why this strong statement about how writing is structured? Is it part of the unpacking of privilege, some essential preparatory act we have to perform before we can proceed? That we have to allow for the willingness to change in a fundamental way, to expose the arbitrariness of the rule makers by doing away with the fruits of their rules?
The rejection of paragraphs was initially mostly a challenge of form.  I happened to be reading a number of writers who wrote either whole books or at least whole chapters or sections without breaks – Claude Simon and Thomas Bernhard most prominently – and I simply wanted to see if I could “do it.”  The challenge is that you can’t just write an ordinary story and then delete the indentations; the units have to link up and lead into each other without visible seams, so to speak.  This puts the stress on the sentence – you have to discover a certain kind of sentence that establishes a new or at least different relationship between content and form.

This goes back to your observation about exploding dichotomies.  One dichotomy I was interested in exploding is the one between content and form, because like most dichotomies it’s also a hierarchy:  in fiction, content is typically conceived of as primary, and writers are supposed to find the adequate form for their content.  Paragraph breaks are indeed, as you say above, “a way of ordering the text,” with all the connotations of the word “ordering.”  Maybe they’re even one of the premiere ways that content comes to dominate over form – I need a separate paragraph for establishing the setting, another paragraph for character description or a bit of action, and then come my paragraphs of dialogue, all of which must in turn be subordinated to “advancing the story,” etc.  Fredric Jameson somewhere makes a provocative assertion, using Hemingway as his example, that reverses the poles:  What if his famous style were simply the result, first and foremost, of wanting to write a certain kind of sentence? And therefore all that we think of us as typical Hemingway content – the drinking and bullfighting and al fresco masculinity and so forth – were merely the most adequate available significations to allow such sentences their unfolding?

I think this is also an answer, in a way, to some of your questions – was I thinking about honor killings, Hawthorne, non-human wishes for agency? Well, in the first instance I was simply thinking about writing a certain kind of sentence, and if I could keep writing it, not fall off the tightrope, then the politics and the literary allusions and the themes (because there are all of those things) would take care of themselves, would be the constituents of these sentences as they proceeded.  No doubt there were “other things” besides a style of sentence that I wanted to deal with as I continued to write, but in the moment of composition they were secondary, or I didn’t want to think too consciously about them but rather wanted them to come forth as functions of the kind of sentence I was writing.  The commitment was to a certain kind of sentence, and I see that as a political commitment.  The initial wager of doing without paragraphs compelled me to think about and write sentences in a different way, and from there on it was a matter of fidelity to that kind of sentence, of which the book is the result.

And what exactly are you modeling here? That we can do it not piecemeal but wholesale and survive to turn another paragraphless page, implicating author and reader alike and together, turning those pages with daring and wit? Isn't the essence of the anxiety in the story about just that, how scary it is to think it, much less to do it (and continue to do it for 272 pages!)?
It’s interesting to think of the anxiety in the story as having been “folded in” from the constraints of the form.  How do we trans-form what appears to be a prison into the terms of our freedom?  Or if that is asking too much, then yes, our survival. If there’s a heroism in the book – to return again to one of your earlier questions – it is that of surviving and speaking, like my Little Wayfarer I continues to do from her non-place in the margins until they tie her limbs to the bed and bind her tongue, and like the Little Wayfarer II that they ripped from her womb might have a chance to continue in her placeless place.  But that’s looking ahead.

Hands big enough to touch all the puzzle pieces.

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