Mark Doten’s debut novel, “The Infernal” (2015), blended a surreal and horror-tinged vision of the war in Iraq with an extended riff on the concept of the singularity, where human and artificial intelligences become inseparable. It’s not far from there to the post-apocalyptic setting of “Trump Sky Alpha,” his follow-up: Doten opens the book by detailing the end of civilization as we know it, as the 45th president takes to the skies in a zeppelin (the Trump Sky Alpha of the title) even as nuclear weapons punctuate the globe.
Satirical fictional reinventions of sitting presidents aren’t new: Philip Roth’s “Our Gang” (1971), for example, focused on a head of state named Trick E. Dixon. But for all the skewed touches Doten uses here — Trump’s zeppelin, a sort of aerial Mar-a-Lago, chief among them — he also channels the brusqueness of the president’s Twitter feed into a vivid literary depiction. And this is indeed a novel where Twitter personas don’t just matter: They are, in fact, at the heart of this heady work’s thematic concerns.
After its apocalyptic opening sequence, “Trump Sky Alpha” shifts its focus to the aftermath of the war, following the death of hundreds of millions. A journalist named Rachel, based in the wreckage of Minneapolis, sifts through the digital detritus of the world, seeking closure after her wife and daughter die. Her editor, Galloway, requests “a piece on internet humor at the end of the world,” and so Rachel begins her search.
This allows Doten the opportunity to create some note-perfect examples of irreverent memes that might show up on — apologies to Barry McGuire — the eve of destruction, i.e. “much extinctions, such sad.” But this element of the novel also takes a chilling turn, as Doten writes about “the increasingly bad joke of Facebook’s ‘mark yourself safe’ as the night progressed, flipped on worldwide, death toll skyrocketing by unknowable millions every hour.”
And as Rachel’s research takes her to a writer she’d interviewed years before — one with possible ties to a hacker group who caused an internet outage just before the worldwide conflagration — the novel’s scope undergoes several unexpected alterations.
As befits a book that functions as a gritty near-future narrative and a hallucinatory overture on contemporary politics, Doten here incorporates an array of cultural references, among them John Carpenter’s cult film “They Live,” the 2017 Women’s March and the spy novels of John le Carré. Fundamentally, this is a long and thrilling meditation on information and disinformation, on personas and the elusiveness of truth. In “Trump Sky Alpha,” this is the way the world ends: not with a bang, but with a meme.
Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn. He lives in New York.
Trump Sky Alpha
By: Mark Doten.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 288 pages, $16.
Event: Wordplay festival, downtown Minneapolis, May 11-12.