One of the first things I did after the initial wave of COVID-19 sent me and my 10,000 some-odd coworkers at the gargantuan state university where I work scurrying home for almost five months of quarantine, was pull The Brothers Karamazov down off my bookshelf—one of those dauntingly hefty classics that I’d always meant to make time for, and now, all of the sudden, found I had that time in abundance. As I was still keeping up with my department via the much despised Microsoft Teams and seeing their faces once a week on clumsy, fledgling Zoom calls, I invited anyone who might want to join me in my literary endeavor (we are librarians, after all), in hopes of fostering some community or camaraderie during those newly uncertain times. But no one took me up on it. I made the journey alone.
I’m starting off my review of Jared Joseph’s wickedly funny new novel A Book About Myself Called Hell with this anecdote because it’s still the first thing I think about when I stop to consider all the ways that the pandemic has changed us, and continues to change us, as an already aggressively self-stratifying society. Not because no one would read Dostoyevsky with me—that was hardly surprising—so much as the ease with which we all immediately began hermeticizing, and the surprise at just how inessential so much of our location-based work and our real life interactions with one another actually were. While I was thrilled to spend more time reading, others lost themselves in politics and online activism. Many dove into house repairs and yard projects. Countless more dedicated themselves to home fitness. Most of us watched Tiger King. We all found ways to fill that new abundance of time. And despite all the waves upon waves of “we’re all in this together” messaging from our political leaders and our corporate overlords and our social media and targeted ads, quarantine was ultimately a profoundly isolating and agonizing reminder that we were actually, quite literally, all in this alone. The sudden ability to sit around the house in our pj’s all day, coupled with the sudden inability to do things as intrinsically basic as go to dinner with friends, or as obviously vital as be with our family members on their deathbeds—the upending of the very idea of human contact—settled in quickly as a kind of tangible extension of the technological path toward personal identity and techno-solipsism that we’ve been blithely tripping down for the past 20 years. We all know the famous line from Jean-Paul Sartre—“Hell is other people”—but after a few months cooped up with nothing but our own news feeds and neuroses for company, it became clear in pretty short order that Hell could just as easily be ourselves.
Now I will readily admit that the comparative value in my Karamazov story largely ends there. I finished the book in a couple of weeks and moved on, whereas Joseph has clearly spent months, if not years, dissecting Dante’s Inferno, of which A Book About Myself Called Hell is a manic, comic retelling. Recalling the zany, nonstop non-sequitur pace of the Animaniacs—or maybe just the rudderless, run-on sentence pontificating of your best friend 8 drinks into a bad breakup—Joseph uses Dante’s guided tour of the underworld as a framework through which to lead us on his own tour of Coronavirus lockdown Hell, and attempt to reckon in real time with all the terrifying truths those first few months heaped upon our collective understanding of the civilization we’ve built, and the safeguards we’ve put in place to protect it. From high castle capitalism, to neuroleptic nostalgia, to, of course, our closest-held convictions on life, death, and the afterlife, this book proclaims loudly, and hilariously, that nothing we once believed in is any longer sacred; that nothing is any longer safe.
What are we to make, Joseph wonders, of the now firsthand knowledge which we cannot unknow, that our existing forms of government, science, and religion are largely unequipped to save us from global catastrophe? That a huge part of the response to that catastrophe will be to reply “but what of our system of colored paper rectangles that decides which of us is most important?” and to subsequently prioritize that system over the preservation of human life? (not to mention that the collapse of that system would, itself, be a catastrophe every bit as devastating as the pandemic, if not more so, and that our government/science/religion’s inability to explain that in a way that makes sense is largely a failure of marketing) (or how this has all brought into bracingly sharp relief the way in which absolutely every piece of information we receive from everyone everywhere in the world has begun to feel like some form or another of marketing). What too are we to make of the now firsthand knowledge which we cannot unknow, that our planet’s resources are truly finite? That this fact will sooner or later come for us all (depending on where exactly we fall in the colored paper rectangle hierarchy), and that absolutely everything we experience via our ever-present and inescapable network of informational screens is a variant of manipulative theatre, meant to politicize every issue up to and including the manner and order in which we go extinct? To divide, rather than unite us? To keep the rich rich, and the poor at each other’s throats to the bitter end?
If I sound crazy right now, it’s because this book will make you a little crazy. In between 90s pop culture references, Drunk History-style reinterpretations of the nine circles, and some of the most so-bad-they’re-good puns you’ll ever read outside of an episode of Bob’s Burgers, A Book About Myself Called Hell carries the existential weight of one man nakedly grappling with both his better angels and some personal devils—throwing himself headlong at questions largely outside the purview of humankind, and valiantly attempting to get himself straight on the answers. He makes reference to a friend’s death (possibly by suicide) and his own mother’s failing health—the former exacerbated by COVID restrictions’ effect on their mental health, the latter by COVID itself—and questions both his own failure to affect these tragic situations, and the larger implications (or lack thereof) of his own helplessness to affect much of anything. At one point, he takes a hard look at the idea of traitors and their status as the most harshly punished in Hell (Judas chief among them for betraying Christ), daring to question what, if anything, Judas did to deserve such eternal torture, when it was his treacherous kiss that set into motion Christ’s salvation of all mankind—a plan which any believer in the triune God would thusly have to believe was set into motion by the Father from the moment of the Son’s immaculate conception. Can something be known by an omnipotent being, while still not being preordained? Does the simultaneous existence of God and free will make any kind of reconcilable sense? You know, those old chestnuts. And in applying such logical reasoning to matters of faith and the divine, Joseph creates a kind of parallel shorthand for the certainties we’ve seen unravel beneath the relentless progress of the Coronavirus pandemic; an incessant questioning of our unmade world.
Throughout the book, Joseph also regularly returns to some indirect exploration of the Schrodinger’s Cat paradox—the suggestion that by virtue of living with the knowledge of our own imminent deaths, we are in many ways already and always dead, and likewise that in attempting to mitigate that knowledge through unwavering, illogical belief in an afterlife, we are also still and eternally alive. In our most extreme state of hunkered down disconnection, during a time when the very air we breathe outside our homes is freighted with the fear of infection and death, A Book About Myself Called Hell begs the question: do our shelter-in-place isolation, oceans of universally streaming content, and shared beholdenness to a more immediate sense of our own impending doom make us more alive as a species, more dead, or both? For his part, the author’s fondness for esoteric literary explication and short-lived, failed, and/or forgotten IP that has (thus far) escaped the reboot vortex acts as something of a counter to this new economy of collective media memory. Where so much of our nostalgia feels rooted in a desire for shared history and confirmation of our own lived reality, Joseph seems more concerned with remembering something, anything, that still feels like it’s his alone (I, however, remember both Street Sharks AND Mighty Max. I see you buddy. You are seen).
All of which leads us somewhat back around to the decision to retell Dante’s Inferno in the first place. I probably should have mentioned this earlier, but I haven’t read The Divine Comedy in, like, 15 years? Give or take. But I think that’s part of the point of Joseph’s exercise here too. As everyone knows, and the author himself states pretty blatantly, no one reads the whole Divine Comedy anymore. Purgatorio is every bit as dull as the place it’s describing, and as far as I recall, Paradiso is just a shit ton of trumpets popping out of clouds to herald stuff a la Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animations. Inferno is the only part anyone cares about, because it’s the only part anyone can remember. Dante’s depiction of Hell—which remains our most immediate and enduring to this day—is in many ways just a mirror of Earth absent the possible escape of death. It’s the OG Matrix; the IP that built the franchise. And what’s more, once it gets you thinking about the impossibility of death—or, put another way, the concept of eternity spent anywhere—there then extrapolates from it the potential for any conceivable version of the afterlife to be a kind of Hell (to make a Hell of Heaven). It effectively buries the lede (upside-down in ice and shit) and makes us question what it is we actually want out of existence in the first place.
With this in mind, I’d like to close with another personal anecdote. I grew up in a pretty religious household, and developed a vivid conception of Hell from a pretty early age, complete with the fire and torture and gnashing of teeth that we all know and love so well. But as I got older, and had more serious conversations with my parents and church leaders about what the Bible actually says, and what they actually believed, Hell began to take on a colder, more despondent, and far less dramatic tenor. What they said was that Hell is nothing more than “the absence of God,” and, ya know, to do with that what you will. For me that just meant kind of a black void—at first anyway. But the longer I rolled that definition around in my head, the more Hell came to resemble something like life on Earth, just after the holier-than-thou believers had all been whisked off to Purgatory, or Paradise, or wherever else they might go; it was simply what we’d be left with after we’d given up on anyone coming to save us from ourselves. And so, as one of the first true post-pandemic (or, at least, intra-pandemic) novels I’ve read, A Book About Myself Called Hell’s message feels very much like one of warning. As we finally (hopefully) (fingers crossed) (knock on wood) appear to be making our way out of this pandemic, we’re already seeing our new bubbles dissipate. Online activism has returned to the streets. Peloton stock is down. Tiger King has caught its own tail. Nothing lasts forever. I’m not a religious person anymore, but I do still feel some semblance of God in the agnostic goodness of the world—in community, and compassion, and humanity’s innate (if often tenuous) grasp of common sense right and wrong—and if we carry on down this path of holing up and letting one another go—if we succumb to mental despair or physiological decimation, feudalism or tribalism, eternal life and/or eternal death spent eternally alone—then it won’t matter if we have all the time in the world to kick back and read the classics in our soft clothes. We truly will make a Hell of Heaven (and Earth), because “the absence of God” will ultimately come to mean the absence of one another. Do with that what you will.
A Book About Myself Called Hell, by Jared Joseph. Hamilton, New York: KERNPUNKT Press, February 2022. $14.99, 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 this year. He tweets @DFitzgerraldo.