REVIEW: The Infernal by Mark Doten
“It’s a war book,” I might have told the gentleman. “Kind of. But not really. It’s also about Jack Nicholson and Condoleeza Rice. Mark Zuckerberg appears, too.”
I’d just finished reading the galley for Mark Doten’s debut novel The Infernal on a flight from Seattle. The 737 descended toward O’Hare airport as I closed the book and rested it face down on my leg. I peered out the window to get a look at the Chicago skyline like a fortress guarding Lake Michigan. The plane banked left, the book slipped, and the older gentleman next to me stopped it from sliding past his feet. He bent and handed it to me. “Thanks, I said.” He nodded, but his eyes lingered on the cover for a bit, the design like black ink or a virus seeping into swamp water.
I did not want to have a conversation, especially with someone I would be sitting next to for several more minutes of taxiing and deplaning. I made a show of adjusting my headphones and selecting new music. Really, I was thinking of how I would respond if the gentleman asked me what the book was about. I’d noticed he had been reading Hector Tobar’s Deep Down Dark, a book I’m still curious about.
Talking to a stranger, when I’m not ready for it, is a kind of chaos. It’s not that I didn’t think I could have a good conversation with the gentleman. It’s that when chaos like this beckons, I instinctively seek to maintain control and order. (NOTE: This is a metaphor for what’s to come in this review).
“It’s a novel of, like, ‘war on terror’ stories,” I decided I would say. But only if I had to, if the plane subtly crashed and the gentleman and I were lying on the tarmac, pinned next to each other by a piece of wing. “There’s a chapter that might very well be the best post-war/PTSD short story I’ve ever read,” I would say, and then tell him about the veteran with the blown-off leg, the one who tries to make wedding anniversary reservations but can’t because his mouth keeps filling with maggots.
We got off the plane. I wrote advertising things for a couple days. Then I flew home to New York.
Now I’m writing this.
The notes I made in the margins of The Infernal have to do mostly with voices. Osama Bin Laden’s searching, imploring voice emerges from a cave of experiments being conducted on “the Jew Boy.” A dialectically confused pair of voices comes from friends Rashid and Hakim in the aftermath of a drone strike. The vice-trinity of the War on Terror — Condoleeza Rice, Dick Cheney, and L. Paul Bremer — all appear, in ways unexpected and sometimes hilarious. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is in the book, as is Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, and Jack Nicholson circa Chinatown. And of course there’s the “author” Mark Doten himself, whom in The Infernal (and outside it) is an editor at a New York City publishing house.
I page through the marked-up galley from the airplane. What is happening? I scribbled early on. Then, largely, How is this going to work? Toward the end, after many other questions, underlines, and arrows, WHY THE HELL DID THAT WORK???
So, a bit of plot overview. Because The Infernal resists obvious plot — and indeed the novel is in many ways about how life resists clear order and story — answering these What? How? Why? questions in a review needs at least some kind of easy-to-follow-ness.
The Infernal begins with a cast of characters — those listed above are just a smattering of the many who appear and return in the “Omnosyne extractions” that make up the bulk of the novel. What is the Omnosyne? It’s a “mahogany box stuffed with Clockwork Threads; a helmet on a swiveling copper arm; a modified Jensen dental gag…” The important thing to know about The Omnosyne is that it is used for intense interrogation purposes.
“The Akkad Boy” is the subject of said interrogation, and his forced tongue is the source of the cast of voices. The novel continues from the list of characters with a “Memex report” (the Memex being, essentially, a governmental internet). The report details the discovery of “The Akkad Boy” at a location called “al-madkhanah (The Chimney).” According to the report, the boy was found naked and in convulsions, having burned alive or still burning alive, somehow not dead and not dying. The first scout who attempts to help the boy dies shortly after coming in contact him. Something is terribly wrong — “Something was happening,” the report reads — but no one knows exactly what or how or why. These are soldiers taking orders, and no one understands. How could the boy possibly be alive given the terror the Scout reported from The Chimney? But despite all the boy’s “scorched hair and flesh” and the surrounding “carrion birds” ready to “fill their stomachs with the flesh of the boy,” The Akkad Boy has “a perfect pink tongue” that he refuses to use. He refuses to explain himself, and that is unacceptable.
The forces in charge — “The Commission” — determine the Omnosyne is the only way to make The Akkad Boy talk. Their response reads: “He is part of what is happening and we need — now, today — the information that is inside him.” It’s been fifty years since the Omnosyne was used, when Jimmy Wales used it to sabotage the Memex, and the Memex “began to burn up from within, to lose connections, to make new ones arbitrarily, cancerously.” So, despite the threat Wales poses to the laws and order the Memex provides the world, he’s released from prison, and he begins to operate the Omnosyne on the Akkad Boy.
Then the “perfect pink tongue” begins to speak. For nearly four hundred pages, we receive extraction after extraction (monologues or chapters, really) each one interrupted by glitches of code-gibberish like:
“T B Z0#0V092QS0KCG6 P-LYMRZ
5NCYL0TBETWL BPKLG#XO0 01 0CMK10LX3Y=.V”
The code reminds us of the Omnosyne and source of these texts. We hear from Zuckerberg and Paul Bremer, in first person chapters, but never forget, because of the code, that these are recordings, documents, extracted via a radical interrogation technique.
That’s an accurate quote, by the way, of the code.
Here’s the truth, and perhaps the only thing I understand for sure about The Infernal: it is a success, and an utter delight, and these qualities come from my not being able to understand it entirely. It’s a book of yearning and want, an adventure through war and chaos that, in the end, tells me it’s okay if I don’t understand, because nobody really understands anything about war.
I’ve read so many beautiful books. Some are escapism, easy to suture into and disappear, with structures and plots that are easy to understand and let play with my emotions. Others are complex, language-driven, and plot-less. The latter I read sentence-by-sentence, noticing gerunds and verb choice and meter moreso than character development or story. The former I just read, hope to weep.
I could give examples of either, but then so could any of you.
The Infernal is both and neither. The characters have recognizable names, but they aren’t completely recognizable themselves. Condoleeza Rice shoots still photography of Jack Nicholson on the set of Chinatown, and somehow Doten makes this make sense as metaphor (or at least I think he does). Osama Bin Laden whispers instructions to his students while birds caw and caw in cages dangling from cave ceilings (what the metaphors are for this, I’m not completely sure). The veteran with the blown-off leg I already mention struggles to make a dinner reservation over the phone because his mouth keeps filling up with maggots (the maggots might very well not be metaphors. I hope they aren’t. I like them just being maggots).
Like I would have said to the older gentleman on the plane — The Infernal is not exactly a war book. Not entirely. It’s not an easy book to describe, either (clearly). But what I know for sure about the War on Terror, is that we all want to understand it. Because in the chaos of terror, understanding (maybe) brings peace. And what I understand about The Infernal is that the more I read it, the more I couldn’t stop reading. And the more I read, the more I felt like I did.
Which gave me a new kind of peace.
by Mark Doten