The French poet Paul Valéry said, "Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees." Every nomenclature spins a tangle of association and history. So, when we see the words "Iraq war" or "terror," images that have been burned into our memories take flight, images from the news and the Internet and perhaps from the front lines. But few of us have a bank of images from the inside, from behind the political curtain. In a way, Mark Doten's turbulent debut novel, "The Infernal," attempts to rip the curtain and show us the absurd production of war through a frenetic cast of voices.
The book begins like a puzzle box. Imagine an amalgam of theater, cryptograms and classified documents, all bound together by peculiar rules and structures askew from what we call reality. The plot involves the appearance of a mysteriously, badly burned boy in the Akkad Valley, a region known for its "strange properties."
Members of the Commission, the fictional government, agree that the mystery boy has secrets that need illuminating, so they resort to using the Omnosyne. The Omnosyne is a torture device created by Jimmy Wales — who, in this book, is forever locked in youth and doesn't have anything to do with Wikipedia — to extract confessions. The device is a "mahogany box stuffed with Clockwork Threads, a helmet on a swiveling copper arm." The subject's tongue is threaded through with wires that then travel down the spine and, eventually, prove fatal.
It takes work to make sense of the fictional terrain, but once established, the duplicitous voices are strangely addicting. The Omnosyne kicks up confessions from Osama bin Laden, Condoleezza Rice and Mark Zuckerberg, among others, most of whom speak in stream of consciousness and often get bludgeoned with random memories.
In one especially surreal scene, Tom Pally, an ex-officer recovering from PTSD, flushes maggots from his mouth, then contemplates his best friend's suicide.
Bin Laden, who hides in a network of caves and tries to conjure a parable called "The Jewboy and the Blanket," speaks with his nameless lackeys in clipped speech like something out of "Waiting for Godot":
"The master's birds!"
"They have returned!"
As the book unfolds, the confessions grow more jumbled, desperate and paranoid. At the end of every section is an excerpt from the notebook of Jimmy Wales, who gives us clues as to how to process all the chaos. By turns gruesome, absurd and darkly hilarious, "The Infernal" acts as a critique of the fuzzy rhetoric that politicians deploy to make things like "waterboarding" sound soft. Thanks to Mark Doten, we can see this war that still haunts us in a new and necessary light.
Josh Cook's writing has appeared in the Iowa Review, the Millions, the Rumpus and elsewhere.