The War Novel in the Age of Total Information Awareness


The twin publication of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture and Mohamedou Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary has unleashed a disorienting irony: in the Age of Total Information Awareness, in the era of the NSA dragnet, meaning itself is redacted. The more information our government collects, the less we seem to know. Even worse: the gap between what those in power know and what we know now overwhelms the dragnets of our imaginations. This explains why our philosophers, like Slavoj Žižek, revert to the platitudes of Donald Rumsfeld to explain the issues of the day: under the tyranny of unknown knowns, even our public intellectuals bow down to the knowledge, the intelligence, of the governing elite.

This is true even when we set in motion the oversight machinery built into our governing apparatus. When we commission a report on our government’s illegal torture program, for example, more than five thousand pages are cut from it. From the pages that remain, seven percent are redacted and cleansed of data remanence. In the torture report, information — including the names and titles of CIA staffers, along with their salaries, pseudonyms, and preferred code words — is blacked out. So too are the “black sites” where torture was carried out. Imagine a novel with no characters, locations, or dates, and you are considering a fiction that courts meaninglessness. The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture, in other words, is the equivalent of the most radical literature.

In the case of Guantánamo Diary, the US Department of Defense made more than 2500 redactions that likewise obscure the identities of the guilty. Writing about the diary for the London Review of Books, Christian Lorentzen considers the book’s literary quality:

Guantánamo Diary is no masterpiece: inevitably, it’s repetitive (Slahi likens his interrogations to Groundhog Day), and often banal when what it recounts isn’t revolting… [Slahi]’s efforts at characterisation — of his interrogators, guards and fellow detainees — are thwarted by the military censors’ redactions, which turn a wide cast of villains, friends and villain-friends into so many undifferentiated black marks.

Taken together, it would seem that the redactions that feature in both of these books work not only as a tool to obscure the guilty, but also as a preemptive strike against the formation of character and meaning and knowledge. And this says nothing of the removal of whole sections we’re not allowed to see: without these “sanitizations,” this redaction literature would make us insane.

Fiction thrives in the gap between what is promised and what is lived. It projects itself from life into a range of likely or unlikely futures. But it requires some measure of what’s happening, some yardstick of the possible. In the era of Total Information Awareness, that yardstick has shortened to the point of incredulity, especially when we consider the activities of our military officials or politicians. As a result, we’re beginning to see a crop of fiction that approaches the question of American intelligence, torture, and military intervention slantwise. Or this fiction has, at least, grown unruly and strange in the gap between official and lived narratives. One such novel, published in 2013, is Peter Dimock’s George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time, which operates as strange, pedagogical letter that could, possibly, form a counter-history to the legacy of American torture. I know of few weirder or more substantial novels from the last several years.

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.