A novel character emerged from the mists of Second Empire France and roamed the boulevards of Romanticism. This man was Baudelaire’s flâneur, but that’s not all he was. In depressing St. Petersburg, he was the anonymous hero of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. In depressing Kristiania, he was the anonymous hero of Hamsun’s Hunger. He was Malte Laurids Brigge, lonely in Paris, in Rilke’s Notebooks, and he was Antoine Roquentin, lonely in fictional Bouville, in Sartre’s Nausea. After the Second World War, he fled the Continent and was spotted in England consorting with — and often confused for — a mustached man named W. G. Sebald.
Sebald was a solitary German émigré who tramped through archives, libraries, museums, and cemeteries to collect materials on the fate of postwar Europe for use in novels narrated by solitary German émigrés that fade between essay and fiction (with accompanying black-and-white photos). Since Sebald’s death in 2001 his influence has only grown, especially outside Germany, though his preoccupation with the Holocaust has been jettisoned, or transferred to more recent crises. It helps, on first reading Sebald, to have already read your Benjamin, Adorno, Wittgenstein, and Freud. But it doesn’t help, on first reading Sebald’s heirs — say Geoff Dyer, Teju Cole, and Ben Lerner — to have already read your Sebald. Their writer-narrators — who share traits, if not also names, with their authors — practice backpacker-flânerie through the major capitals in the style not of exile but of tourism or study abroad.
Certainly Dyer’s Jeff (in Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi), Cole’s Julius (in Open City), and Lerner’s Adam (in Leaving the Atocha Station) and Ben (in 10:04) are still doing the most serious work of trying to patch together a creative self out of the strangers they meet and the artworks they experience. But there’s just so much available for repackaging now that a writer need not be bothered to invent, and this, finally, is the theme of Satin Island (Knopf, $24), a savaging of the Sebald genre by Tom McCarthy, the British avant-garde novelist.
Satin Island opens in Turin, at its airport, Torino-Caselle. The narrator — the browser of this tricksy text — is referred to only as U. This man with the second-person appellation is a British anthropologist employed by a consultancy called the Company to advise on branding, most recently for the undefined Koob-Sassen Project. (This must be a wink at Hilary Koob-Sassen, a multimedia artist and the son of Saskia Sassen, the Dutch-American sociologist who coined the term “global city.”) U. is stuck at the gate; U.K.-bound flights have stopped thanks to an unidentified private jet flying rogue. He cracks his laptop and begins searching for — which means delivering a mini-disquisition on — “hub airport” and educates himself (and the reader) on how the most convenient terminals are designed like wheels, with spokes facilitating “communion between any two spots . . . despite no direct line connecting [them].” Further links tell him that the hub model is used “in fields ranging from freight to distributed computing.” This brings to mind the Shroud of Turin, specifically Jesus’ crown of thorns, which shares its shape, of course, with a hub airport. A childhood memory intervenes: U. recalls coasting his bicycle downhill and being unnerved by the activity of backpedaling: that “you could move one way while rotating the crank in the opposite direction contravened my fledgling understanding not only of motion but also of time.” Remembering this he feels that way again, despite being older and grounded — “the same awkward sense of things being out of sync, out of whack.”
No true plot unfolds, though the circular meme keeps expanding: hubs, crowns, and bicycle wheels morph into pools of oil, jellyfish, deployed parachutes, and the tawaf (the circumambulations of Muslims around the Kaaba). Though each symbol is attached to its own incident in the news — an oil spill, a skydiver who died of a sabotaged chute — none involves U. as anything other than a witness to the cycle, a victim of his associative mind. His clicks revolve around topics for the “Great Report,” which his employer has commissioned to be “The Document . . . the Book. The First and Last Word on our age.” Needless to say, U. will never finish writing it. Or he will, and this novel is it, a record of spiraling stasis.
The flâneur was an early casualty of capitalism, a man who scavenged the marketplace for discarded symbols to link together and sell back as new. McCarthy’s novel applies the technique to the ultimate trash heap, the Internet. But Satin Island refers to a real (if defunct) rubbish pile: its title reproduces the way the words “Staten Island” appeared to U. in a dream. U. becomes obsessed with this most maligned of boroughs, and though he’s constantly searching online for aerial images, when he finally visits New York in the flesh, he doesn’t even bother to take the ferry.
In McCarthy’s novel, information augments intelligence but diminishes the soul. In Mark Doten’s first novel, The Infernal (Graywolf, $18), the condemnation is more polemical and mystical. To Doten, information is the soul; it is inside us, and it is evil.
The Infernal begins with the improbable discovery of a young, burned, partially limbless, and “Jewish” boy atop a cursed geological formation known as al-Madkhanah, or the Chimney, in the Akkad Valley of Iraq. The time stamp on the story is not the past, present, or future but the alternate. The Internet of the novel is called Memex. Fifty years ago, its data was compromised by the experimental uploads of an interrogation/torture machine called the Omnosyne:
A mahogany box stuffed with Clockwork Threads; a helmet on a swiveling copper arm; a modified Jensen dental gag; a keyboard assembled from old Remington and Salter typewriters, on which no fingers would play — only the tongue of the subject, wired to the mahogany box through several hundred clockwork threads stuck through the tongue and deep down under it, into the hyoid, the subject worked through the confession by means of those threads, even as another set of threads twisted down the length of the spine.
Though the Omnosyne had to be taken offline, the captured “Jewboy” is so unique an asset that the Commission — the intel organization at the molten center of The Infernal — decides to reactivate the device, which entails releasing its imprisoned inventor, a mass murderer and the only man who can operate it. That man’s name, by the way, is Jimmy Wales, not to be confused — but definitely meant to be confused — with the Jimmy Wales who cofounded Wikipedia.
Once the boy is hooked up to the apparatus, he begins speaking in tongues. The voices that are extracted, or exorcised, from him include those of Barack Obama, Osama bin Laden, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, L. Paul Bremer, Alberto Gonzales, and Roger Ailes. Each gives an account of the “war on terror.” Doten’s history is one in which Bremer and Rice cohabitated as siblings and partied with Jack Nicholson, and Donald Rumsfeld’s career ambitions were almost exclusively taxidermic (he was inspired by a feature in Boys’ Life, “How to Prepare and Mount a Fish Head on a Wooden Plaque”). Doten has written a ravishingly mad post-Bush riposte to the collaboratively written Internet text — the Wiki, which doesn’t document facts so much as it documents the process by which “facts” are generated and then perpetually overwritten. The author himself makes two appearances in the book, with his IRL split identities intact. Doten has written The Infernal, but he’s also a mild-mannered editor at a midsize New York publishing house dedicated to genre lit: thrillers, suspense, whodunits, true crime. It’s in that latter capacity that he remarks to himself, or to the boy who’s channeling him, or to the reader:
The American book-buying public wants to learn. But they don’t want to learn too much. They want camels — just not too many. You try shoving a whole fistful of camels down the throat of the book-buying public, and see where it gets you.
Afghanistan. Green on Blue (Scribner, $25) is the first novel by Elliot Ackerman, a veteran CIA paramilitary officer, Marine Corps special operations officer, and journalist who served five tours between our last two wars. He was awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart. Ackerman also helped lead a 700-man Afghan commando battalion against the Taliban; a similar detachment does duty in his book.
Ali and Aziz, two brothers orphaned by a Taliban raid, leave their Pashtun village for the city of Orgun, near the Pakistani border. Then the Americans descend, and with them, the gory grind of reprisals. A bombing at a bazaar leaves Ali severely injured; Aziz joins up with a U.S.-funded Afghan militia, the Special Lashkar, for a salary that should cover his brother’s medical treatment and for a Lee-Enfield rifle that should ensure the success of his badal — his tribal right to revenge — against Gazan, the warlord who organized the bombing. In the midst of the raid, however, Aziz accidentally shoots a fellow militiaman. Now a likely target of badal himself, he lets his commander, Sabir, turn him loose as an informer with a rival gang. Aziz, who narrates the book, studies the power angles and climbs the ranks — remaining convincingly non-American, if shockingly never anti-American — while Ali rots away, a cripple without a wheelbarrow to beg from or a friend to push him around. Afghan strikes against one another were called green-on-green attacks, while Afghan strikes against U.S. forces were called green-on-blue attacks; these are the only colors in Ackerman’s prose, besides blood. “An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom!”: Baudelaire wrote it, America made it literal.