The Infernal: A Novel

The Infernal: A Novel

by Mark Doten


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A fierce, searing response to the chaos of the war on terror—an utterly original and blackly comic debut

In the early years of the Iraq War, a severely burned boy appears on a remote rock formation in the Akkad Valley. A shadowy, powerful group within the U.S. government speculates: Who is he? Where did he come from? And, crucially, what does he know? In pursuit of that information, an interrogator is summoned from his prison cell, and a hideous and forgotten apparatus of torture, which extracts "perfect confessions," is retrieved from the vaults. Over the course of four days, a cavalcade of voices rises up from the Akkad boy, each one striving to tell his or her own story. Some of these voices are familiar: Osama bin Laden, L. Paul Bremer, Condoleezza Rice, Mark Zuckerberg. Others are less so. But each one has a role in the world shaped by the war on terror. Each wants to tell us: This is the world as it exists in our innermost selves. This is what has been and what might be. This is The Infernal.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555977016
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 02/17/2015
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 992,568
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Mark Doten's writing has appeared in Conjunctions, Guernica, The Believer, and New York magazine. He has an MFA from Columbia University and is the recipient of fellowships from Columbia and the MacDowell Colony. He is currently a senior editor at Soho Press and lives in Brooklyn.

Read an Excerpt

The Infernal

A Novel

By Mark Doten

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2015 Mark Doten
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-335-3



That all kind of fiery burning Bodies have their parts in motion, I think, will be very easily granted me.

—Robert Hooke, Micrographia, Or, Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies

The opinion of the operators as to the amount of distortion above which a circuit is unsatisfactory for commercial operation, is in reasonable agreement with the effect on their accuracy of reception for some types of distortion; for other types of distortion there is considerable disagreement.

Bell System Technical Journal 8, no. 2 (1929)


A reeling shadow drew them to the child. To the boy. First sighted [38.61] hours ago, naked and in convulsion, atop a twisting geological formation known as AL-MADKHANAH (THE CHIMNEY), by those who once walked in its shadow, until new TECHNOLOGIES—telegraphy, lightbulbs, DIODES, and X- rays, brought first by happenstance, then strategy—revealed the Akkad Valley's strange properties (for it snuffed them all); and in the ensuing struggle to control an area dense with COSMIC NOISE, a space that existed in abrogation of NATURAL LAW, which is to say, pointing to laws higher or beyond, we expelled them that had lived here from time out of mind and made the valley our own. (And later, in the era of THE CLOUD, the broad, flat crown of the Chimney was the first point on Earth's surface into which a finger of the WET-GRID reached down from the mesosphere and buried itself; and while eleven more UMBILICAL SINGULARIES would follow, spinning slowly across the globe in years- long arcs, broken at odd intervals by discontinuous leaps, drawn by the music of unknown Attractors, here in the valley, until now, there has been only a gentle sway in an otherwise stationary thread, and from underground a deep and nourishing overlay of pulses ... )

As the patrol—a WORLD WAR II–era jeep and several uniformed men on HORSES—advanced on the Chimney, the first shadow became two, then three. Soon, a dozen or more birds cut the sky above. The CONES and NANO-MIRRORS of the Wet- Grid inclined gently in response and funneled into the Cloud a plastic composite of thousands of images, first of the birds that seemed to crosscut down and away from the Chimney even as they held to the sky above it. Past those black, oar- like wings we could see only in flashes—the flight paths were sticky, and pulled the focus of the grid—and meanwhile the grid itself was shivering: the cosmic noise in the valley had spiked, and was fed upward, into the Cloud, and we felt it at our terminals, in washes of clarity and insight (and an uptick in the agonized moans within the NEW CITY), even as the situation on the ground remained obscure.

Something was happening.

There is no sphere of AMERICAN concern to which THE COMMISSION does not apply itself, but for over a century we've held this slip of desert very dear to our hearts.

The change, when it comes, may come quick—we have always known this.

The moment when the world system must reorganize or collapse.

THE SCOUT [edit]

On the patrol was one who had learned, from the informal contests the soldiers sometimes staged there, how to climb the Chimney without the aid of rope or ladder. He knew which handholds could be trusted and which couldn't, how to make it over the smooth bulge that ringed the formation halfway up—and he steered clear of the southeast corner, where attractive- looking declivities were inlaid with SCORPION nests.

Thus did he make it to the top of the formation, where the justvisible thread of the umblical singularity pierced the valley.

Thus was he the first to take the figure in.

After rejecting what he saw, he took it in.

But only for a moment, before again rejecting it. And so he reached a compromise: he would understand the noises coming from the child, as well as the information of his VISUAL and OLFACTORY SENSES (scorched hair and FLESH, for instance, intertwining, jockeying for primacy), but also: he wouldn't. He would hold all that to one side—he would not process it. In the half-light of this compromise, he took steps to deliver himself from the vision. To interpose other bodies between himself and it.

He shouted for a canteen, and cast down a rope he'd anchored.

He kicked at the carrion birds, which had not yet begun to fill their stomachs with the flesh of the boy, driven back, perhaps, by the umbilical singularity—which was here narrow as a cello string, and beginning to hum, though it opened up to a vortex hundreds of miles in diameter as it rose up to the mesosphere.

From the top of the Chimney, the scout SEMAPHORED back to the base.

The scout then touched him or her or perhaps it—let us allow for him—let us say him and boy, when the burns, including those between the legs, were of such severity that neither race nor gender was immediately apparent—he touched the little boy, this poor thing, as he later called him, not remembering where he'd touched the poor thing. He knew only that the flesh still burned—and his own hand was on fire in the touching, lit somehow with a clear flame. The scout stumbled backward, and did not understand it—that a living boy could be burning flesh, that he himself was burning and yet was still in motion, that his own heels now hung at the Chimney's very lip.

He did not understand that he was still moving, still stumbling back, and did not understand, as it was happening, the fall that snapped his spine. Later he would understand—but at that moment, no. He simply could not understand: how it was that the faces of the men and horses (the bones in the horses' faces smooth, implacable) had flown up to encircle him there, on top of the Chimney. That the faces of men and horses could have flown up around him, that a boy could be a living thing and a burning thing, both at once, and that his own body was now the fact of its new immobility and the fact of a single pain—that he, the scout, was (the scout thought) burning—that his whole body was burning up—that in this burning up he was held immobile (in truth it was only his hand that burned—with a clear flame, where he had touched the boy—the pain and immobility otherwise the pain and immobility of the fall that had snapped his spine)—this was, all of this, an outrage. The scout bared his teeth and howled at the outrage to the bodies—to the boy's and to his own through the boy's—howled past or against the ring of human and equine faces, over and beyond the Chimney, a sound that carried even the three kilometers back to the base—the soldiers heard the scout's howl and heard what he howled—what he howled was the fact of their burning—and as he howled, he knew: that they both must die—both he and the poor thing, must now, this very instant, surely die—and so he howled and set the huge birds reeling across the face of the near- vertical sun.

But in this, he was mistaken.

The scout did not die at Al-Madkhanah, the Chimney.

Nor did the boy.

The scout in fact died that night.

But let us say no more of the scout (his howls scattered the buzzards, and when one became tangled in the Wet-Grid's shimmer, the grid unthreaded itself to release the creature without harm, reconnecting along a new path ...)—he matters only insofar as he impacted the boy, and that impact is at an end.

It is the boy who concerns us in this report. This impossible boy. This boy whose appearance could not be accounted for by grid or soldier. This boy who did not die. Who was brought back to the base, his eyes a pair of shallow, crusted depressions. Who had no fingernails or genitals. Whose ears were stubs; who was missing his right leg below the knee, and left arm at the elbow; the boy who had, in spite of all, a perfect pink tongue with which to speak, and would not use it.


We wanted to go to work on it—the tongue of the boy. But we were afraid to make it shy.

So the tongue—we did not even know with what language it might one day address us—was declared off- limits.

Alternatives were proposed.

Make him comfortable. Then make him less comfortable. Alternate comfort and discomfort. Make it clear we want something. Morphine, then withhold morphine. "And how should we make it clear what it is we want?" What does anyone ever want of a prisoner? We wantINFORMATION. "Does he know he's a prisoner?" If he doesn't, you'd best make it your business to tell him. Comfort, discomfort.

But the prisoner was beyond comfort, we now believe—his consciousness had undergone some change. That must have been the case. One could not live like that—could not suffer the pain of those injuries without undergoing some kind of change.

If we'd had him in a place where modern medical technologies were not snuffed out, there might have been options. The medical authorities we flew in during those first critical twenty- four hours, even stripped of their glorious devices, were in agreement: to move him out of the valley would be his death. And his death would be the death of information.


Some fifty years ago, as the Omnosyne experiments progressed at DR. VANNEVAR'S INSTITUTE FOR YOUTH ADVANCES, the MEMEX became sick—very sick.

The Memex began to burn up from within, to lose connections, to make new ones arbitrarily, cancerously. Terminals went dark, or spewed only noise. Still we fed in the Omnosyne confessions, and they were subdivided, probed, subjected to the most rigorous possible analysis, at least by the standards of the time.

Once we understood it for sabotage, we scrubbed all traces of the Omnosyne's workings from the Memex. We were sincere in our desire to destroy both the Omnosyne and its creator, Jimmy Wales. Yet: we have always allowed ourselves certain hedges against sincerity. The interrogator himself, you see—the only one capable of operating the apparatus, the only one who understood its gears and keys and almost silken wires, to say nothing of the science of SPINAL TISSUES and the science of HYOID BONE, and the relationship between them—he was not eliminated, as some among us had wished. Rather, he was placed in solitary confinement, in our most secure facility. And for five decades we've held him to one side (and he still looks a youth, his skin grown thicker, somehow waxy, but from a distance, if you squint: a youth still, unchanged from his days at the institute), held him for just such a contingency, just such an impossible moment.


In nerve and bone (so goes the theory), truth lives—in each individual, these nerve and bone cells holding his deepest kernel of belief: and this belief is information. The information—this deep story of the self—is replicated endlessly, each copy continually changing, perpetually communicating its information to all the other cells—every cell, all at once, and how is that possible?


Once given over to the Omnosyne, a body with even the faintest flicker of life will remain animate—will begin to confess; the pages are spat from the apparatus, dense with blocks of Omnotic Code; the body does not relinquish its hold on life until the confession is at an end. Then the body dies, as all given over to the Omnosyne die. Yes, the subject is preserved this long and no longer—the procedure is invariably fatal.


And now the Cloud roils with new energy, it grows and changes, and we roil and grow with it—we, the world- body of Commissioners, drawn forth, all at once, and as never before, each to his own terminal—we spin and dip through the Cloud, even as, with some piece of our minds, we attend to these reports—writing and editing and re editing and reverting these words almost as sleepwalkers.


We need the information.

He is part of what is happening and we need—now, today—the information that is inside him.

Things are happening—some change is at hand, as though the Wet- Grid and the Cloud are entwining, and reaching not down, for the earth, but up—thrusting up to the plane of fixed stars, and beyond; and it seems perhaps that great birds of light are calling back to us—and we want to understand—we want to know what next.

We must know.

Before the boy's dead!

And so we ask: Shall we, after all these years, make use of the Omnosyne?

And so it is decided: Yes, the Omnosyne, one last time.

Shall we free the traitor Jimmy Wales?

And so it is decided: after these decades of solitary confinement, we shall free the traitor Jimmy Wales and send him to the Akkad Valley to make use once again of the Omnosyne, his great and terrible aapparatus of extraction




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The Jewboy picked his way through the boulders near the cave system. He smashed a lizard with a rock, scuttled up to the next boulder, and smashed another lizard. The Jewboy smiled vaguely, head lolling, as he pounded out a third lizard's guts, my lieutenants tell me.

"The heat! Who smiles in such heat?" they ask.

Through the long afternoon the burning sun blasts our mountain, fiery air jams itself into the farthest recesses of the cave system, or as deep as we've yet managed to venture. There may be deeper passages, cooler passages. For this I have no evidence, only suspicions and the occasional chill.

"We thought of killing him," the first lieutenant says. He hurls the smiling Jew to the floor.

"But we brought him to you instead," says the second lieutenant.

"Pig!" "Little satanist!"—these the words of the third and fourth lieutenants as they disassemble and wipe down their rifles.

I recline on the floor on an array of pillows. I raise the creature by the hair and gaze into his liquid eyes. No reflection there, just black oil.

"Whenever you look at a Jew, you look at a smiling Jew," I say. "These Hebrew grins have been known to penetrate and at times becloud the senses, such that he is brought even here, to the central chamber, this pipsqueak Yid who should have been dispatched on sight."

The first and fourth lieutenant: "But Teacher—"

"Does iron mix with wood?" I ask. "Or blood with bone?"

The second and third lieutenant: "Teacher, we thought—"

"You should have slaughtered our little pig well away from our cave system. But he is here now, so we will slaughter him here."

I say these words, and ease the boy across my lap.

* * *

The notion that we can remake the world-body. Waziristan the guts of the world, not the head or heart, but the guts. Then yank out the guts, the world bowing its head in horror, seeing with its eyes what its head knows: guts spilling from an open torso, pink and purple coils of warm innards spilling out from a world-body falling in slow motion.

* * *

I work my fingers into the Yid's hair. I say, "Even this mistake—a serious, perhaps a grave mistake—can be an opportunity for learning. Every moment, I tell you, is a peg we can pull ourselves up on, lifting ourselves clear of the world of flesh and toil. Take, for instance, the body across my lap: so light one entertains the fantasy that he's just husks, no blood inside. But the circulatory elements at his throat pound grotesquely, as you see."

All four lieutenants grunt their satisfaction.

"What does this teach us? What can we learn from this phenomenon? And when I slice open his throat—how much greater will our learning be?"


Excerpted from The Infernal by Mark Doten. Copyright © 2015 Mark Doten. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Dramatis Personæ, 3,
Part 2: REBIRTH, 397,

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