Apocalypse of the Vanities

Mark Doten
The Infernal
(Graywolf Press, 2015)

From its very first pages displaying screenshots of a fictitious memory program and infectious, babel-inducing spools of code interrupting the text, Mark Doten’s hallucinatory sci-fi novel The Infernal reveals its situation within a new, digital-mimetic fiction. The opening page to the text proper greets us: “This is a GREEN report (< 1 day old), UNVETTED by the BOSTON or LAS VEGAS OPERATORS, and may require further revision to meet MEMEX STANDARDS,” followed shortly by an overloaded screen looking like it was pulled from a fax machine, and an anticlimactic, code-garbled comment from Osama bin Laden following his absconding with a mangled Jewish child, “In the aftermath th ELNLOP0 W.” Indeed, Infernal’s nearest predecessor and influence would likely be Mark Z. Danielewski’s plus-sized House of Leaves (2000), with its claustrophobically overlaid or crossed-out phrases, annotations heaped on annotations, and text allied to multiple, nested media. (Danielewski’s newest, The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May, may prove an updated star to steer by.) The Infernal offers a contemporary and compelling example of what N. Katherine Hayles in Electronic Literature calls twenty-first century “computational” literature: texts remaining print in “output” but heavily bearing the “mark” of the digital.

The influence of the digital here, however, isn’t merely a slick façade. Surrealistic information from various parties that has been mixed within a suspended data archive is at the core of Doten’s aesthetic and satirical mission. Namely, The Infernal is a critique of the American War on Terror, told through manic, personal "thought clouds" of its most notorious participants and icons, highlighting a general information bleed between “classified” and inane, and foregrounding the petty, diaristic nature of its key players’ motivations. See, for example, L. Paul Bremer, the “leader of U.S. reconstruction efforts,” at one point explaining intensely to “Donny” Rumsfeld to “watch out” for “rabbits” in Iraq, then listing a professional census including “4,100,00 Kurds” and an “unknown” amount of “Big Mystery Cats” and “Wild Ducks.” Stylistically, this organizational ethic leads to characters seeming like airy-and-unreal avatars in a video game or superficial teens in a group text—even Bush campaign adviser Karen Hughes remarks at one point, with high-pitched inanity, “HE4T DEATH OF THE UNIVARSE […] IS THE END OIF INFORMATION” and “LOLOLOOLOLO!!!” This schema is most condensed in the dramatis personae given at the start, setting the stakes for the loosely nonfictional yet ultimately farcical nature of the game at play. Dick Cheney is described as “know[ing] a teachable moment when he sees it;” President Barack Obama is a “Nobel laureate” and “cool customer;” Mark Zuckerberg is inexplicably “searching for Cones of Power.” The dramatis personae, initially seeming like a novelty, actually becomes intrinsic to tracking the individual sections; the DP, if one chooses to use it, serves a similar function to David Foster Wallace’s endnotes in Infinite Jest, which Wallace claimed were to “allow/make the reader go literally physically ‘back and forth’ in a way that perhaps cutely mimics some of the story’s thematic concerns [namely, attention deficit and the bludgeoning of information].” One is continually disoriented, but when is slightly less so when consulting the DP.

The personalized sections aren’t autonomous, though. They are linked with the broader conceit of the “Memex,” which serves as an evocative symbol carried throughout. For those unfamiliar with it, the Memex is a device envisioned by Vannevar Bush, the Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II, and was meant to be a living, easy-access archive of human thought. (What we are reading, however, is actually a series of forced confessions produced from a device called the “Omnosyne” and drawn from a mysterious “Akkad boy,” ultimately preserved by the Memex.) In the interlinked documents it produces, we see the Memex as if recast through the eyes of Edward Snowden. This conceit also serves implicitly to frame Doten’s suggestion for the interconnection and complicity between the tech industry and government. All part of the same ambiguously malignant info-cloud are seemingly banal tech gods (Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia), cutely kid-like government leaders “Condi” Rice and “Donny” Rumsfeld, and sneeringly animalistic bloggers (Andrew Breitbart, whose sections literally consist of “oink oink oink” ad infinitum).

The book’s construction as a series of fragmented memos and disembodied, usually self-aggrandizing reveries is abetted by its rhetoric. Specifically, the main sign of Doten’s polymorphous flexibility is The Infernal’s adoption and critique of varying styles of business talk. Non sequiturs expose the bizarre personal angst beneath formalized relations, as when a congressional page notes, “Helen says, enunciate! Don’t slouch! She asks why I’m crying.” This same section is marked by the page’s continual sycophantic refrain of “the Senior Adviser—(says/told me/gave me),” as if an overseer’s official sanction provided some kind of guidance rather than empty imperative. Aspirational tech speech and TED-talk navel-gazing is also parodied as a kind of video game quest. Zuckerberg’s section unfolds as a third-person account of how “There are platforms that disappear when you step on them. Others you have to sort of bounce on to make them go up. Mark has a sword […] [he] keeps slashing the RoboCrows and jumping.” The prevailing voice of the book, however, has a new and singular tone of trapped, bureaucratic, Howard Hughes-ish paranoia that reads like Eichmann on OxyContin, as in this snippet from Roger Ailes’s consciousness: “Buried myself in advertisers, personalities, affiliates, going concerns, cocksuckers, vipers, every step dragging.”

Recurrent imagery also supports Doten’s mission to replace a singular, overall, narrative arc with a series of evocations. Perhaps in homage to the anonymous bodies of children killed by drone strikes, a frequent figure is that of an innocent youth in pain or being drained of life force. Part and parcel of Doten’s historical reimagination, these surreal images often present, like a tweaked version of William Burroughs’s “reality studio,” events that unfold as grotesque extensions or simulations of actual events. For example, a section describing an Abu Ghraib-like tower of bodies is a sort of contemporary Naked Lunch: “the flesh pyramids of boys the boy with razors in his food the hooded boy with dangling wires.” The “hooded” image recalls the famous universally distributed photograph of a hooded prisoner balancing on a box, electrical wires attached to his hands, preparing to be shocked. Doten reveals the sublimated, sexual compulsion beneath such almost-aestheticized sadistic acts: “the fap fap of a boy jacking a semi-flaccid cock […] plus the shimmery swish of sequins and the heels clicking.” We are in the realm of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, where the Nazi officer Blicero sends off his prostrate love slave in the belly of a missile as a final apocalyptic gesture.

Doten draws considerable satirical potency from teasing out the supposed backlogged sexual urges at the heart of modern warfare. L. Paul Bremer reflects at one point, “Domination what Arabs look for […] To be sexually dominated, Arab mind-set.” This at-first ludicrous theory suggests far starker implications when one considers the latent sadism in believing the opposing Arabs are “asking for it.”

Likewise, a particularly successful portion of The Infernal describes an amputee veteran, Tom Pally, whose wife discovers a search on his computer for “GAY RAPE.” The veteran jokingly asks, “I’ll concede there’s only one conclusion: I must have been the one who’d typed in GAY RAPE. What are the options? Cat burglar did it?”  The denial at the heart of Pally’s desire, mixed with the fact that we learn he has lost a friend on duty and is suffering from PTSD (the personae claims his wife and son are actually dead), reveals the repressed psychosexual currents in his prior military history. This conflicted sexuality becomes coupled also with a racial component when he admits that he enjoys when his black wife uses the “n-word,” which opened “a special space between my wife and me […] a space that didn’t belong to me, but which I was invited into for a moment.” This sexual and racial estrangement inflects a context of hated and desired foreignness—which one simultaneously desires to wrangle and subjugate—into the unseen background of war.

These same influences of sadism, sexual desire, and racial otherness are condensed into their most telling and parable-like form in the Osama bin Laden sections, one of which closes the novel. These sections revolve around Osama’s scheme to draw blood from a found “Jewboy” using complex, Rube Goldberg-like machinery. Osama imagines “the sound of my own heart beating and pumping blood not through my body but out of my body, this may or may not be Jew blood, blood tainted by the Hebrew song.” This dialysis-like transfusion conjures all sorts of other imagery: contagion by foreign body, the desire to consume the unfamiliar, vampirism, erotic union, and so on—all of which become amplified by Osama’s final merging with the Jewboy at the book’s closing. This final consumption, facilitated by a “terrible” machine, signals an overt allusion to Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” wherein a convict finally understands his crimes at the moment he succumbs to a machine inscribing these crimes into his skin. These supposed “crimes”—here imagined and projected onto the figure of the Jewboy as the emblematic target of Osama’s ire—are contained in a “poem” Osama recites, unveiling what could easily be the underlying moral of the book: that Americans are “a people not wretched but vain / Not wicked but daft / Not full of evil, but inane, / Hell bound on golden calf.” This is Doten’s more glowing subtext beneath the graphic surrealism and farce: that such conflicted, libidinal terror unleashed during the war on same is more narcissistic than hateful, more misled than sinister, more primal than concerted. The fact that this revelation comes from Osama of all people makes the premise starker: that the only thing making a terrorist’s evil sound grandiose and mock-poetic is its proximity to a simpler “evil”—the mundane sort practiced by Americans that more closely approximates “vanity.”


Casey Michael Henry

CASEY MICHAEL HENRY is currently a fellow at the City University of New York’s Center for the Humanities.