Caleb Caudell: The Illusion of Connection
Indiana author Caleb Caudell's new short story collection, Novelty (Bonfire Books), is so masterfully constructed that its well-worn ladder is on its last leg, leaving the reader to climb its cracking rungs of cruel yet erudite satire, both coldly detached and laser-observant, dripping with what New Write podcast recently called "gentle contempt." From his celebrated 2021 debut novel, The Neighbor (also Bonfire), to his steady dripping Substack working-class diaries, Caudell has been excavating a particular midwestern existentialism. With Novelty, he casts an even wider net where no one is immune to contemporary folly.
As an author who is mainly known for Midwestern realism, you've ventured into speculative fiction so seamlessly with this collection. While it’s often argued that most fiction is speculative by nature, you took some real leaps into magical realism, sci-fi, maybe even skimming into elements of horror with stories like “Fatter.” Was this a conscious decision to explore your range a bit? Can realism be suffocating?
When I wrote The Neighbor, my first novel, I was thinking about place and character, a social environment that resulted from decades of industrial development and political policy, and I was thinking about how to sustain an atmosphere, a mood, and maintain a pace. I wanted to show, in graphic detail, how certain people live, their habits, their shabby pleasures, their despair, with some allowances for exaggeration, literary embellishment, etc. With the short story form, I found it natural to come up with concepts or formal structures that were suggestive or provocative, more fantastical or outlandish. In a short story, you can deploy one idea and quickly hint at its implications, sketch out some lines and then you’re done. You’re working with an idea for five or seven pages instead of 300. Those limits granted me greater license for off-the-wall explorations. I didn’t have to consider how annoying or gimmicky things could get after one hundred pages. A common fear of writing at length is the question “am I being tedious?” And while a short story can of course be stupid or pointless, mercifully it ends before you’ve wasted too much time.
Realism is tricky. Most days, most lives, even, are fairly plotless. Or if they do exhibit story structures, they’re unremarkable. The power is in the depiction, the literary tools you use to reconstruct what would otherwise be drab material. The curious thing about realism is that it can easily ossify into a style which is derivative of certain other writers known for their brand of realism. At that point, you’re not even accurately representing what’s happening around you anymore, you’re not honestly drawing on your own experience, your thoughts, imagination and such, because this idea of what sounds realistic precedes the creative act and warps it, making the work more mannered and contrived. For me, it was easy to get around this issue with the short story form, because plausibility, verisimilitude, were secondary to creating a striking effect with broad implications. And yet, when you set aside the question of exactitude, sometimes you touch on something very much true to life, that calls attention to real experiences.
While the cover of the collection is a fast-food burger and fries hastily smeared with ketchup, I wasn’t expecting many of the stories to be so food focused. What is it about Americans' relationship with food, even in our age of elevated foodie culture, that seems so inherently disgusting?
As I see it, American food has three registers. At the bottom, it’s chaos, a real horror show, Cronenbergian insanity. It seems malevolent or unholy. People putting things in their bodies that turn them into mutants, make them sick, unsettle them. Frozen meals loaded with preservatives. Bad science experiments, sauces that will melt your face off, everything in packages and bags and wrappers, eaten in a thoughtless rush in front of the tv, the phone, waiting at a stoplight. Snack cakes, buckets of syrup, meat sticks, cheese logs, fried hog anus. The people who market and manufacture this food are contemptuous, and those who consume it are self-loathing.
The second register is the utilitarian striver, administered meal plan, diet regime. Meal prep, dresser drawers full of chicken and rice. Square, uniform, pseudo-scientifically calibrated to achieve certain body composition goals, performance aims. Endless arguments among dubious experts and grifters. Rapidly arising food sensitivities, allergies, old testament style restrictions and obsessive rituals. Related, though not exactly utilitarian, is the political coding of food groups and diets, approaches to eating that signal allegiance to movements and causes.
Finally, fine dining and creative or artistic food, the foodie culture you mentioned. The pretension of chefs who view what they’re doing as art. The pretension of consumers who fancy themselves adventurous or sophisticated because of what they shove in their holes. A class of people with few other interests or drives than tasting a new mustard, eating and drinking themselves into a stupor, while at the same time broadcasting their consumption, showing everyone else what they’re eating, consuming pictures of what other people are eating. Drifting from restaurant to restaurant, spurred on by semi-pornographic images and deliriously enthusiastic reviews and recommendations.
What’s disgusting about American food isn’t just the monstrous and hateful quality of the ingredients, but the isolation, desperation, destructiveness, greed, indulgence and aggrandizement it’s rooted in. The main character of Houellebecq’s Serotonin says that western culture has regressed to an oral stage, in that people seem to have little to live for outside of pastries and cheese. With a decline in socially constructive sexual impulses, people even lose the will for recreational sexual pleasure, and what remains is gluttony and its glorification.
There are a several stories in Novelty where nothing much happens, and then they end abruptly. Yet, these seem to be the most engaging and unsettling of the bunch; existentialist close-ups of modern living where the characters have flatlined. What is so terrifying about the mundane, and what is the difference between falling into mundanity and achieving peace?
What I try to show about the mundane in contemporary life isn’t just the fact of repetition, how life is boring in general, but the atomizing effects of current social forms, economic tendencies, ideologies. The characters in my stories don’t reflect much on this consciously, but there should be a sense that something is missing, or a few things missing. Chiefly, it’s durable social bonds and religious faith. Grounded social and religious practices. The characters in the stories, even when they encounter or enter relationships with others, act against a stark background of absent family and communal ties. I can’t imagine a long human life without the mundane, but ideally, monotony would somewhat be redeemed by generational links and religious beliefs, the inheritance of a tradition, and an orientation that necessarily includes other people and a higher power. When you’re living solely for yourself, in service to commercially influenced interests, the tedium of everyday life is nearly unbearable.
Today, boredom is mostly alleviated by electronics, drugs and food, and typically in a masturbatory, isolating manner. I focus so intensely on food and electronics because these are the most socially acceptable ways of combatting emptiness, managing anxiety, and building insecure networks or associations.
The mundane isn’t necessarily terrifying if you believe there’s a reason for it, if you believe that you’re waiting for something else, that your long days serve some purpose. When you’re lacking these socially instilled beliefs, this longer-range outlook, a free hour feels like an abyss that’s about to swallow you, and you’re probably going to reach for your phone or a donut.
The last story in the collection, “Antechinus,” follows a young man from birth to adulthood who possesses a rare condition where he will die if he has sex with a woman, their intermingling of bodily fluids setting off a chemical chain reaction that will stop his heart. My mind raced with broad analogies—it seems to be screaming an underlying commentary. I hate asking people to explain art away, but how would you elaborate?
"Antechinus" highlights the progressive disassociation of sex and reproduction and sex and death. In much of the animal world, and even in the human realm up until much more recently, the connection between sex and death is much stronger, much more obvious. For many of us, and this is almost a state sanctioned viewpoint, sex is a vehicle of self-exploration, a process of discovery which may be risky or thrilling, but which is nevertheless self-reinforcing, individualizing, affirming. And the risks associated with sex are engineered away, through contraceptives, protection, various technologies and medical practices. On the emotional side, the dangers and ills are managed with various therapeutic attitudes, attempts at transparency, communication, unconventional arrangements. Free love, polyamory and such.
I wanted to raise the question, “what are the stakes of sex, what is fundamentally at issue?” Its life and death, underlying all the rhetoric of pleasure, freedom, identity, love is love. What is sex worth? Well, without consequences, and within an administrative frame, I’d say not much. More broadly, what I’m getting at with this story is a growing inclination to separate, scientifically and ideologically, an act from its consequences, to take an experience or an object and divest it of everything that doesn’t center on immediate gratification.
Also, I wanted to suggest that the permissive and indulgent style of authority, in which experts, educators, parents and leaders mostly concentrate on how to please or placate your individuality, can still be oppressive, distressing and frustrating. The story is a commentary on the nature of desire, how we inevitably want the impossible, the deadly, the transgressive. When more and more is given, encouraged, managed by experts, the less we want.
It’s an ironic reversal of what is now a slightly retrograde view, which is that heterosexual, procreative sex is healthy, and all other forms of sex are dangerous and deviant. Things have shifted somewhat, and it is a little more the case now that heterosexual reproduction is viewed with suspicion, and alternative sexualities are increasingly accepted and promoted. If this is taken far enough, you flip it, and end up in the position of seeing heterosexual reproduction as dangerous, subversive, with death of the individual as the price of future life, and with all other sexual practices emerging as sterile, safe. In a certain sense, with heterosexual sex and its possibility of procreation, you give up your life, you die, you become something else, a mother or father, whereas with everything else, you can prolong your condition, explore different sexual interests sure, but the ego is always intact.
In “Blinded by Color,” you break the fourth wall with the reader, challenging their expectations and point of view in a potentially racially charged misunderstanding, where the conditioned mind tends to react before thinking critically. Then you follow it up with “Blood Basin,” a Dollar General nightmare where a similar folly plays out to its worst case scenario. What prompted these deconstructed slices of life, and what was the main points you wanted to impart, if any?
With "Blinded by Color," I tried to mock the imposition or internalization of an apparently progressive and refined perspective on race relations. The point being not so much that progressive criticism increases tension and distrust, which I think it does, but that it takes a complicated and probably irresolvable problem and trivializes it, reduces it to banality. The contrast is between the supposed gravity and profundity of a man understanding the biases of his own perception and the flippancy of citing or referencing social science, studies, the views of experts, breaking news, as he sits at a bar and eats Mexican food. You have a supposed heightening of sensitivity to racial conflict, an intensifying focus on inequalities, but then it’s dulled by jargon, a rote repetition of terms and phrases that signal inclusion within a group that, at the very least, thinks correctly or has the right intentions. Underlying this witless regurgitation of progressive social science is the consumerist model of diversity, which offers enjoyment of a slightly expanded cuisine and aesthetics.
"Blood Basin," first of all, is a playful reference to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, a novel which is ridiculously overrated (I like it, it has its moments, but come on guys). The point in "Blood Basin" is that violence and lawlessness trickle down, settle at the bottom, and that there’s no redemption, artistic or religious or otherwise, in the vicious and imbecilic struggles of the abandoned underclasses. A couple of years ago I read an article on how Dollar General invests almost no money in security, and predictably, their stores are often robbed. You put a discounted general store without security cameras and armed guards in poor neighborhoods: what would you expect? Also, it’s a commentary on the corporate practice, not just mass scale but even at the local level, of spending as little as possible on employees. The first expense anyone wants to cut is always labor. They’ll expand their budgets for design, marketing, research, equipment, but owners are always scheming to reduce labor costs. They’ll even pay other people, experts, to help them figure out how to save on labor.
People often say that in America, there’s no frontier anymore, all the land has been colonized. My point is that the frontier is everywhere, that a bewildering combination of anarchic violence and suffocating procedure encompasses everything. Maybe most of all in the lower orders, where desperate people are as likely to victimize each other over scraps as they are to endure humiliating institutional policies.
Organizations often fail to protect or help their members. They’re inefficient and dysfunctional, except when it’s time to impose penalties, craft new restrictions, enforce codes. The main character in "Blood Basin" was left to defend himself and then punished for it. Although, at the same time, the punishment was light, as he was only fired and not prosecuted. Further underscoring the point that the justice system is inconsistent in its application, but that Craig is punished regardless, because he’s still stuck in his life and will most likely find another similarly dead-end job that will put him in dangerous situations.
Tying the two stories together: in "Blinded by Color," the narrator has internalized a trite social science perspective, and nothing happens but projection, assumption, and the eating of empanadas. In "Blood Basin," Craig evinces almost no understanding, no interiority beyond crude self-preservation. And the story ends with brutal violence that produces only a minor reshuffling of a marginalized economic agent.
In June you read at the Expat “Chicago Is Better Than New York” weekend blowout. What was your experience?
As far as I can recall, I didn’t read at the Expat event. But I did drink a lot of beer and liquid weed beforehand, so maybe I did read. I was there, I took a greyhound from Indy. The bus broke down, a man swayed and hurled at one of the stops. I did edit a piece that was read by Sabrina Small. Just before she read, I went outside and made some revisions. So in a way I guess that’s close to me reading. It was a good time. I have some mixed feelings about readings. Everyone there did a fine job and I met some cool people. I tend to think this sort of event goes on too long and features too many people, but I think that about pretty much everything.
Also, for me, the proper literary experience happens between one reader and one writer. When the writer stands before a crowd, his performance is closer to oratory or stand-up comedy. Some writers are better in the flesh than on the page, and others are better the other way around. But with all my favorite writers, when it comes down to it, I don’t find myself thinking “I wish I could watch or hear them read.” Not only because most of them are dead, but because a live reading isn’t an important part of the literary experience.
Though I often decry the isolating forces of modern life, I don’t think every moment should be collective, shared, communal, what have you. Certain parts of life are better experienced alone or with one other person. Talking about literature with others is one thing, going to a class, being part of a forum or discussion: all of that can be valuable. But my favorite literary experiences comprise a book and my brain; my spirit and the traces of another spirit. Something about one person standing in front of a crowd, entertaining them; it’s a bit vulgar. But of course I mean no disrespect to anyone involved in the Chicago reading.
As an author who tends to represent the Midwest through your writing, especially in The Neighbor and your Substack diaries, what misconceptions might the rest of the country have about the midwest demographic? It’s obviously not a homogenized experience, but what is frustrating to you about how its represented to the rest of the U.S.?
I’m not sure if I’m frustrated by misconceptions of the Midwest. That might not be the right way of looking at it. I’m pretty cranky and misanthropic in general. Maybe I have a slightly softer spot for Midwesterners because I’m from the region and still share many of their characteristics despite myself, but I’m also alienated in a serious way from people in general. It’s not as if I expect to go anywhere and feel at home.
The irony of my brand, if I have to call it that, is that I’m aware of a certain inescapable displacement, a sense of distance or estrangement, that arises from our current mode of technological being. I’m Midwestern, I write about the Midwest, living there. That’s a distinction. But how much so? All experience of objects and all our projects presuppose a given inclusion within an already articulated world, a history. Except, maybe not so much anymore.
Our current horizon dislocates us, removes us from our surroundings and severs us from continuous time, the time of passed down forms of life. Modern media, even with the range of programs and services and platforms, compresses people into similar shapes, produces people with similar casts of minds, similar patterns. They might watch different shows or use different platforms; they’re all still on their phones constantly, they adopt the same slang. In their material/physical comportment, people increasingly resemble each other.
Gentrification is nothing new, the way big cities are all becoming the same, grinding the poor and working class further into unsustainable margins. But what is currently frightening to me is that now I’m seeing it in my small desert town. Many are being pushed out of an area that is already economically challenged because wealthy people literally think the area is “cute.” If it can happen in a small town now, is there anything we can do, or are we doomed to be unwilling participants in this inevitable mass cannibalization of class and humanity?
Economic and technological processes have led to consolidation of enterprise and concentration of wealth. People with money are free to move where they like. People without money are either stuck in economic backwaters or they’re forced to move. A smaller percentage of the population enjoys freedom of movement, and a growing percentage has the choice made for them.
One problem is that there’s no real "we." I don’t see much potential for collective action. Nothing organized, coherent or effective. In a certain sense we can talk about mass society, analyze its consequences, its tendencies, but at the same time we should keep in mind that masses are also fractured, dispersed, split into innumerable subcategories defined by competing interests and visions.
The internet creates an illusion of connection. You can talk to anyone anywhere. Form groups with like-minded people. But what happens on the ground? What do you see around you? Increasing segmentation, isolation. Technology individualizes you, and I mean this in a literal and physical sense. Set aside the online experience, the personalized interfacing, the customization of digital profiles, the curating of taste, the consumption displays, the establishment of niche networks. Just look at how bodies move through public spaces. The devices we use enclose us, form cells around us, condition us to expect more distance from immediate surroundings and populations.
On occasion I guess you could spark a riot or some mob activity with some incendiary comments. A scandal or controversy might impel a protest or march, or a little looting here and there. But nothing sustained. Technology is dissolving time, memory and anticipation. We live in a discontinuous present of stimulation, inputs and outputs. It’s very difficult to feel that what you do now will matter, not just in a year or two, but after you’re dead.
But maybe that’s where you start. Figure out how to work with people, either in families or something approximating a community, not so much for your immediate benefit, not for a payoff you can see within your own lifetime, but for the generations to come, if they’re coming at all. And even with that, you should probably restrict your efforts to something small-scale, localized. Setting down roots somewhere, if that’s still possible, and working to build solid social structures that you probably won’t live to fully enjoy.
Would I take my own advice? Probably not. I’m trying to survive. I’m trying to write. I like a little cultural commentary, some philosophy, some history. But I prefer fiction. I think more about how to improve my writing than how to improve my life or how to understand the world. It’s too vast and complex and maddening.
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