Doten makes his fiction debut with a semihistorical novel—the kind of book people label “postmodern” because they don’t know what else to call it.
In the shadow of the Iraq War, the world seems a little strange: Jay Garner puts Paul Bremer in a chokehold on the way to the Green Zone; Osama bin Laden argues with his “students” in a cave while a dialysis machine keeps him alive; Jimmy Wales is a murderer; Mark Zuckerberg seems trapped in a digital landscape called the New City; and Condoleezza Rice was once a photographer who shot unused production stills for Chinatown. What’s going on here? Doten’s book—a stylish, surreal portrait of a 21st century gone mad—will make you scratch your head. Parts of it recall Coover’s The Public Burning, in which a crazed Uncle Sam hurls invective at Richard Nixon; other parts recall Infinite Jest’s plurality of voices (though in Doten's novel, the voices are filtered through—and sometimes garbled by—a database). This book is a considerable achievement, not of storytelling—there’s not really much of a cohesive plot here—but of nerve, scope and ambition. Perhaps Doten is too brash: This is one of those books where you find yourself thinking less about the characters than about the author’s fireworks. (Doten, an editor at Soho Press, seems to acknowledge this by casting himself in the novel as “the man who runs a Big Six New York City publisher.”) But in certain moments, Doten drops his narrative pyrotechnics and plays it straight. Consider a character named Tom Pally, a veteran adapting to life at home: Yes, there’s the surreal detail of him throwing up maggots, but otherwise, his chapters tell a powerful story of displacement.
Doten’s dazzling novel shows off his intellect and facility with language.