Mark Doten crams this interview into a full work schedule at Soho Press. As senior editor of the longstanding New York independent publisher, his tasks are numerous: he’s finalizing cover copy for one forthcoming book, copy-editing another, and sending out review copies, all while thinking about publicity for his own novel, The Infernal (published not by Soho but by the equally venerable Graywolf Press). “I think we’ll sell 250,000 units in the first week,” he says, laughing.
He laughs not because he lacks confidence in his debut, but because The Infernal is a book that seems destined to be labeled “difficult.” It tells the story of America’s War on Terror in an alternate universe where Jimmy Wales uses an ancient torture device to free stories from the Akkad Boy, a badly burned child discovered in Iraq. A tapestry of familiar voices (Dick Cheney, Alberto Gonzales, Osama bin Laden, Mark Zuckerberg, etc.) emerges, presenting our current moment as science fiction.
Difficult? Well, yes, even though The Infernal is, at its core, the kind of absurdist fantasy that David Foster Wallace and John Barth wrote—you know, one of those books you can read with pleasure, even if you get occasionally lost. Doten’s novel most closely resembles Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, in which a fictionalized Richard Nixon has a series of bizarre encounters with Uncle Sam on the eve of the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
“I’m going to admit I haven’t read The Public Burning,” Doten says. “It got mentioned a lot while I was writing, so I purposefully avoided it.” Instead, Doten claims his inspiration came from less “literary” forms of satire, including The Daily Show and The Onion. He particularly seems attracted to South Park’s take on bin Laden: making the War on Terror a parody of old Bugs Bunny cartoons. “There’s an interesting energy that comes from putting together those two different textures,” he says.
Doten earned an MFA in fiction from Columbia University and then, as he puts it, “bumbled into publishing”—first working at Barbara Braun Associates, Inc., before joining Soho as a halftime managing editor. Although he finds his Soho job challenging, it has helped him enormously to work on fiction as an editor. “It taught me how to shape my own book, which is a big and heterogeneous piece of work. I struggled for a while with its form. I had help from [literary agent] Bill Clegg and [Graywolf publisher] Fiona McCrae, but it was helpful to work as an acquiring editor.”
Helpful—particularly in maintaining narrative propulsion through The Infernal’s opening pages, which contain a list of characters, a report from the Memex (the hypertext prototype that Vannevar Bush imagined in 1945), and a bizarre scene in Osama bin Laden’s cave. “The first novel I edited was [Alex Shakar’s] Luminarium, which is an ambitious and complex book, and I learned a lot working with Alex to give things more focus and drive.”
But even a novel as sprawling as The Infernal had to start somewhere—and Doten says that the first voice he heard was that of Paul Bremer, the diplomat who led the American occupation of Iraq. In Doten’s world, Bremer is Condoleezza Rice’s adoring brother; the reader first meets him as he enters the Green Zone, where his predecessor, Jay Garner, promptly begins to strangle him. “[Bremer] is a long thread within the book, a good 50 or 60 pages. I turned [that section] into Ben Marcus’ workshop. It was four times the length requirement and probably made everyone mad.”
There was wildness in the idea of this book—one he began conceptualizing as an associate editor at Huffington Post—that went beyond the work he was doing before: “short stories about young gay men and gay hustlers,” he says. That kind of story had been written already, but The Infernal felt new. “It was liberating to write stories from the points of view of well-known figures—to do something interesting that pushed my abilities as a writer as far as possible.” He felt constrained by short stories but with The Infernal, “I could do anything I wanted to.”
The Infernal still feels grounded in Doten’s short fiction background; it’s long and unwieldy, yes, but broken into pieces that intersect only thematically. In other words, it may be a 400-page novel—or maybe it’s a dozen or so 20-to-30 -page stories. Doten is aware of this quality, citing classic frame tales—The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron, One Thousand and One Nights, and especially The Divine Comedy—as influences. “In earlier versions [of The Infernal], you saw a Dante figure moving around…but none of that exists anymore.”
This loose structure allowed Doten to make the book into “a machine that could take anything I put into it, texture-wise. Some of it recalls Samuel Beckett, but the dialogue is out of old Krazy Kat cartoons. I let myself be very free when I was creating the individual threads—let myself do whatever was firing in my brain—and then later condensed the pieces and figured out how they worked in the frame.”
Perhaps the novel’s most surprising feature is how, despite Doten’s clear disagreement with the political views of many of his characters, he never judges them; instead, he embodies their points of view. “The characters can be verbal and self-justifying, or unhinged and oblivious to their actions or the consequences of their actions, which makes them bad people—but they also have back-stories that make them understandable and human within this world,” he says. “They’re fucked up because the world is fucked up. It doesn’t justify their actions, but it does help to explain.” In other words, the book is “cruel in weird ways, but it also has love and tenderness.”
Doten, who included so much in The Infernal, mentions something here that he wound up cutting: a journalist who, at one point, says, “Love where no one expected love, hate where no one expected hate, deform the world with our love and hate”—a phrase that seems to perfectly describe Doten’s achievement.
“If there’s a follow-up,” he says, “I’m sure [that quote] will be in there.”
Benjamin Rybeck is events coordinator at Brazos Bookstore in Houston. His writing appears in Electric Literature's The Outlet, Ninth Letter, The Rumpus, The Seattle Review, The Texas Observer, and elsewhere, and has received honorable mention in The Best American Nonrequired Readingand The Pushcart Prize Anthology.