Book Dabbler: The Diabolical Chaos of The Infernal


The most exceptional breweries aren’t afraid to take risks. Whether it’s new barrel-aging techniques or infusing their flagship beers with interesting flavors, they keep finding novel ways to excite craft beer lovers.

Take Surly, for example. I recently downed a half pint of their Fiery Hell at the new Surly Beer Hall. According to the brewery, Fiery Hell is “Surly Hell aged in red oak with the addition of puya chilies.” I wonder which is the greater risk: aging a well-liked, light and bready German-style lager with fiery chilies, or intentionally choosing to drink it.

The result is surprisingly light and refreshing with some serious heat – citrusy and floral at first, then a lingering hint of oil and spice. Though it immediately coated my forehead with sweat, the spice doesn’t spoil the flavor; overall it’s sweet and balanced.

Mark Doten’s debut novel The Infernal is perhaps the literary cousin of Surly’s Fiery Hell. This alternate reality tale about the War on Terror begins with the discovery of a terribly burned boy in the Akkad Valley of Iraq. The boy cannot speak and, despite numerous injuries, he is miraculously alive. Because he is believed to possess valuable information, the Commission (some kind of crooked, all-powerful government body) cannot risk letting the boy die or go free without discovering what he knows.

To achieve this, the boy is hooked up to the Omnosyne, a dilapidated and forgotten interrogation device that extracts confessions via threads stuck through the subject’s tongue and “twisted down the length of the spine.” The Omnosyne’s output—confessions from the boy and dozens of other characters—form the text of Doten’s novel.

The other characters resemble their real-life counterparts in name only and include a comically inept Osama Bin Laden, an orphaned Condoleezza Rice, and Mark Zuckerberg, who swordfights with a giant RoboCrow in the sky to save all of humanity.

The Omnosyne spits out confessions in no discernible pattern, and because they often begin and end abruptly, Doten’s literary device impedes any sense of cohesion. Additionally, “periodic glitches in the output” appear randomly throughout The Infernal. One character describes them as “character misfires, a sort of noise […] pure gibberish.” The Infernal’s experimental structure, its cacophonous voices, and all the lines of glitchy code within the text are evidence of a great risk taken by Doten; he means to seriously challenge his reader.

At times these stylistic choices become so distracting they resemble nothing more than a frustrating meta-gimmick. It is useful, though, to think of Doten’s quirky Omnosyne as Twitter and its output as the tweets of disparate voices using the hashtag #IraqWar. As you read them both, many kinds of political commentary become visible: intelligent criticism, blind patriotism, deliberate misunderstanding and misdirection, as well as suspicion of greed, corruption, and dishonesty. As we start learning how to look at these wars in retrospect, Doten offers numerous lenses through which to study their lasting effects.

Within the chaos, Doten flashes his remarkable gift. The story of Tom Pally, for example, features a troubled, wounded veteran who struggles to connect with his wife while coping with the loss of his leg and the “multiple disabilities” of his infant son. He wants nothing more than to celebrate his Valentine’s Day wedding anniversary by taking his wife to dinner, and to find some evidence that her love for him has survived the war. Doten chooses to display powerful, affecting writing here, and he takes a calculated risk by obscuring it elsewhere in favor of experimentation.

The Infernal is truly imaginative, original and disorienting. Readers looking to risk confusion and shock their palate need look no further.

About Brendan Kennealy

Brendan Kennealy is a writing and PR professional who lives and works in St. Paul. Find him on Twitter here: @extrapalemale.

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