My appetite for non-fiction is pretty much equal to my appetite for fiction. I read memoirs, essays, and observations as I would read a novel, keyed into the author’s voice. When I read history, though, I read for the information, as though I’m auditing a course at my local community college. I underline the important parts, I try to process the information and place it in context. Sometimes I take notes. I read history when I want to know the facts, and that’s why I love John Keegan. His writing is clear, and he brings unassailable expertise to his books. I first discovered him a while back when I read part two of Ian McEwan’s Atonement in which the evacuation of British forces from France in the face of German invasion is described. McEwan’s vivid description of the grim realities of a small and somewhat forgotten event inspired me to read about World War II in search of more small, somewhat forgotten events. My knowledge of history comes from high school, a few courses in college, the History Channel, and a scattershot array of books I’ve read over the years. I know the big picture, the facts that we are all supposed to know, but, in the case of World War II, I didn’t know the nuances, the details, and campaigns and events that textbooks push to the background in the interest of smoothing out the narrative to assist in the learning process. I found that The First World War neither skimped on the specifics nor did it overwhelm with minutiae. I learned about the Greek campaigns and just how close the Allies were to losing the war. I learned about the British evacuation from France, and, in the end, understood the chronology of events and how all the pieces fit together. As an added bonus, Keegan every once in a while would pause the narrative to describe the realities on the ground, to explain what it was to be a soldier (or a general) fighting in this war. These invaluable nuggets are what make the book great. Naturally, I began adding Keegan books to the queue. The First World War is another great book, and a must read for anyone who wishes to have deeper knowledge of that cataclysmic event. Some fascinating insights: WWI represents a dividing line in history, and much more than the events that preceded it, WWI is responsible for shaping the world order of the last 90 years; this truly was a global war with campaigns in Africa and Asia; though the terrible nature of trench warfare is well-known, Keegan’s descriptions of the realities of the life of a WWI soldier are indispensable. If you are interested in military history, you won’t be disappointed by John Keegan.
When I encounter readers who’ve read all of David Sedaris’ books and are pining for more, I often point them to Fraud by David Rakoff. I based this recommendation on his frequent and frequently amusing appearances on This American Life, and a general idea that he and Sedaris share a certain world view for whatever reason. Well, now I’ve read the book, and I think it’s fair to say that Rakoff is a reasonable substitute for Sedaris, should no Sedaris be available. But they are not the same writer. Rakoff frequently pens a sort of meta-article in which he talks about the particulars and relative merits of his assignment as he embarks on that assignment. I have no idea if the essays that appear in Fraud were published in the same form in magazines or if for every article he crafted a meta-article with which to entertain himself (and us). Either way, the reader feels invited in for a behind the scenes look at what it is like to be a disaffected, overly-qualified, under-ambitious journalist as he takes on his fluffy assignments. In this way he differs from Sedaris, who writes almost exclusively about himself, with no artifice in between him and the reader. The fluffier the assignment, the more devil-may-care Rakoff becomes. He takes jabs at Steven Segal’s new age retreat, a New Englander who walks up the same “mountain” every day, and, most often, himself. At times the persona wears thin, too much cynicism and self-awareness, as when he writes about portraying Sigmund Freud in the window of Barney’s department store. But he redeems the collection with the final two essays in which he lets the reader see his more human side. In “Tokyo Story,” he returns to the city fifteen years after being forced to leave and start over his life after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. Returning, he finds no haunting demons, but instead paints a funny and endearing portrait of a unique city.I have been so relieved to find that the city in and of itself is not enough to unlock the sadness of my younger self. To the contrary, I have been unable to wipe the smile from my face since I arrived, giddy with a sense of survival. It’s not even clear to me that that old misery is still housed in my body anymore. I have been avoiding a monster behind a door for thirteen years, only to find that it had melted away long ago, nothing more than a spun-sugar bogeyman. It’s definitely not the first time in my adulthood I have realized this, but it never fails to cheer me to have it proven yet again that almost any age is better than twenty-two. The final essay, “I Used to Bank Here, but That Was Long, Long Ago” is about Rakoff’s bout with Hodgkin’s. Here he is at is best, and his typically casual vulgarity is more important to the plot, which revolves around a long lost sperm sample from his cancer days. Ultimately, he revisits his illness, long tucked away after he beat it, and we realize that the cynical Rakoff isn’t so cynical when he’s willing to be brave.
It should come as no surprise that Michael Chabon, with his latest novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, has delivered a high concept work of genre fiction. That’s par for the course for Chabon. More broadly speaking, Union’s detective novel form will be familiar, but Chabon has made it his own by superimposing the story on a rewritten history, one in which the world’s Jewish population was offered a temporary homeland in Alaska following World War II. The conceit is taken from a plan that was actually floated in the late 1930s but never actually went anywhere.But though Chabon has crafted an entire alternate universe to explore, one that seemed to me would be rich with narrative possibilities when I first heard about the book, he uses it instead as little more than backdrop for a detective story of fairly straightforward construction. Not unlike bustling Bangkok provides the colorful backdrop for John Burdett’s mystery novels, not unlike Michael Connelly’s L.A. or George Pelecanos’ D.C. As with many detective novels, both well-crafted and pulp, it is the setting that sets Union apart.Though more ambitious conceptually than his previous work, Union isn’t exactly new territory for Chabon. His Pulitzer winner The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay invents The Escapist, a superhero that captures the public consciousness during the 20th century alongside Superman and Batman. While that’s not as impressive an imaginative feat as moving a whole people to the snowy hinterland, it frees Chabon to take his readers from Prague to New York City with a memorable interlude in Antarctica. Kavalier & Clay spans decades and incorporates the century’s wars and social movements. In Union we are stuck in the crumbling neighborhoods of Sitka, where a dull grayness follows the action. Through fog, snow, and grime our hero Detective Meyer Landsman plods in his pursuit of a murderer.In many ways Landsman is cut from a familiar “hard-boiled” mold. He is divorced, borderline alcoholic, and living in a fleabag hotel. Though ostensibly washed up, Landsman is preternaturally good at what he does, and Landsman’s nearly superhuman powers of observation allow Chabon to unleash a flurry of descriptors and minutia upon every character we meet. “His herringbone trousers are stained with egg yolk, acid, tar, epoxy fixative, sealing wax, green paint, mastodon blood.” “His skin is as pale as a page of commentary. His hat perches on his lap, a black cake on a black dish.” Elsewhere, the prose is peppered with Yiddish, the preferred tongue of Jewish Alaska.Landsman isn’t all hard bitten though. He seems to swing between bravado and self-pity. After Landsman is made aware of a murder that his occurred in his hotel, the murder that is the crux of the book’s plot, he must investigate a tunnel leading from the basement, and Chabon takes the opportunity to lay out Landsman’s internal contradictions:Landsman is a tough guy in his way, given to the taking of chances. He has been called hard-boiled and foolhardy, a momzer, a crazy son of a bitch. He has faced down shtarkers and psychopaths, been shot at, beaten, frozen, burned. He has pursued suspects between the flashing walls of urban firefights and deep into bear country. Heights, crowds, snakes, burning houses, dogs schooled to hate the smell of a policeman, he has shrugged them all off or he has functioned in spite of them. But when he finds himself in lightless or confined spaces, something in the animal core of Meyer Landsman convulses. No one but his ex-wife knows it, but Detective Meyer Landsman is afraid of the dark.Landsman is, indeed, afraid of the dark, but the darkness is just another demon that haunts him, like the break up of his marriage to Inspector Bina Gelbfish (who has recently become Landsman’s boss), and the death of his sister Naomi.But whatever clinical diagnosis fits the brooding Landsman, this book is not a character study, it is a mystery novel. Initially, the dead man appears to be an anonymous junkie, but, as if to justify Chabon’s alternate universe, the conspiracy that surrounds the death only grows until we see its global implications.This all dovetails with the overarching predicament of the Alaskan Jews. Their settlement up north was never meant to be permanent, and now, in the present day, political machinations have led to the impending “Reversion” that will set them wandering once again.It was this conceit that had me salivating for this book, but instead Union amounts to a 432-page detective story, colorful and filled with dazzling prose, but weighed down by a clunky plot that schleps along and attempts to live up to Chabon’s grand premise.
In an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, the writer and Iraq War veteran Roy Scranton outlined what he called “the myth of the trauma hero.” It goes like this:
Every true war story is a story of trauma and recovery. A boy goes to war, his head full of romantic visions of glory, courage, and sacrifice, his heart yearning to achieve heroic deeds, but on the field of battle he finds only death and horror. He sees, suffers, and causes brutal and brutalizing violence. Such violence wounds the soldier’s very soul.
After the war the boy, now a veteran and a man, returns to the world of peace haunted by his experience, wracked by the central compulsion of trauma and atrocity: the struggle between the need to bear witness to his shattering encounter with violence, and the compulsion to repress it. The veteran tries to make sense of his memory but finds it all but impossible. Most people don’t want to hear the awful truths that war has taught him, the political powers that be want to cover up the shocking reality of war, and anybody who wasn’t there simply can’t understand what it was like.
The truth of war, the veteran comes to learn, is a truth beyond words, a truth that can only be known by having been there, an unspeakable truth he must bear for society.
So goes the myth of the trauma hero.
Scranton locates the origins of this myth in the 18-century Romanticism that valued individual experience above all else. He tracks the myth through two world wars, Vietnam, and up to the United States’s most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The last few years have seen an outpouring of memoirs, novels, and films about these two wars, and many of the most commercially and critically successful offer their own take on the trauma hero. Scranton, however, finds this myth dangerous, saying that it “serves a scapegoat function, discharging national bloodguilt by substituting the victim of trauma, the soldier, for the victim of violence, the enemy.” He doesn’t fault the writers of such narratives as much as their readers, eager to honor the tales told by trauma heroes, and in so doing avoid hearing stories of war that detail the victims of violence, and — more to the point — those responsible for it.
The Infernal, a novel by Mark Doten, seeks to tell that kind of story, one that accounts for those involved in the War on Terror at nearly every level, from the grunts lugging 80-pound packs to the residents of dusty villages on the other side of the world to the highest echelons of American power. I fear that this description, however, might give the impression that the book has the dutiful, even-handed tone of an episode of Frontline. That is not the case. The Infernal is certifiably insane, a monstrous, cartoon nightmare of a book.
Open up the book, and you’ll find a “Dramatis Personae” section, like in a 19th-century Russian novel. This one doesn’t track family trees and patronymics, however; characters include Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, and Mark Zuckerberg, as well as more inscrutable entries for “The Omnosyne” and “The Memex.” What is going on? Is this a postmodern swipe at American society like Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, a novelization of the Rosenberg trial that featured Richard Nixon as its protagonist? A gloss on celebrity like Bruce Wagner’s Dead Stars, in which Michael Douglas appears as a hologram of a character? The action and language of The Infernal are of the moment, but you might have to go all the way back to the novel’s namesake to get an idea of what Doten is up to. In The Inferno, Dante Alighieri placed all his enemies from 14th-century Florence in Hell, where they gave accounts of their sins while suffering elaborate, ironic punishments. Doten wants to place these historical figures in his fiction where they will be forced to explain themselves, as this is unlikely to happen in the real world.
The novel begins in the Akkad Valley of Iraq, at a geological formation known as Al-Madkhanah, or the Chimney. Strange clouds appear at the peak of the Chimney. A patrol of soldiers goes to investigate. One of them climbs to the top, where he discovers a boy burned almost beyond recognition. The soldiers return the boy to a base. He cannot speak, sign, or communicate in any way. But the Commission, a shadowy organization that seems to catalog and thus control the world, needs the information that the boy has. They decide to bring the traitor Jimmy Wales out of prison so he can use his invention, the Omnosyne, to extract a confession from the boy.
Jimmy Wales? Isn’t that the guy who created Wikipedia? That is indeed who he is IRL, as they say, but in the universe of The Infernal, Wales was a student at Dr. Vannevar Bush’s Institute for Youth Advances, where he helped create the Memex, a worldwide network of knowledge that served as a kind of precursor to the Internet, except it was only available to the Commission. Wales broke with Dr. Bush and the Institute, however, when he invented the Omnosyne, an information-gathering tool that is half lie detector, half torture device. To use the Omnosyne, an elaborate system of wires are inserted into the subject’s tongue and spine, extracting the essential information from his very nerves and bones. The wires are hooked up to what looks like a typewriter, printing out the subject’s confession in Omnotic Code, which only Wales can decipher. Once he created the Omnosyne, however, Wales killed a dozen instructors at the Institute for Youth Advances, at which point the Commission placed him in jail for life and mothballed the Omnosyne. The Commission is desperate for the Akkad Boy’s confession, however, so they bring Wales and his device to the Akkad Valley.
Due to the invasive nature of the Omnosyne, an extraction results in the death of the subject. This is deemed acceptable, as the Akkad Boy’s confession will surely prove invaluable. When Wales hooks him up to the Omnosyne and begins the extraction, however, the pages that are printed out in Omnotic Code give not the boy’s confession, but rather the confessions of a host of different people, all involved in the War on Terror in one way or another: Osama Bin Laden, L. Paul Bremer, an Iraqi woman named Noor, and on and on. These polysyllabic confessions form the text of The Infernal, which can read as if William Faulkner were blogging about current events, as in this passage written from the perspective of Bremer, Presidential Envoy to Iraq.
Not much in the way of running water, friends, mostly this here’s a porta-potty town, Jay told us, I told Condi on the cell.
Meanwhile Saddam flew past . . .
Meanwhile Saddam flew right past us . . .
And meanwhile Saddam in statue form, poster form, some billboards, too, and murals of Saddam, that sonofabitch just kept on flying on past us, One hell, I said, one hell of an Ozymandian tribute, Jay with no idea, Florida State University, then Shippensburg, never overcame those early obstacles…
Elsewhere, Osama Bin Laden, holed up in a cave, has his followers construct a new dialysis machine, which quickly devolves into violent slapstick; two drone-strike survivors named Rashid and Hakim stumble around like Laurel and Hardy; US Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez crawls through the air ducts of Guantanamo; Iraq War Veteran Tom Pally hobbles around his ranch house on an artificial leg, trying to make dinner plans for his and his wife’s anniversary, instead getting accosted by the vengeful maitre d’ of the restaurant. In the background of all this, there are intimations of a New City coming into being, a realm of pure information that the Commission plans to upload themselves into, leaving behind the corporeal world.
At this point in the review, I’m guessing that you either really want to read The Infernal, or you really don’t. It seems like an ideal object for the enthusiastic scholarship of a devoted cult, and I sincerely look forward to the WikiLink page that will explain all of the book’s mysteries. But Doten has written his idiosyncratic book about events that will be familiar to many, perhaps even overly familiar, and it’s worth asking why.
Part of an answer may lie in Doten’s biography. Doten is currently the literary editor at Soho Press, the publishing house whose renaissance The Millions covered last year. Before that, Doten was an associate editor at The Huffington Post, working for the site at its very beginning in 2005. (Andrew Breitbart was one of the site’s cofounders, though he soon left after a falling-out with Arianna Huffington, and The Infernal has a great, nasty joke made at his expense.) Doten is sure to have edited hundreds, maybe even thousands, of stories about the War on Terror and its many players, to the point where they very well might have seemed less like human beings and more like hallucinations, the characters in a compensatory power fantasy dreamed up by a traumatized, vengeful public. That’s not the kind of story you can tell as a journalist, however, and it’s possible Doten looked to the role of novelist as a way of telling the deeper, spiritual truth about our disastrous recent history, the kind of truth that fiction is still best-equipped to tell.
Debts to postmodern fiction aside, the book that The Infernal most reminded me of was George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Packer’s book is nonfiction, drawing on extensive interviews with ordinary citizens (remember when journalists did that?) as well as secondary sources for accounts of big name movers and shakers, but it’s structured very much like a novel, using the stories of its constituent characters to tell a larger, cohesive story about our current social reality, and what led to it. In fact, Packer explicitly modeled his book on novelist John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, an account of the tumultuous events of the early part of the 20th century. Packer’s goal in the book is quixotic, using the tools of serious journalism to try and offer a diagnosis of the sickness afflicting the body politic, the reporter doing the work of the artist.
Doten also thinks that 21st-century America is sick, but The Infernal isn’t a diagnosis. It’s a bloodletting. As the Omnosyne extracts the Akkad Boy’s confession and the voices of those in power and the powerless inculpate themselves with every profession of innocence, the reader has the sense that all the lies and deceit of the last dozen years, the courage shown and the suspicion that it meant little, have been brought together in one place, between the covers of a single book. Here’s hoping that people open it.
 A little inside baseball: Scranton’s essay is, in part, a response to George Packer’s essay on recent books about the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars for The New Yorker. Scranton takes Packer to task for only considering works that fulfill the trauma hero myth “while ignoring works that don’t fit that frame, such as John Dos Passos’s epic U.S.A. trilogy.” Writer, read thyself.