A few weeks ago, an old friend I’ve known since the 1980s, a musician, a friend from that side of my life, stopped answering emails. We were in the habit of sending each other preposterous news items and reacting to these news items with pithily sardonic one-liners. I sent three or four unanswered emails to him and began to worry after the third week of silence. I sent an email that said, “Hey! Just checking… everything okay in California?” An hour later he replied: he’d been busy with building a new recording studio. I was relieved. I sent a quick message expressing my relief and logged out of that email account and into the email account I use to communicate with writers… the other side of my life. The top message in that email account was a message from a writer notifying me that another old friend, the Writer Edmond Caldwell, had died on July 31st.
It seemed to me like a preposterous news item. Edmond, dead?
I’d gotten into the habit of checking in on his Twitter account and I’d noticed that he hadn’t “tweeted” since July 30, but, to be honest, I’d assumed he was depressed and/or slightly disgusted with Twitter. Twitter is a fundamental insult to Writers; Twitter is an arbitrary social edict not to Write much; to Write so little, in fact that A) no one could ever be bored by your words B) you have little hope of expressing a complete thought. Twitter is a jumble of quips and allusions; the stream-of-consciousness of a Writer (if the user is a Writer) drugged or in pain. It’s a perfect symbol of the Modern (American?) hostility toward Powerful Thought. Stay jumbled and scattered and ephemeral in your thoughts, Twitter assures you, and you’ll stay popular. Write a coherent paragraph (or entire page! or thirty pages!) on a topic of some import: anathema.
Edmond wrote one of the few books I’d wished I’d written: Human Wishes/ Enemy Combatant. It was one of the most readable Beckett/Bernhard style novels I’ve ever read, if not the most, or only… certainly more readable than any Beckett book I’ve tried to read. So much less brambled/ wilfully obscure; so much more a deliberate attempt to communicate. Beautifully witty and avant in its refusal to stoop to any kind of cliché, while dismantling clichés as though they are kitschy cuckoo clocks and reassembling them into room-sized set-pieces one can walk through.
Most importantly, Edmond’s book gives witty, avant-intellectual voice to The Palestinian cause and condition, essentially… the way one thousand post-war American books gave voice to, and “humanized,” particularized, spot-lit Jews. So many decades and ironies later, great books like Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater and Bernard Malamud’s Pictures of Fidelman are still advocating for the rich wide experience of Jewishness, from the inside and from the outside, while books of Edmond’s book’s type… books like Human Wishes/ Enemy Combatant… in which “Arabs” are actual Humans, ground between psycho-political gears of implacable injustice and propaganda… are forbidden. Not forbidden in the quaint old sense, as in “banned”: forbidden in the slickly modern sense. Ignored.
Human Wishes/ Enemy Combatant was reviewed beautifully by Edmond’s fellow Writers but it was denied the stratosphere-coloring hype that all the shitty books supporting the mainstream’s various agendas are treated to. The kind of hype necessary, these days, for a book’s survival. Shitty books that came out a year ago are being turned into Hollywood films as I write this. Edmond’s book had its season of uniformly, deservedly marvelous praise and soon thereafter went out of print. Publisher folded. To quote Joe Ramsey’s review of HW/EC on Counterpunch (Dec 25, 2015):
“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.”
A few months after getting my inscribed copy of Edmond’s book in the trans-Atlantic mail, I had it with me at a lunch with another expat; the expat asked me what I was reading. I explained that I had already read it completely a couple of times but that it’s a good book to take on a long U-Bahn trip. I liked to dip in it randomly, the way I still dip into DD’s Underworld or JJ’s Dubliners. The expat therefore asked to borrow EC’s book and, as if by narrative magic, the expat and I had a fiery falling-out a few weeks later. The guy had been getting on my nerves for years and it was cathartic, to say the least, to banish him… but it was only after I had written him the second emphatically Fuck Off Email that I remembered that he had my copy of Edmond’s book. Now I’m forced to remember my favorite parts of Edmond Caldwell’s great book because I foolishly allowed it to leave the safety of my bookshelves. Poetic justice. Copies available on Amazon are now going for $65 apiece.
In a ’40s-newsreel-style sequence in a later section of HW/EC, Moshe Dyan’s murderous sudden appearance is choreographed as a Busby Berkeley spectacular and I commented to Edmond, after reading it with head-scratching admiration, that I’d never seen any writer bring comedy and horror so close, so effectively. I can still remember laughing while reading it; laughing on the U-Bahn and at my desk and laughing about it even, at odd moments, without the book in hand.
And now Edmond is gone.
Edmond is gone as any Medieval blacksmith now; gone as any 18th century courtesan or 5th century archer or child lost in a prehistoric pit. The contemplation of the freshly-dead is giddy-making because a Person Who Was There, Breathing has suddenly flattened into nothing more substantial than a concept, more Virtual than anything on the Internet… the Real and Unreal are forced to mesh, for a period, in the mourner’s mind. The former is torn away, the latter arrives to replace it, forever, without exception.