For the first few pages, I thought B.R. Yeager’s Amygdalatropolis was some kind of cyberpunk dystopia. Its protagonist, /1404er/, exists in a hermetic, digital world populated entirely by other formless entities who share the name /1404er/, and his interactions therein revolve entirely around the sharing and discussion (and eventually, creation) of only the absolute ugliest, basest, and most indefensibly vile kinds of content available in the extralegal shadowlands of the so-called dark web (a term, we soon learn, is essentially meaningless to those in the know—little more than a red flag signifying noobs). Communicating rapidly and dispassionately via a toxic word cloud of acronyms and jargon, the /1404er/ tribe display such cold detachment while sharing stories and images so upsetting that, days after finishing the book, I still shudder to recall them (and will demure on recapping them here) that one would be forgiven for thinking (as I did) that one was reading about some far-flung race of sadistic robots, or perhaps even the translated internal dialogue between strains of sentient malware. But alas, the true horror of this bold, ecstatic novel came, for me, a few more pages in, when it slowly became clear that Amygdalatropolis was not the distant future, but something very close to the present, and that /1404er/ and his ilk were not made of circuits and code, but of flesh and blood—a like-minded cabal of 21st century angry young men competitively BASE jumping into the void and full-tilt Tokyo drifting ’round the nine circles of Hell.
Running largely in the background, the glimpses we get of /1404er/’s “real life” (whatever that even means in the context of a person so intractably online) feel like little more than pop-up window dressing, outdated programs he’s ruthlessly modded to support his internet … addiction? Obsession? Symbiosis? None of these terms feels quite strong enough to actually describe this guy’s oneness with his screen name. This book actually made me think back to the transhumanist ideas behind Michel Houellebecqu’s The Possibility of an Island, an actual dystopia of sorts in which future humans have, through breakthrough AI and genetic technology, effectively evolved their way into self-sustaining, immortal beings capable of a kind of endless, scheduled reincarnation. Though Amygdalatropolis’s absonant, echo chamber isolationism is about as far from the Zen solitude of these imagined future humans as vintage Playboys are from “hurtcore” porn (one of many heinously unsavory internet slang terms you’ll learn if you dare to brave this book), /1404er/ does, in his fleeting moments of offline humanity, feel like an early step in their techno-evolutionary process. Despite his impenetrably monstrous online persona, outside his room he is sensitive to light and touch, borderline nonverbal with other humans (mostly delivery drivers) and still genuinely fearful that his parents (whom he loathes and, naturally, also still lives with) will discover his true nature. Even while immersed in his violative proclivities and black pill Incel inner monologue, it’s at least conceivable that /1404er/ still has feelings. It is, he believes, his single-minded desire to eradicate them that will ultimately lead to his ascension.
Perhaps the book’s neatest trick is that, despite its relentless pursuit of desensitization, it never actually made me feel desensitized. Though Yeager pulls zero punches in depicting the repulsive, shared worldview of the /1404er/s, and the practical cruelties into which that worldview manifests—up to and including psychological manipulation, sexual extortion, and likely coerced suicide and murder—he deftly walks the funambulist line between empathy and sympathy (no easy feat with characters this irredeemable) such that I came away feeling like I had a better understanding of today’s most disaffected, overstimulated, internet-saturated youth, if no greater love or pity for them. Indeed, even after /1404er/’s “real life” (there’s that phrase again) disintegrates outside his permanently-locked bedroom door; even after his parents die still in want of his eternally-withheld love, leaving his wracked, malnourished body the sole occupant of their wasted family home; even after he completely unravels to the point of violently dismembering a mail-order sex doll, cowering before an onslaught of house centipedes (real or imagined), and making despairing, mescaline-fueled attempts on his own life that somehow feel both desperate and halfhearted—almost as though he can’t even feel enough to know if he wants to die or not—even after all that, I never really felt like he deserved better—deserved to find whatever it was he thought he was looking for. Seeking transcendence through transgression (a relatable enough idea), he lands himself squarely in a living Hell, but with a clearly delineated roadmap of the siren search terms and wikihole vortexes that led him there, for us it is still clearly a Hell of his own design. And even though there’s an argument to be made that he achieves some sort of peace, or solace, or maybe even enlightenment in the final pages of his long, dark death march of the soul, it’s hard to imagine him ever truly breaking free of his multifarious torments, or honestly doing much of anything more than continuing to survive, one day at a time. Just because you get a sense of things like the universality of lost innocence and the impossibility of living a meaningful life, doesn’t make those notions especially comforting. Just because you get so deep into something that the only way out is through, doesn’t guarantee there’s anything good waiting for you on the other side.
Along with the aforementioned Houellebecq, Amygdalotropolis joins Antonio Campos’s unsettling first film Afterschool and David Foster Wallace’s gut-wrenching short story “The Suffering Channel” in a nascent canon of doomsday-prophetic work that plumbs the lowest depths of online misbehavior. Yeager gives us an unflinching peek inside a life most of us will vaguely recognize, but (hopefully) never know; a breath of air from a personal bubble grown poisonous that will (hopefully) lead us to check our own filters a little more often; a look at the ways in which a toe-dip into dark waters can quickly, irreversibly become a deep dive into the benthos of radical nihilism. He does not hold your hand. He does not moralize. Indeed, the amorality of this material speaks for itself. Amygdalatropolis is, quite frankly, the most outright horrifying book I’ve come across since I first picked up American Psycho nearly 20 years ago (another masterwork of impotent male rage unbound—though the dead-eyed /1404er/s would likely laugh their asses off at a histrionic diva like Patrick Bateman). That said, I mention Amygdalatropolis in the same breath as that notoriously depraved modern classic as both high praise, and fair warning. This book will not make you feel better about anything that is happening in the world today (and may well make you feel much, much worse). Yeager simply offers it to us. A true and vital shock to what we increasingly tend to think of as our hard-won, shockproof systems. This is a scary fucking book. Do with it what you will.
Amygdalatropolis, by B.R. Yeager. Schism 2, January 2017. 200 pages. $10.00, paper.
Dave Fitzgerald is a writer living and working in Athens, Georgia. He contributes sporadic film criticism to DailyGrindhouse.com and Cinedump.com, and his first novel, Troll, is set to be released early next year. He tweets @DFitzgerraldo.