By Mark Doten
Graywolf. 422 pp. Paperback, $18
In a torture chamber in the Middle East, the man asking the questions waxes poetic. “Imagine,” he dreams, a “fully expressive body, not this burnt and ruined thing.” The yearning seems a hideous irony — a torturer’s job, after all, is both to ruin a body and render it “expressive” — but in Mark Doten’s prodigious, provocative debut, “The Infernal,” it’s more. The line captures the novel’s essential counterpoint between dreams and torture.
Such byplay renders summary difficult. Even the story’s opening presents something “impossible,” a boy who is both “a living thing and a burning thing.” Terribly maimed, the child turns up in Iraq’s Akkad Valley, and his discovery by an American patrol by no means puts a stop to his suffering. Officials known as “Commissioners” determine the boy must know something and attach him to a “great and terrible apparatus of extraction,” part computer and part slow death. Known as “the Omnosyne,” the machine is operated by a creature stranger yet, a zombie reanimated from an abandoned government project.
And we’ve only just entered the freak show. Doten’s text proves to be ninth-tenths Omnosyne “Output,” printouts culled from the dying boy’s mind. Seance transcriptions, in effect, each one channels another spirit, although most of the voices recur. What’s more, even the briefest Output has been looked over, censored — redacted. Time and again, the prose gives way to gobbledygook like “40SA6T,” so that we recall the “enhanced interrogations” that followed 9/11. Indeed, most of those channeled by the Akkad survivor are major players of that time, including Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Through this cracked mirror, we see darkly. Whether the scene is Baghdad, Washington or elsewhere, the weirdness generally proves both comic and hurtful. A signature sequence features Gonzales struggling down claustrophobic passageways amid trapped figures — circumstances that can only be called infernal. Another speaker offers laughable “Ugly Americanisms” (“It’s not kosher these days to ask if someone’s moves are Jew moves” ), but, set upon by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others, he barely manages to breathe. Two or three of the Outputs prove less surreal but more distressing, as they give voice to the suicidal and suffering. One Baghdadi laments:
“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. . . . A woman without a spider must go mad in this city, screaming without end.”
Toward the end of the novel, at the bottom of the Inferno, comes a brief rant from Vice President Dick Cheney, the man some consider the Lucifer at the root of this evil. Others, however, say the horror’s prime mover was Osama bin Laden, and he contributes more to Doten’s phantasmagoria than any other character. No figure recurs more often, or generates such discomforting parallels.
The al-Qaeda leader has a hiding place the CIA would recognize — a “black site” — and he, too, keeps a machine that kills boys. Daily, the beloved “Teacher” straps down some “blood helper” and drains the youngster, replenishing himself. Otherwise, bin Laden and his boys tend to erupt in cartoonish violence, during which the redactions create witty blackouts. At the same time, paradoxically, these scenes flicker with glimmers of redemption. The Teacher’s underground birdcages can’t hold their crakes and eagles, and eventually the Akkad boy himself seems like a creature that has flown free. Where else could he have come from, and why else would he keep channeling this man? Then there is the struggle that may at last defeat both bin Laden and his shadow-selves. He can’t seem to keep down his captured “Jewbird.”
That term references Bernard Malamud , and such literary gamesmanship is another of the pleasures to be had in Doten’s ghastly carnival. The hand of Dante leaves its imprint clearly. Melville, another Cassandra warning of American overreach, has a fainter presence; I needed Google to confirm one citation. There’s no escaping the shadow of Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” with its devices of justice and death, while “The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night” provides a more lighthearted moment.
Still, to scatter literary stars against the dark doesn’t, by itself, create the constellation we call a novel, and Doten can leave us indifferent to connecting the dots. Suspense drags during the longer Outputs, in particular those that feature Barack Obama and a certain “Mark Doten,” imagined as (what else?) an invalid pocked with scars. Why should we care whether the rich “Doten” gets richer? Or gets Washington leverage? Granted, these passages deliver fine, Boschian detail, including eye-popping business about the JFK assassination. Nonetheless, this “Infernal” frightens us most when lit by flames of war. Although touched by brilliance throughout, the book succeeds best as a response to the current tragedy of the Arab world — and as such, you can’t help but hope it will prove one of a kind.
John Domini’s latest book is a selection of criticism, “The Sea-God’s Herb.”