The Infernal

By Mark Doten


February 2015

Reviewed by Nick Kocz


Thomas Mallon, writing last year in The New York Times, penned the most cogent takedown of Donald Barthelme I've yet to read. What bothered Mallon about Barthelme and many of his postmodern contemporaries was how unhinged their work was from the constraints of reality. "A writer freed from the need to calibrate with reality, or even be internally consistent, could put a washing machine into the sky along with a rainbow. So why not put a rhinoceros up there too?"

Rhinoceri, indeed. Barthelme's "dominant characteristic was a kind of whimsy. High on its own high concepts, it offered a slightly stoned, goofball secession from its tumultuous era rather than any direct engagement with it," Mallon wrote. No matter how much one adores Barthelme—and I happen to adore a great many of his short stories—one must concede that Mallon has a point.

Mark Doten's ambitious debut novel, The Infernal, treads firmly into what Mallon would characterize as Barthelme territory. Yet even in its "slightly stoned" state—is not that an awesome term?—The Infernal tussles with the biggest, baddest rhincoceri of our tumultuous era: the Iraq War and the Bush-era War on Terror. Others have delved into this subject matter, but none have whacked it with Doten's bleak wackiness, his crazed chaos.  

In Iraq's Akkad Valley, a remote region noted for its chimney-like rock formations, an American military scout discovers a badly burned boy. He's unable to speak, yet military intelligence demands he be interrogated. An "Omnosyne," a terrifying device which compels "perfect confessions" at the expense of the detainee's life, is employed, and it is through this interrogation that the novel unfolds. The boy seemingly taps into a universal consciousness, channeling a kaleidoscope of voices who have shaped or been shaped by the conflicts.

Reflected and refracted through warped prisms, the Osama bin Ladens, Paul Bremers, Dick Cheneys, and Condi Rices who populate these pages bear little (if any) resemblance to their real-life personages. Rice, the former US Secretary of State, is a bedbound "party photographer" most known for her soundstage stills snapped during the filming of Chinatown, the 1974 movie starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. Her adopted brother, Paul Bremer, the US-appointed Governor of Iraq whom we first encounter wearing a burqa (presumably a disguise to lessen the risk of assassination as he's taxied from the airport into Baghdad's Green Zone), proclaims, "Arabs, Iraqis, see what they're looking for, bottom line, is they want to be dominated, not just dominated but sexually dominated, Arab mindset such that only explicit sexual domination is going to see us through the brokering of a lasting peace." Bremer didn't actually say that in real life, but it calibrates nicely with the reality of a US torture policy that emphasizes "rectal feedings" and the Abu Ghraib-style sexual humiliation of detainees. 

Osama bin Laden, holed up with his minions in a Waziristan cave, is a teller of crackpot parables (e.g. "The Jewboy and his Blanket") who relies on daily blood transfusions to survive. A bevy of boys provide him that blood, and the transfusions themselves are administered via mechanical birds. As his aides explain:

"The head of the bird dips, you see, into the boy's arm."
"Then dips in to the teacher's arm, injecting him with blood."

Bin Laden's geopolitical objectives? 

God willing, we shall create a whole world on the model of this cave system, from the central chamber I will control a world transformed into nothing but—in a manner of speaking—caves. That is to say, a not-night world.

Haywired machinery, orphans, invalids, cellars, and caves recur throughout the novel. The Omnosyne's coded printouts are marred "by what seem random character misfires, a sort of noise" that reads like "pure gibberish." Doten often uses these "character misfires," which appear on the page as strings of random text, to stunning effect.    

Even the water is tainted.

[. . .] it's a putrid concoction, a weeping bile, water everywhere corrupted by the grave and spiced with human remains, one day we open our eyes and discover we've only ever been drinking tomb water<E?M.EPAQSRSIRQ04WO^P3OZ#@EAEPM

[. . . ]

Water is nothing but liquid waste, ice solid waste, every sip chokes us like mummy wheat.

Absent from this novel is anything that smacks of ideology. Or theology. Or any of the high-borne patriotic sentiments about America's rights, liberties, and supposed exceptionalism that are or were customarily unfurled to justify the war, the carnage, the atrocities. What we see is buffoonery, irresponsibility, hubris, and a refusal by the major players to recognize the lethal relationship between cause and effect. 

An Arab approached Donny, raised a semiautomatic handgun and blasted him in the face . . .

The Arab was shot in turn, his white robe sprayed red, over and over the noise of gunfire sounded and the Arab stood and seemed to dance with something like grace, it seemed as though the body was held aloft not by the force of muscle and bone or by the velocity of the bullets but by the spray of blood that wrapped him, the body and its relationship to the mists of blood that whirled up around him, holding him, that Arab body, like the sea, the wind, the stars . . .

Like the novel, the war is largely plotless, roaring on without purpose or deliberation; it exists; it is infernal.

Doten excels at portraying the flotsam jetsam lives of the anonymous people upended by the wars. Of these, the most brilliantly rendered is that of Tom Pally, an American soldier who returns stateside with a prosthetic aluminum leg. Despondent, he grapples with depression. "[A]nd now everything that surrounded me—everything I found myself inside of—was a fog, and I was struggling to understanRPRP20WTWF0Q07CG0B83WTTQV -RJYBKK5WL02Y10W."

In Iraq, one of Pally's comrades, Michael, himself a casualty of war, raved about a restaurant called The Gallant Arms back in his hometown. 

We'd be on night patrol and he'd say, I wish we was at the Gallant Arms right now. Or staring down some MREs, he'd say, The Gallant Arms this is NOT. So as the back and forth continued [. . . ] I was thinking about the restaurant with the best food and the best service, an establishment that Michael had once said was the place to go if you need to save your marriage.

On his anniversary, which happens to fall on Valentine's Day, which also happens to be on a night Pally finds himself needing to save his marriage, he calls The Gallant Arms for dinner reservations for him and his wife. Alas, no tables are available. The restaurant's persnickety maitre d' asks, "I hope you'll excuse me for putting it to you so directly, but are you perhaps speaking with a mouthful of maggots?"

Pally starts to gag.

I tried to force a response, but no go. I mean, I couldn't get a word out. It was like my whole throat was jammed, and I felt my face going red, I was trying to cough but my windpipe was full, mouth full, head and neck stuffed full. I slammed down the phone and ran to the bathroom. I locked the door and turned on the vanity light—two bulbs were out, I made a mental note to change them, to buy bulbs later, if we needed them—and opened wide.

Sure enough, a mass of pale maggots was churning behind my lips and teeth. I could feel them packed under my tongue, maggots butting their heads against molars, pulling themselves over the teeth and working their way between jawbone and cheeks.

A solid, churning mass, all the way back past my gag reflex—all the way into my throat.

Maggots are, indeed, a real problem for Pally. "When my wife and I kiss now, I won't let her tongue in my mouth."

In another chapter, an Iraqi woman's husband disappears each night to go on clandestine missions. She fears for his life: "In my own heart, too, there is a spider the size of my heart—do you understand our spiders? Our secrets? In all women's hearts in this city there is now a spider, the size of a heart. The men live without these spiders, the men just die and die, their teeth and eyes a blinding white."


One of the questions I like least, both as a reviewer and as someone who's tried to pen a few novel-like conglomerations of pages is: "What is this novel about?"

Compassion and wisdom are almost entirely absent in The Infernal. Its world horrifies. A doctor eats lunch while watching his patient commit suicide in a VA hospital. "Mark Doten," a character in this novel, laments, "My country, our country, it's become a nation of headshakes and rueful smiles, and that is not what we are." I'd posit that any book depicting the adverse effects brought on by a lack of compassion and wisdom is actually a paean about the necessity of compassion and wisdom. 

Toward the end of the novel, Paul Bremer chairs a meeting between Iraqi Sunni and Shiite representatives. His aim is to broker a peace settlement. Or, at the very least, an abatement to the sectarian violence. It will surprise no one that his efforts are less than effective. In his failure, he's stunned by just how many people have died during his watch. It's perhaps the novel's most poignant moment, and its most hopeful.

Later, someone asks, "But how do you address as 'brother' those who are not and will not be your brother?"

That, to me, is what the novel is "about."

After one particularly long string of character misfires, Dick Cheney says, "at last Iii understand it—how Ii'm forever being born, we're sitting on a whole nation primed to learn a thing or two, hell I i I IiIII got energy squared away so fuck it let's knock it out of the park." Which is exactly what Doten does in his debut novel: smash it out of the park. The Infernal succeeds on so many different levels, and in so many different registers, it's not even funny. Except that it is, in so many wonderful ways.