Another example is Mark Doten’s The Infernal, a new novel published by Graywolf Press this month. As a debut, The Infernal recalls the first offerings of Thomas Pynchon and William T. Vollmann— especially the latter’s You Bright and Risen Angels, which was inspired by the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Doten’s novel, like those works, is grotesque, comic, and overstuffed with ideas. It is, in other words, a cartoon. Scratch that: it’s more of a videogame. It begins with a dramatis personae that recalls not dramatic art with humans but the cut scenes featured in advance of Final Fantasy. It even features Mark Zuckerberg, who is depicted as a buffoon, a half-witting accomplice of the elite who, along with Nathan Myhrvold, is trapped in an almost literal video game wherein he seeks the “Cones of Power.”
The dramatis personae marks The Infernal as a genre-perversion of the personages, technologies, and events of the last fifteen years in the War on Terror, one that features Paul Bremer, Dick Cheney, Alberto Gonzales, Barack Obama, Admiral Poindexter, Condoleezza Rice, “Donny” Rumsfeld, and, crucially, Osama Bin Laden. Sure, but also: Jack Nicholson, the author himself, and, also crucially, Jimmy Wales. Their roles in The Infernal are sometimes pegged to the historical record; sometimes, too, they veer wildly apart. In any case, it is a hysterical or hyperreal fiction that seeks to reveal, eschatologically, the reality behind the War on Terror in, again, the age of Total Information Awareness.
Although long and complex, The Infernal is summarizable, with the caveat that any summary of the novel is doomed to ridiculousness. After discovering a burnt and possibly dead child (the Akkad boy) scaling a (likely made-up) mountain, the American military and intelligence apparatus quickly subjects the child to torture by way of the Omnosyne, an etymologically impossible machine that’s reminiscent of Kafka’s torture device and was designed by Jimmy Wales (yes, the founder of Wikipedia) to extract perfect information. The chapters of The Infernal are, for the most part, the voices of its cast of intelligence officials, torturers, politicians, technocrats, soldiers, and other related figures, ventriloquized through the body of this boy as he is tortured.
The novel is thickly laden with literary, political, and technological allusions, and if it has a plot, it’s indirect and bare. It is often beautiful, sad, and funny, as in the case of Paul Bremer, who feels close to his friend Condoleezza Rice because they were both apparently adopted. Or take Kabir and Hakim, a duo that recalls Beckett’s tramps, though both are drone-strike survivors. The novel’s strongest character is likely the soldier Tom Pally, whose PTSD derangement, mixed-marriage, and mouth full of maggots are a source of suicidal concern:
It’s fair to say: I look at my wife and son and think of killing myself. Not some of the time, but all the time. Or most all the time.
And it is through Pally that our intelligence deficit is best expressed:
Facts, though. What can be verified? Because the maggots were part of our problem. I mean, even if my wife didn’t know about them — I hoped she didn’t — I knew about them, and me not saying anything was what I’d seen referred to in a magazine as emotional infidelity. So let’s talk facts. Say for instance I didn’t have the maggots before I went to Iraq.
Pally reflects here the paltriness of facts even for the American soldier: he knows simply that he didn’t have maggots in his mouth before he went to Iraq. And this would seem to compromise, at least to some degree, the literary realism of redeployment narratives found in other books. The chain of command requires a soldier to have limited knowledge; such books, then, can never offer a broad novelization of war under TIA, for better or worse.
“One of the punishments of their civilization,” Slahi writes of his captors in Guantánamo Diary, “is that Americans are addicted to video games.” We might also ask if Doten’s novel retains its videogame-like grotesqueness by way of a warped, peculiarly American sensibility, one the world could do without. I’m not sure. Certainly The Infernal is an expression of American derangement, but it’s also a knowing one. I’ll admit: it’s not easy to tell whether its author is psychotic or if he — like the charred boy at the center of his novel — is simply channelling American psychosis. The proof of the latter, I think, lies in the novel’s allusive and often brilliant prose, which marks it as a compendium of known unknowns, one that points to a new generation of war novels wherein meaning itself has been sanitized and redacted, and where it might yet again be redeployed.
Still, there is a final section, a brief one, that I wish Doten had excised from the book. The Infernal could have ended with Jimmy Wales’ final notebook entry, one that features a series of redactions. Concluding the novel here would have forced the reader to come to terms with the fact that we still live in an Orwellian world where Total Information Awareness means that ordinary citizens experience Total Meaning Blackout. This irony would have negated the final irony of Orwell’s 1984. In that novel, an appendix, “The Principles of Newspeak,” is written in a past tense — as Thomas Pynchon and others have noted — that signals a future where some semblance of democratic order has been restored. As a token of hope, Orwell’s grammatical concession is restorative. As a prediction of our current predicament: it was a total copout.