The Infernal begins with the mysterious appearance of a burned boy in Iraq’s Akkad Valley. To extract his story, “the Commission,” a shadowy intel organization, releases the inventor Jimmy Wales from prison. The real-life Wikipedia founder is depicted here as the homicidal genius behind the Omnosyne: an experimental torture machine.
A parade of deranged voices surge from the boy; they’re not his, but fictionalized accounts of the architects of the “War on Terror,” men and women who blithely pushed the U.S. into perhaps its most meaningless war, one that’s left half a million dead and counting. There’s Fox chairman Rogers Ailes, and Osama bin Laden, kept alive in a Waziristan cave through constant blood transfusions from the boy-followers he keeps mistakenly killing. There’s Condi Rice, who is oddly cast as the ex-“party photographer” and foundling crippled sister of Paul Bremer. The former U.S. viceroy in Iraq is first seen disguised in a burqa, being rushed to the occupied Green Zone: “Arabs, Iraqis, see, what they’re looking for, bottom line, is they want to be dominated.” He joins his boyhood pal, the amateur taxidermist, “Donny” Rumsfeld.
So are these their confessions? Is this a satire of the limits of the information age? (“We have everything—have it all perfectly,” the Wales character writes, “but we don’t know where it is.”) Or is this a war story, finely observed? Of Baghdad air, Doten writes: “It never comes on a breeze, only in reeking blasts.” A dying Iraqi, held aloft by the spray of machine-gun fire, “seemed to dance with something like grace.”
These stories, mashed together, don’t ultimately lead anywhere. And while ambition matters, plot does too. Tellingly, Doten’s most vivid, complete character comes when he plays it (mostly) straight. His Tom Pally, an insane soldier with a blown-off leg who’s attempting to make dinner reservations on his wedding anniversary, should rank among the most revealing, chilling portrayals of the ravages of PTSD written since Iraq. Then again, maybe Doten’s conceit is in itself a device, a comment on war. Hellish and infernal, it has no compass, no plot, no end goal.