A Discussion About (Mostly) Books as They Relate to a Theme of Contemporary Interest

The War on Terror: delayed symptoms

More than a decade later, it’s still unclear who actually said the words. We think we know that, in 2004, they were said to the journalist Ron Suskind, who published them in the New York Times Magazine. We know that there are perhaps half a dozen members of George W. Bush’s first-term war council who might reasonably be considered suspects. They are not all the way gone, this cast of defective vulcans, men whose acronyms and abstractions and daisy-­cutter diplomacy terraformed nations and upended or just ended a great many lives both half a world away and much closer.

The world we live in still bears the bruises they left, but it is difficult, from our present distance, to remember these people with any degree of specificity. It is, anyway, maybe not worth trying to remember which was who, or how; which was the one with the neat beard who never spoke on the record, which was the bald one and which the one with the crisp LEGO-man brush cut, which the one indicted for lying to Congress a generation earlier, which the professorial one, which the leatherette lifer with the consultancy. The thing is that any one of them could well have been the one who said, to Suskind:

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.

It’s hard to say that these words—which also serve as the epigraph for The Infernal, Mark Doten’s vicious and commanding first novel—have aged well. Their delirious vanity is no less shocking after a decade during which they’ve been proven more or less true; the curdled contempt shot through the statement—judiciously, as you will—has only ripened toward a fuller toxicity in the intervening years.

That is, everything predicted by this anonymous speaker—it sounds a bit like Cheney, but so did a great many things in US politics in October of 2004—more or less came to pass, and all the various bad actors who might have said these words mostly escaped shame and censure, easing into low-impact board memberships and sinecures or spreading like a stain into the private sector. The wars went on, and go on, without them, and there is still the sense that the rest of us are chasing after what these men so casually set in motion. The world they made and unmade, along with the feeling of that pursuit, is something like the subject of The Infernal, and the result is every bit as uneasy as it must be.

That deep and sorrowful unease—the wide current of grievance and wrongheaded righteousness in the culture, the sense of things unattended and unspooling at the margins, a certain globalized violence forever trying the locks and hunting for a way in, and the resulting bunkered inwardness of people who know they are very well watched and not especially well protected—has suffused the most memorable novels about the War on Terror years. Tom McCarthy’s icy Remainder embedded its critique in a meticulous evocation of the era’s pot-bound claustrophobia; Heidi Julavits leaned into the abstraction and paranoia that filled in the era’s new gaps in The Effect of Living Backwards; Joseph O’Neill simply wrote a beautiful novel, Netherland, about sad people in an upended world. Doten certainly does not skimp on the ambient unease in The Infernal—to be clear: he really does not skimp on any variety of unease—but he plugs into a different, doomier thing.

Some of this is simply a result of how the book is shaped. Doten introduces his dramatis personae—a cast that includes Iraqis and Americans variously shredded by war, and wildly fictionalized versions of real and recognizable figures such as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Osama Bin Laden, former US viceroy L. Paul Bremer III, and Mark Zuckerberg—and then turns them loose in a world scarred by real war and haunted by a ravenous, omnipresent, predatory technology whose dystopian specifics are Doten’s own creation.

These characters’ stories are pried, painfully, from a badly burned boy who has been discovered in Iraq’s Akkad valley, through the use of a murderous device called the Omnosyne. The voices that The Infernal comprises are all within this dying burn victim; when the Omnosyne has finished extracting them, the emptied boy will die. The Omnosyne’s inventor and master is Jimmy Wales. In our world, Wales is best known as the creator of Wikipedia; in Doten’s, he’s a tech-savvy version of Hannibal Lecter, a remorseless multiple murderer freed from decades of solitary confinement to wring every voice from the suffering boy. The Omnosyne, too, is coming apart, as a result of which the child’s stories are shot through with gouts of random numbers and letters, encrypted data or mere noise. There, as throughout The Infernal, information overwhelms more than it informs. “We have everything—have it all perfectly,” Wales writes in his log. “But we don’t know where it is.”

What Wales extracts from the boy, at the cost of his life, is by turns comic and obscene. As in Remainder, reiteration and recurrence first haunt the broader story, then devour it. Every story line is bent, and most every storyteller eventually broken, from within or from above, by similar strains of vanity and delusion and weaponized narcissism. Nothing in The Infernal recurs quite so stubbornly or mercilessly as violence and death, and suffering comes in different ways for different characters: an Iraqi nurse is bled dry by the predations of war; an unraveling veteran unravels; Bin Laden blithely causes the death of one devoted boy after another through increasingly slapstick means; Bremer exults in his ignorance and idiosyncrasy as Baghdad’s skyline seethes and burns outside the window. But suffering comes, universally, and it just keeps coming.

Despite Doten’s legitimately thrilling inventiveness and wild, dark humor—and, more rarely, his empathy—none of this is any more fun than it sounds. But entertainment is not the task Doten set himself here; he’s after something darker and more difficult. Doten has created an impressionistic map of the atomized imperial realities of the War on Terror, and it is every bit as harrowing to consider as the inane and bloodthirsty era it depicts. Crucially, though, he does not do this work with the neutered, judiciously-as-you-will passivity presumed in that Cheneyite aside; he rejects the realities that the War on Terror’s architects have given us to chase, and goes in search of his own. That refusal, which is both bigger and braver than it seems at first, is what gives The Infernal its power. It’s a start.

—David Roth

David Roth is a cofounder and editor of the Classical. His writing has appeared in GQ, Vice, SB Nation, New York Magazine, and Matter.

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