We’ve watched films portraying and critiquing 9/11. We’ve read sober nonfiction books chronicling it and thoughtful fiction by soldiers — some with MFAs — who are beginning to process what they saw there. But what we haven’t read is anything quite like “The Infernal,” Mark Doten’s deliriously demented new novel.
A dark and insane fantasy about the players large and small who populated our post-9/11 landscape, it’s not just the book we’ve maybe wanted but possibly the book we’ve needed — a strange lens to help us understand who we were, what we’ve done and who we may yet become.
The satirical novel unfolds over dozens of classified records released from a network called Memex. Passages are interrupted by dense and frightening lines of code: “I’ve brought my understanding to this porta-potty town, Condi,” writes L. Paul Bremer, “and with that understanding I will reverse Jay [Garner]'s damage, the corrosive effect of the khaki and collared regime, work though the devastation, the mischief, undo and soothe it, usher in a new era in the Green zone, thus in Baghdad, thus Iraq, thus the region and worl LKEKE LL035COS2BPAL TLHK9 FQ XGPOE.”
It’s painful to recall the hubris of America’s strange and largely bungled attempt to make a new world from the ashes of 9/11. Doten’s dark version makes our recent history seem both ironic and operatic. In his distorted tale, Condoleezza Rice and L. Paul Bremer are adopted siblings. Bremer has replaced Jay Garner as administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority and holds a meeting with Iraqi dignitaries; the gibberish he speaks seems monstrous and tone deaf and unhelpful, but it might well bear a resemblance to what Iraqis actually heard back then.
“Arabs, Iraqis, see what they’re looking for, bottom line, is they want to be dominated,” Bremer tells the dignitaries. “The Arab imagination is something we’ve failed to capture, so how about big mystery cats … something we can capture?”
Doten’s satirical amplification of recent history serves many purposes. Taking notes at the meeting is Donald “Donny” Rumsfeld, Bremer’s “best friend.” Meanwhile, back in America, Roger Ailes is a demonic wife killer reporting to the Memex from a sprawling mansion — six bedrooms! nine bathrooms! exclamation points! whatever! — where he is obsessed with turtles. It’s insane to think of these fictional giants as actual people. And what’s implicit is that we’re all real people, with the same need for friendship and spouses and the same possibility that any of us could, given the opportunity to rule the world, wreak darkness and destruction.
The book does the hard and necessary work of imagining those beyond America. Deep in a cave, “Osama” leads pale, sexless acolytes in constructing a horrible machine to collect the blood of a “Jewboy” they’ve captured. Just as crucially, there’s an Iraqi woman trapped in a hospital with no power, contemplating the fact that because of U.S. and coalition forces women in war-time Iraq face a choice: “I unbuttoned his shirt, and though he struggled, even beat me with his fists, I held him fast, until tremors ceased. Then I dipped the blade into his chest, between two ribs, and cut away a strip of his heart…[I am] no longer a natural weeping woman but a tear-production machine winding and thumping out of control, and shrieks that never end. Our men’s hearts are meat and blood, and before they leave on their night-missions we remove their hearts.”
Caught between the Garners and Bremers and the Osamas and Iraqis, there’s a U.S. soldier, missing a leg, struggling to take out his wife for their anniversary. “Sometimes I meet other guys who’ve served and we talk about this and that, and at last I just come right out and ask — do they have any weird symptoms?” he asks, and in Doten’s wild, literalized world, the malady is the maggots that bubble up from a man’s mouth. "[E]veryone’s got weird symptoms. …The two of us just stare into each other’s eyes and shut down.” Rather than going out to dinner with his wife, the soldier turns to a bottle of bourbon and then a knife.
Kurt Vonnegut took on the Second World War. Robert Coover, Thomas Pynchon and Joseph Heller grappled with Vietnam. In the same spirit of dark comedy and riotous satire, Doten powerfully reimagines our latest American adventure.
Infernal: It can mean tiresome. But it’s also hell, and hell isn’t going away — as much for those who planned or lived those battles as for the rest of us, left to think about what we might (or might not) be able to do differently next time.
Deuel is the author of “Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East.”
Graywolf Press: 416 pp, $18 paper