WRITING IN 2006 for The New York Review of Books, Mark Danner separates what he calls the “Real Iraq War” — the ousting of Saddam Hussein’s regime and its lengthy aftermath — and the “War of the Imagination,” the perception that an American victory was to be so decisive and overwhelming that it would be “enough to wipe out the disgrace of September 11 and remake the threatening world.” It was this second war, this “evangelical vision of geopolitical redemption,” Danner argues, that explains why the United States would choose to remain in Iraq even after it should have been clear that there would not be a new democratic order in the Middle East.
In The Infernal, his audacious debut novel, Mark Doten sets the action during the period in which the true nature of the Iraq war is emerging — reconstruction efforts are underway yet general support of the war is waning. Barack Obama is running for president. Fittingly, the book opens with an epigraph uttered by an anonymous and self-deluded aide to George W. Bush, as quoted by Ron Suskind in The New York Times Magazine:
We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors […] and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
Additionally, Doten supplies the reader with a dramatis personae, a character list that stands as both a point of reference (I flipped back to it more than once) and a sly introduction to the book’s conceit: its characters are comic exaggerations of real-life people heavily involved in the so-called “war on terror.” In the world of The Infernal, Osama bin Laden survives with the aid of several constantly breaking dialysis machines and blood taken from a group of boys (when he walks, he uses two rifles as a pair of makeshift canes); L. Paul Bremer worries more about his wardrobe (he pairs combat boots with ironed suits) than the decimated country he has been tasked to rebuild; and Roger Ailes is simply a “theatrical producer” (something he actually did in the 1970s). However, Doten doesn’t merely create flamboyant caricatures — rendering geopolitical leaders insane, as many critics have concluded that they are; instead, he forces us to question how much we understood any of their decisions and actions in the first place. For Doten, 9/11 doesn’t exist in The Infernal, and as he explained in a recent podcast (for the website Vol. 1 Brooklyn), he erases the collective memory of national tragedy and remaps the trauma within everyone’s individual psyches as personal tragedies.
The Infernal is also populated by completely made-up characters — Tom Pally, a veteran and amputee; Noor K., an Iraqi woman who tends her dying mother; and Hakim and Rashid, a pair of drone-attack survivors. By including them in a dramatis personae with a cast of real people, Doten suggests that they’re just as important, albeit not as responsible, as everybody else.
The Infernal is made to be as much of an art object as it is a piece of fiction, and it’s fashioned to look as if you’re accessing the text within the “Memex” — a “world network of knowledge.” Built by Vannevar Bush (that is, a deranged and evil Vannevar Bush), the Memex operates like a top-secret Wiki, a program reserved for a branch of the United States government, an all-controlling and almost invisible entity reminiscent of the CIA. Adopted from the real-life Memex, a precursor for hypertext, Doten’s design resembles the interface of an old computer, the kind you see 20th-century movie villains fiddling with in order to set off a bomb. Each chapter starts with a title page displaying this visual, putting the reader in the privileged position of being a Commissioner.
Consulting this exclusive set of data, you, the reader, learn of a boy who has been found, severely burned, “atop a twisting geological formation” known as al-Madkhanah (the Chimney), in the Akkad Valley in Iraq. Because the area in which he was discovered is loaded with “cosmic noise,” the Commissioners see the boy as possibly divine. He has few limbs, no fingernails or genitals, and ears like stubs. His burns are so severe that at first neither his race nor gender is clear. Despite these handicaps, the boy does possess “a perfect pink tongue with which to speak,” but which he chooses not to use.
In truth, there is no Akkad Valley, just as there is no al-Madkhanah. Even the location of the known city of Akkad, the capital of the Akkadian Empire, which ruled swaths of Mesopotamia at its height between the 24th to 22nd centuries BC, continues to be debated among scholars. Doten is an author who clearly enjoys inventing a mythology for a place already loaded with ancient mystery.
We know that this valley is indeed significant because, at the end of that aforementioned extended dramatis personae, the boy narrates his arrival there: he awakes in a “dark wood,” where he is tossed onto the forest’s “highest bluff” by a group of beasts. He leaps off and falls to Earth, becoming “wrapped in splintered ice and gouts of flame,” hearing “a multitude of voices,” witnessing “countless souls” and their countless stories. As in Dante’s Inferno, the creatures that confront the boy are the wolf, the leopard, and the lion (traditionally interpreted as greed, fraudulence, and pride, respectively), and their appearance makes it apparent we’re about to begin a tour of the underworld. Unlike Dante, however, Doten has no template for levels of sin. His notion of eternal damnation is, simply, much more cartoonish than Dante’s. It’s closer to South Park than it is to Scripture. The book’s title may at first sound like the name of a death metal band, but The Infernal is likely a portmanteau of “inferno” and “internal”: an internalized and self-made hell-on-earth.
If Marx thinks capitalism eventually reduces us only to commodities, Doten thinks the US government reduces us only to information. And that’s what shapes his hell: the Commissioners care only about acquiring knowledge, and they attempt to find a way in which to live forever. In their bid for immortality, they design the New City, an intended digital paradise to store their information-laced souls. Naturally, though, it transforms into the opposite, an uncalculated offshoot known as the “Cloud.” Formed from the nutrients of the poor panicked devils trapped in what was supposed to be this man-made Eden, the Cloud allows the Commission to surveil the entire world. And, like any trade in a good morality tale, the Commission must supply more and more souls in order to go on collecting information; they harvest “inhuman or post-human” material for this pseudo-heaven, which, because of this subpar fuel, is quickly being remapped into a hell.
The Infernal fuses its inventiveness with an acute political perception and a nuanced literary sensibility. Its structure, as is probably clear from my partial plot summation, is highly complex and is the result of a decade’s work (an early excerpt appeared in New York Magazine in 2008). Doten’s previous fiction, particularly the short story “Five Versions of a Story About Trains” (collected in Dennis Cooper’s Userlands: New Fiction Writers from the Blogging Underground), offers similarly complex narrative divisions, frameworks that blur the line between the “real” and the imagined.
In the end, fearing that the boy’s death will be the death of their information, the Commissioners decide to subject him to the long disbanded “Omnosyne,” an intricate torture device that extracts a perfect confession, uploads it to the Memex, and kills the victim. Operating the Omnosyne, however, isn’t easy, and the sole person with the ability to use it is a character called Jimmy Wales — not the co-founder of Wikipedia, but a former member of Dr. Vannevar’s Institute for Youth Advances, a cultlike foundation that specialized in keeping a band of boys forever at an age of “brilliance uncut by adult dullness.” Wales has spent the past 50 years in solitary confinement for murdering some of the Institute’s leaders. Now, with the Akkad boy unwilling, or unable, to talk, the Commissioners order Wales’s release.
Wales believes that truth, or information, lives “in nerve and bone.” Over a four-day period, Wales straps the boy to a machine, and out of him the various voices of the book emerge in a series of monologues. Occasionally, they are interrupted by bouts of code, strings of random numbers and letters and punctuation marks. Though the boy may be from another reality, he speaks primarily in the voices of people from our own, sharing a cultural mishmash of surreal and darkly funny stories, all of them filtered through references to both high and low art: Sherlock Holmes, Krazy Kat, “Benito Cereno,” the Croatoan curse, videogames, Tom Swift.
Among other characters plucked from the newspapers, we hear from Mark Zuckerberg, Alberto Gonzales, Jeff Gannon, and author Mark Doten himself, who delivers a lengthy speech to Barack Obama at a fundraising event, all during an unbroken handshake. (The fictional Doten spends much of the elongated salutation trying to prove his antiracist bonafides by bragging about his entirely black publicity staff.)
Having been reunited with his machine after five decades, Jimmy Wales loses himself in the pages of Omnotic Code “as a composer deprived of music for half a life might lose himself in a score.” Though the information Wales seeks isn’t precisely the same as what the Commission desires, its utilization as information still results in the destruction of the body supplying it — a situation that encapsulates the entirety of The Infernal’s apocalyptic vision. Human beings are expendable and their bodies are completely lost — sliced-up, broken open, and taken away, literally, by the world-turned-hell. And that reality, after all, might not be difficult to imagine.
Alex Norcia works in the evening as a News Assistant on the International desk at The New York Times.